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Noah Harmon: Silly illustrations with serious considerations

When Format Magazine asked illustrator Noah Harmon about his favourite things, he made a short list: “pens, ice cream, and naps, knowing you have no obligation to wake up and do anything later.” Perhaps this love of a midday snooze is why the St. Paul, Minnesota based artist is best known online by his moniker Relax Adult.

Despite practicing his craft in a range of mediums, including sculpting and painting, there is no mistaking where Harmon’s priorities lay: “I guess I see it all as drawing no matter what. Even when I’m making a little sculpture I’m thinking about the drawing I would make of it.” Other than a brief flirtation with crime fighting, Harmon has been set on his current career path for some time: “The only thing I’ve really ever wanted to do, other than an early obsession with becoming Spiderman or somehow getting paid to hang out with Spiderman, is make art,” he tells us. “I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember.” It’s a passion that led to Harmon attending St. Cloud State University in his home state of Minnesota, from which he received his BFA in 2007. While a university education has a lot to offer, Harmon looks to his youth for much of his inspiration—“It’s probably apparent, but I watch a lot of cartoons.”

Cartoons have been a part of Harmon’s life for as long as he can remember: “My grandmother would take to the flea market when I was a kid, and I’d get 2 VHS cartoon compilations for a quarter.” Many of the figures Harmon draws are reminiscent of classic animations such as Silly Symphonies or Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons, capturing all the calamity, humour and playfulness. It’s not just cartoons, however, as Harmon tells us, “I just love old television programs, and draw inspiration from some of their basic themes.” Toss in his love of the supernatural (“it finds its way into the work more subliminally”), and you have Harmon’s charming style that has appeared in numerous shows throughout Minnesota, on products for Stay Home Club and, potentially, on something a little more old fashioned: “I have a partnership opportunity coming up hopefully soon to work with someone that’s going to use my designs for country western shirts.”

“If I think it looks cool or it makes me laugh, that’s a finished work.”

Any readers already following Harmon on Instagram are familiar with the speed at which he produces new pieces. “My typical day starts pretty early with a cup of coffee and either drawing or writing for between a half hour and an hour. Something usually comes out of this, an idea, or in some cases a finished drawing.” The outwardly simple form of Harmon’s drawings allows him to quickly cycle through ideas to find something that sticks. “I want to get the idea out as quick as possible, and fuck with it a bit,” he tells us, “I don’t push anything though, so throughout the day I keep a notepad or paper and sketch out a few ideas usually.” Harmon is also never afraid to sacrifice a larger idea for something that works in a simpler form, and has a pretty simple criteria for completion—“If I think it looks cool or it makes me laugh, that’s a finished work.”

Like many of the old shows and cartoons that inform his aesthetic, Harmon’s work perhaps a little more complex than it appears superficially. Where many cartoons by the likes of Ub Iwerks or Harmon favourites such as Little Lulu and Daffy Duck had a dangerous, chaotic energy, so does Harmon’s; it frequently makes you laugh, but there is depth to his work. “I’m interested in how simple forms and the economy of line tell a long story in one little image,” he tells us. Pairing each image with a snippet of text creates a multifaceted piece of art, with Harmon admitting, “you could take a bunch of different things from the meaning down to the literal word to the pairing of the image.”

“I’m interested in how simple forms and the economy of line tell a long story in one little image.”

It’s a dichotomy that Harmon often engages with. Where one drawing might make you laugh out loud, another brings to mind your own anxieties or insecurities. “I still go through a bit of wonder when I think that someone else is connecting with this piece I made.” While the reaction might be something other than his intention, the range of emotion people express to his work isn’t at all shocking to him: “All art is getting something emotional out there, you can’t help it since your hand and your brain are connected.” It brings us back to what it really means to relax according to Harmon—“Relax means being able to separate yourself from anything that causes discomfort, to take a moment and really think about what’s going on.”

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