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Jul. 2—PARKSTON, S.D. — Mickey Harris was just getting started on his latest painting Thursday afternoon in the East City Park in Parkston.
Shielded from the warm summer sun underneath a tent awning, he had just begun to add details to an outline depicting a soldier in Vietnam comforting another soldier after a firefight during the war. It is a relatively simple but powerful scene, one that evokes the horrors of war and the sacrifices of those who fought in service to their country.
"It's going to be a rather touching one," Harris,
a renowned airbrush artist from Menno,
told the Mitchell Republic in an interview. "It's a soldier comforting a soldier after a battle. Obviously this soldier is crying. Maybe his best buddy just died, you don't know."
Harris was on hand to take part in the
Parkston Celebration of Freedom,
an event the community set up to bring a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall to the city park from June 29 through July 4, as well as honor veterans from Vietnam and other conflicts in American history.
Hundreds of people had gathered in the park Friday afternoon to view the replica, with several coming up to Harris to express their admiration for his work. In addition to the painting he was working on, his tent was flanked by two vehicles adorned with his hand-painted artwork. One vehicle, a Ford Raptor, depicted historic and modern scenes of Native Americans serving in combat. The other, a Ford Bronco, pays tribute to the last service members to lose their lives in the recent conflict in Afghanistan.
Military tributes have long been a part of Harris' portfolio. Growing up as a self-described military brat whose father flew F105 Thunderchief jets during two tours in Vietnam, Harris said he understands the weight put on members of the military and families and the sacrifices they make to keep their country safe.
"I grew up on bases. We were in Kansas, and everybody in the officer section of the base had dads that were in Vietnam, all F105 pilots. It was all wives and kids, so of course the kids would run rampant because we didn't have dads there to get in trouble with," Harris said.
But when a familiar blue station wagon would make its way through the neighborhood, all activity would stop. Kids stopped playing, wives in the windows of houses stopped doing their dishes and stared. The station wagon meant that there had been a death, and military officials were on their way to the house of the widow to deliver the news.
"It was like the grim reaper coming. We'd be outside playing, and everyone froze. You'd get behind the bushes and say 'please God, please God, don't stop at my house.' And they'd drive past your house and you'd see it pull into a driveway, and you knew those people," Harris said. "And then you would feel bad because you were so thankful that it wasn't your dad (who was killed)."
The experience was enough to put him off riding in a blue station wagon to this very day, but it also instilled a perspective on what military members and their families go through on a regular basis. That's part of the reason he spends much of his time doing commission work for groups like the
Wounded Warrior Family Support organization.
Both of the painted vehicles on display at the celebration this weekend were done to support that group. The older of the two, the Raptor depicting images of Native Americans in combat, was done in 2016 as a way to recognize a demographic group that has a long history of serving in the military.
"I felt we needed to do a tribute to Native American service in the military. As far as ethnic groups, Native Americans are the highest percentage that go into the military. A lot of that is based on poverty, but still, nonetheless, it is true," Harris said. "No one had really honored them, so I wanted to do that and honor their history, too."
The artwork has three levels of art, the first being a light gray that depicts ancient history and the spirit world, showcasing their beliefs and connection to nature. The second level, depicted in black and white, honors their service in military conflicts in history. The third level is in color and represents those serving in the military today.
The Ford Bronco honoring the 13 killed in Afghanistan was completed just recently, and will be used by Wounded Warrior Family Support to take around the country for display. It depicts soldiers from America's past carrying the likeness of the 13 aloft on flags.
The images are colorful and striking, and usually evoke a strong reaction from those who view it. Harris said he comes up with his ideas by pondering what he wants to depict. And then he sleeps on it.
"I dreamed it. I think about it real hard before I go to sleep, and then I let my subconscious figure it out when I'm sleeping. All that came from my subconscious," Harris said.
Following the Parkston celebration, the Raptor will move to its new home at the
South Dakota Military Alliance museum in Sioux Falls,
where Harris also has other artwork on display. The Bronco will soon be traveling the country in support of Wounded Warrior Family Support. The painting he was working on Thursday was to be sold at a silent auction Saturday in support of the event.
Harris said he has done similar work on over a dozen vehicles, but he has done far more than just trucks. He said he has painted hundreds of motorcycles and other types of vehicles with various themes. He has artwork hanging in the Pentagon, and has done artwork for talk show host Jay Leno, who is known for his massive historic car collection.
And he's made a connection with people around the country. Jim Collingwood, of Sioux Falls, stopped at Harris' booth Thursday to reconnect with his old friend. He first met Harris at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally years ago and has kept close ties ever since.
"I know perfection when I see it," Collingwood said of Harris' artwork. "As an artist, he is unparalleled. He's recognized all over the world for his work, he has stuff in the Pentagon. And I have one of his prints of the Memphis Belle plane that he graciously gave me. In addition to being a great guy and a great American and a fantastic artist, he's devoted so much of his life to honoring the military."
Harris brushes off his friend's praise with some self-effacing humor. He is grateful for the praise he gets from everyone who admires his work, but he doesn't do it for a pat on the back. He said it is most satisfying when a veteran makes a connection with his work.
He can see the impact the images have on them, and when they come up to him to thank him, as they did often Thursday afternoon, he makes sure he returns that thanks for their service.
"What I really like is when I see a veteran looking at the work and making a connection in some way. That's a cool thing. That's the real reward for me. When I see a guy with a Vietnam hat coming by and really looking at it and getting something out of it and he comes over to shake my hand — that's a man whose hand I'm going to shake and say thank you."