UW News

January 14, 2020

Academic, administrator, artist: Paintings by JW Harrington to be displayed at UW Tower

UW News

JW Harrington is not only a scholar of urban studies and a longtime UW professor, in recent years he has also become an artist. He has an exhibit pf paintings at the UW Tower in January and February.

JW Harrington is not only a scholar of urban studies and a longtime UW professor, in recent years he has also become an artist. He has an exhibit pf paintings at the UW Tower in January and February. At the far right is “The Impossibility of Knowing (14),” and to the left of that, “The Impossibility of Knowing (12),” both acrylic on canvas.

James W. Harrington is a Harvard-educated scholar of urban studies and a longtime University of Washington professor. He has chaired the Department of Geography and the Faculty Senate — and served as UW Tacoma’s vice chancellor for academic affairs.

But in recent years, JW Harrington has also become a prolific painter, as the scores of images on his art website show. These range from colorful abstractions and meditations to landscapes, city scenes and more.

Nineteen of Harrington’s paintings will be on display in January and February in the corridor between UW Tower and its skybridge on the lobby floor. He’ll be present for an opening reception at the exhibit from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22.

El Sol Negro, an acrylic on hardwood and one of JW Harrington's paintings going on display at UW Tower.

“El Sol Negro,” an acrylic on hardwood and one of JW Harrington’s paintings going on display at UW Tower.

Harrington started painting, he said, in September of 2014 during a leave from work following his term as vice chancellor. This was also after the sudden illness and death of his colleague, UW Tacoma Chancellor Debra Friedman, who had brought him to Tacoma.

“I really wanted to develop my own voice,” he said. “I desired some activity that was relatively unscripted, to complement the careful wording of administrative communication and the rigorous ‘script’ of academic research and writing.”

UW Notebook caught up with Harrington and asked a few questions about his painting techniques and preferences.

In what media do you work, and why?

 “So far, I’ve been exploring the possibilities afforded by acrylic paints and mediums,” which are popular with artists because of their fast drying time, he said. “These properties appeal to me because I often juxtapose or even overlay saturated colors, and because I haven’t wanted to work with the solvents required for most oil paints.”

"The Impossibility of Knowing (18)," an acrylic on canvas by JW Harrington.

“The Impossibility of Knowing (18),” an acrylic on canvas by JW Harrington.

Another attraction of acrylic painting, Harrington said, is the availability of “mediums and additives that can change the properties of the paint.” Some slow the drying time, which allows the artist to mix pigments even after they’ve been applied. He said he also appreciates the thick acrylic gels that enable him to create impasto, or “paint applied so thickly as to create a third dimension oblique to the two dimensions of the surface.

“This is exciting to the viewer because the paint, usually seen as flat, creates relief and casts shadows within the work. Recently, I’ve been working on hardwood panels, whose rigidity can support a great deal of impasto — some of these are in the UW Tower exhibit.”

What motivates you to paint?  

“Two things: creating an image that didn’t exist before (which can now be done through digital means, as well), and causing viewers to devise their own interpretations of what’s going on and what it means to them.

“This is why abstract artists, when asked ‘Is that a …?’ generally smile and ask ‘Wow, do you think so? Why?’ It’s usually hard to get a direct interpretation from an artist (of any discipline). Often, we’ve spent time on the work in order to get the viewer, listener or reader to come to their own reaction and interpretation.

“I often paraphrase a quote from the philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, that art is something that requires an interpretation. If a memo or a pop lyric can be interpreted in only one way, then it’s not art. We usually don’t want memos to require a lot of interpretation, but many of us prefer music or poetry that gives us the power and responsibility to interpret them.”

How long does the average painting take? 

He said it depends on the medium, the size and “the number of layers needed to create the desired effect.” Harrington finishes some pieces in two or three hours, he said, but a larger piece “that requires mixing (and often drying and re-mixing) on the canvas” might take up to 15 to 20 hours, across several sessions.

How do you know when you are done with a painting? 

“The truest answer is enigmatic: when I can’t say any more with the given composition and technique.”

You’ve worked as a social science professor and administrator – does your professional life affect or advise your art?

 “Painting has deeply affected my approach to my professional and my personal life — do what seems best, rather than what you’ve been told to do. Try that, and if it doesn’t have the effects you’d hoped for, try something else. Very few decisions are immutable for all time.”


  • Staff assistance: Doing the precision work of hanging JW Harrington’s art at the UW Tower were Alfonso Escobar, maintenance mechanic lead; and Hector Pardo, a furniture repair worker, both with UW Tower.
  • UW Tower Art Committee: An 11-member committee chooses the art that is displayed at the UW Tower. Each quarter a new artist is rotated in, and between 12 and 15 exhibits are mounted each year. Media technician Jennafur Williams, committee chair, said the committee had nothing but praise for Harrington and his art. Comments included that the images are “timeless,” “vibrant,” “inspiring” and “it makes me want to paint!”

UW Notebook is a section of the UW News site dedicated to telling stories of the good work done by faculty and staff at the University of Washington. Read all posts here.