Harry the Hat carries a stack of heavy-stock, 8.5-by-11-inch white paper with him wherever he goes. A few weeks ago at 'Canes Bar & Grill, before the band Wolf Parade took the stage, the artist was huddled in the corner of the club, bringing whimsical figures to life with simple pencil lines.
“I just want to draw all day long,” he sighs. “That's all I want to do sometimes. Most of the time.”
In his bright workspace, an eye-candy-filled front room of an old house in North Park, shelves that reach to the ceiling are lined with neat piles of his drawings, some loose, some tucked into boxes and vintage suitcases. He claims to go through three reams of paper a week.
As if proving his point, Harry discusses his life as a working artist hunched over a large wooden table that serves as his desk. One after another, sheets are doodled upon and thrown aside. Pencils are sharpened and dulled. It's almost compulsive. He claims he even sketches during dinner dates.
“I think girls find it charming,” he says with an impish grin.
They probably do. Hanging out with Harry is not unlike being a coiled snake in a basket, unable to resist unfurling toward the light as the charmer strikes up a tune on his flute. His demeanor is hypnotically mellow. He could defang the hissiest critic, but he wouldn't need to, because his artwork is as captivating as its creator.
Harry the Hat—who also goes by his given name, Harry Daily—grew up around Leucadia, a surf brat since birth. In fact, surf art was his entré into the professional art world. He's worked for Volcom and still freelances for a number of surf-industry brands. He may be best known for a series of surf-art prints he did a few years ago. In the Art Nouveau-inspired pieces, Botticelli-curved girls and gangly guys carve swirled waves and frolic on pristine beaches. The washed-out color palette is lifted straight from a surfer's nostalgic dream.
“I'll do surf art for the money,” Daily admits. “But it's not that much money. I'm getting more and more into fantasy, and the surf industry is not interested. Harry the Hat is my outlet from the surf industry.”
He got the nickname from a high-school baseball coach. (“And since then it's been Harry the Hat, or The Hat, or any version of that,” Daily says). It's an apt alter-ego for a guy who nearly always covers his wild corkscrew curls with dapper hats—a whole pile of them appears ready to topple in the corner of his office.
His fantastical characters are inspired by the theater and a book of Mardi Gras costumes—beaked bird women and men with ears so large they could flap and fly away. Daily's sketches are mostly simple, but the few that he's completed with watercolor are gorgeously vibrant and intriguing. He says he'd like to make children's books (“I'm a big kid”) or perhaps a collection of illustrations paired with apropos song lyrics (“Because I can't write at all, not even a word”).
Music inspires him as much as surfing, and it's probably opened just as many doors. After gigs, he'd hand sheaves of sketches to his favorite artists, from Rufus Wainwright to Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock. Show posters are among his favorite jobs. He does regular work for Brushfire Records, Jack Johnson's label. And just last month he appeared in a Matt Costa music video.
“I went up there to help paint the backdrops,” he says as an old Squirrel Nut Zippers album plays in the background. “When I was done painting, the manager asked me to put on a tuxedo and play a bit part in the video, a waiter. I took my spot and did what they asked me to do. And in between takes, I would be doing touch-ups in the tuxedo.”Daily relays this anecdote with little visible change in expression, even when the story gets monumentally more exciting.
“Then we went to a small dinner party at some celebrity's house,” he adds. “She's pretty well-known. What's her name. Um. She was in Being John Malkovich and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Oh yeah, Catherine Keener.”
When he notices this reporter's dumbfounded stare, he slyly concludes: “And Reese Witherspoon was there!”
Daily will have another brush with celebs next month, when some of his surf-related work will be part of a group show at Exhibit A, Tony Alva's new-ish gallery in Los Angeles. Alva, a founding member of the legendary Z-Boys skate crew, is sure to draw some boldfaced names. Daily says he's excited about it and then launches into a soft-spoken tirade about the San Diego art scene.
“Where are all the cool galleries?” he demands. “Why aren't more people doing shows around here? There are so many talented artists in San Diego. There are so many in this neighborhood alone. How are they supposed to get their work seen?”
Daily concedes that like so many artists before him, he'd probably get a lot more work if he relocated to Los Angeles. His brother, puppeteer Max Fields, is moving there at the end of August to attend the esteemed California Institute of the Arts. Daily says he'll visit often but that he really has no interest in living in L.A.
What a relief, because San Diego needs charmers like Harry the Hat. He's endearingly old-fashioned and quirky. He doesn't know how to use a computer and shuns modern conveniences like e-mail. He's the kind of guy who hands flowers to girls at shows and offers his guests ginger beer and runs off to Australia just to caravan around for a couple of months. If every charmer fled town, we'd all be stuck at the bottom of a very dark basket.Check out Harry the Hat's work at a website he's probably never even seen: www.harrydaily.com.