Cayla Harris: Ending Up at Home

Cayla Harris’s work is about finding home.

Not home as a place on the map or in the memory, but home as a kind of pyschic destination. “I think an object’s ending point is its home,” she says. “In the work I’ve done, I’ve focused on how home is more of an idea, more of a notion than a specific place. And taking all these things that we cherish and moving them from point A to point B to point C or wherever we end up—I think that’s obviously where your home is.”

Currently Cayla’s home is Root Division, the non-profit gallery and artist’s collective in San Francisco. She moved the things she cherishes there—paints, brushes, canvas—roughly ten months ago and will teach after school art classes at local elementary schools. For 13 years Root Division has provided Bay Area artists a gathering place—to meet, to teach, to make art and to show it.

“I was looking for something more community oriented,” Cayla says, “something I could be more involved with.” A professor friend suggested Root Division, and Cayla applied for one of the subsidized studio spaces the organization offers to artists in return for service. While the semi-industrial space was not exactly her rustic ideal—“I grew up in the foothills, in a mountainous town. I like that down home kind of feel”—Cayla moved into her small space all the things that have come to define home for her: not just art materials, but Russian nesting dolls passed down from her Grandmother, models for the subjects she paints, pictures of plumbing, pictures of fire hydrants…

Fire hydrants? Cayla laughs. What began as simple curiosity about the different kinds of hydrants to be found within a mile of her home became an exercise in urban portraiture—every hydrant, she found, presented a unique face to the neighborhood—uniquely shaped, uniquely painted. “Not only was I looking at the physicalities of each piece, by the end of my study each one had its own personality… A few times I stopped traffic like a maniac to get out of my car to study and photograph a hydrant.”

If the underlying theme of Cayla’s work is examining what nests we make for ourselves (and what materials we choose to build those nests), her forms and mediums are ever changing. “I’m mostly working with gouache and watercolor,” she says. “I just love the pigment. I started with watercolor and played with it for a while—I really liked how it moved, but I also like acrylic because you get those bright, lush colors. With gouache it’s a happy medium—easy to move, but super bright.”

Having worked for a while on large-scale sculptures with heavy materials, Cayla this year tried her hand at the opposite—exceptionally small images on paper: a tiny lighthouse, a tiny panda, a tiny fruit tart; okay, a tiny fire hydrant—all rendered realistically, but none much bigger than a fingernail. “I think it’s the detail and the concentration,” she says of why going small feels liberating. “The detail is really fun for me. To have to focus that much energy on one tiny dot or one tiny mark—I really enjoy it.”

Where does she go for inspiration in the city? “I normally go out of the city,” she says. “Removing yourself and coming back—it’s kind of eye opening. I enjoy being outside and being in nature. I did a lot of camping and road trips when I was younger—and still do.” And then this artist who paints portraits of urban fire hydrants adds: “I’m kind of a mountain girl.”

Images courtesy of Cayla Harris