A Night Out With ... Carole Harris

Carole Harris, interior designer, artist, collector and self-described sports junkie, sits across from me at Twingo's, one of her favorite neighborhood haunts, explaining in no uncertain terms why a good meal at an affordable restaurant is such a crucial part of her existence. "I do not cook," she says.

Harris and her husband, Bill Harris, a creative writing professor at Wayne State, are regulars at a handful of restaurants—Traffic Jam & Snug, The Majestic and Union Street in Midtown, Slow's in Corktown, Ghandi in Hamtramack.

A lifelong resident of Detroit, Harris is thrilled to have so many options (though we spend a few minutes lamenting the difficulty of eating healthy in this city). Raised on the West Side, she remembers when going out to dinner meant dressing up, like you're going to a concert, just to find a diner to eat dinner at. And back in the early '70s, when she and her husband were working on a section of an entertainment city guide, it was nearly impossible to find anything to fill the pages. No shops, no restaurants, no reasons to come downtown. "People wouldn't come near Detroit back then, so I'm happy to see all the action. It's not nearly enough or soon enough, but it's happening," she says.

This from a decidedly chic woman—clad in black cashmere and dripping with chunky silver jewelry—who calls herself the ultimate Detroit booster. She has lived through the bad-mouthing, the riots, a lot of false starts—and she's still proud to call Detroit her home. It's not like she hasn't had the opportunity to split when things got particularly ugly. Twenty years ago her husband moved to Manhattan for eight years to pursue his passions as an aspiring poet, playwright and novelist. But Harris just couldn't part with Detroit. She stayed back, instead visiting Manhattan, which became her second home, at least a couple times a month

We each sip a glass of red wine, trying to decide what to order.  Last time, she says, she went with the steak au poivre—"the best meal I've had in Detroit in a very long time." In the meantime, I learn that her interior design company, Harris Design Group, is responsible for high-profile projects, like The Vu at Cobo Center, suites at Ford Field, and five elementary schools in the Detroit Public Schools. Currently, they're working on the MGM Grand Casino and the Book Cadillac.

It's hard to believe that back in the early '90s business was so slow that she had to let all her employees go. She temporarily turned part of her office into a gallery/shop on the 22nd floor of the David Stott Building — an unlikely spot for buying one-of-a-kind jewelry and artifacts. "I was trying to expose people to museum-quality artifacts. I'm interested in the crafts and artifacts of other cultures.  I introduced rain sticks to the area." Plus, she was paying for the space — and she couldn't handle just sitting around.
Midway through our conversation, I realize this is a recurring theme: I don't think Harris ever spends much time "just sitting around." Turns out, she's also a prolific fiber artist, her nationally recognized quilts making appearances in traveling exhibits and textile shows across the country. "They're not like Grandma's," she says. Instead, Harris's quilts are magnificent works of modern art, set apart by bold color, unconventional patterns and innovative design.

Her mother taught her how to embroider when she was 6-years-old, and she learned how to sew in junior high. Growing up, she made all her own clothes. She became very skilled, although she admits it doesn't really help her quilting. "If you know how to do a running stitch, you can make a quilt," she says. "I incorporate all the needlework I learned throughout the years."

"I like the colors, the feel of cloth in my hand. It was a way to use up the extra fabric I had in a creative way," she explains. "You have to remember: I am an artist first." She studied painting in art school at Wayne State, but was never truly satisfied with the work she was doing. And towards the end of her schooling, she realized that she would need to make a living ("hence the degree in interior design").

"I made several quilts before I realized that I was making art," she says. And it was another ten years before she exhibited one. Now, 17 years later, her quilts have graced the walls of big-name museums like the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and Washington, D.C.'s Renwick Gallery—and she was even asked to make a fiber ornament for the White House Christmas tree during the Clinton administration. ("It looked like a voodoo doll," she laughs.)

We are finishing dinner (me, the angus burger; Harris, the chicken confit wraps), when her husband strolls in to see what we're up to. He orders a cup of gazpacho, and as he enlightens me with his favorite thing about the city (answer: her), I begin to understand their charmed life. They both went to Cass Tech High School but didn't know each other. He wanted to be an artist, she a journalist—but their ambitions flip-flopped by the time they were both enrolled at Highland Park Community College, where they eventually met and fell in love. "That's why I'm her biggest critic and she's my best editor," he says.

Currently living in an Arts and Crafts house in New Center, they're soon moving to the Park Shelton. They didn't want to leave the neighborhood, and they'll still be perfectly situated within walking distance to all the culture they love so much: the DIA, the Detroit Public Library, George N'Namdi Gallery, and the new MOCAD.

The biggest hurdle of their move will be figuring out how to transport—and where to put—their impressive art collection. She collects jewelry, artifacts and boxes; together they have been amassing works on paper, paintings and textiles, mostly by local artists, for more than 40 years. They have works by Allie McGhee, Sonya Clark, Brady Jones, Roman Sanders, a couple paintings and drawings by Charles McGee, and one of their most prized possessions, a letter and sketch from Romare Bearden, one of the country's most revered African-American artists.

They've traveled the country over, eating great food and looking at art (the High Museum in Atlanta, the Telfair in Savannah, and the de Young in San Francisco). But when they celebrated their anniversary last year, they didn't need to go any farther than the Ren Cen, where they stayed the night, acted like tourists, and celebrated with dinner at Coach Insignia. After all, says Harris: "There's no place I'd rather be than right here."


Carole Harris

Traffic Jam & Snug

Carole Harris

Wayne State University

Park Shelton

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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