More than letter perfect

This painter has made a career out of keeping it real. Or, rather, keeping it “realist.”

Robert Harrington Sr. of Dunkirk is a retired Navy sailor, ran a sign shop and lettering business for four decades, and still puts in his time as a parent and grandparent. But you won’t find him sitting on his porch in a rocking chair.

He’ll be upstairs, standing at his artist’s easel, with dog Artie curled up somewhere nearby.

Harrington has been an artist for most of his life, and currently has a painting on exhibit in Cooperstown, N.Y., as part of the 78th Annual National Juried Art Exhibition. Artists compete to get their work into this show, and only about 25 percent of the paintings, photographs, and other pieces of artwork make it to the gallery. What’s more impressive is that this is the second year in a row that Harrington’s work has been part of the exhibit.

“Last year, I had two paintings in the show,” Harrington says. “Both oils.”

This year’s inclusion is also a painting in oils, titled “Roses for Eileen.” Harrington created it after discovering a black and white photograph of his Aunt Eileen as a girl, dressed in Victorian garb. And the likeness to the photograph is striking.

“(Eileen’s) daughter saw a picture of the painting,” Harrington says. “She called me and asked, ‘Is that my mother? I know that picture!'”

Though Harrington admired the photograph’s contrast and composition, he also chose to paint it because of the affection he had for its subject.

“That aunt was always really nice to me,” he says. “She’d send me homemade cookies while I was in the Navy. She was just one of those genuine people.”

Harrington started painting seriously after his 1949 graduation from Dunkirk High School, when he began studying for a commercial art degree from ICS, a correspondence school. He took a break from his studies to join the Naval Reserves, and after two years, he was called to another two years of active duty. He served the United States by patrolling the coast off of Virginia during the Korean War. After being honorably discharged, he was free to finish his studies. But getting into the commercial art business wasn’t so easy.

“I took my portfolio (of paintings) to an advertising firm,” Harrington remembers. “The guy looked at it, said, ‘This is great, but can you do lettering?’ Lettering? I said no. So I went back home and taught myself how to do that.”

Those born into the digital age may not realize the extent of a letterer’s talent. Today, computers and machines are fed text and print out perfect letters in a variety of fonts. You want Helvetica centered on a truck door? Done. You want Broadway on a building in ten-foot letters? No sweat. For Harrington, though, sweat equity earned the paychecks. He did everything in paint, with brushes, by hand.

“Lettering is tough,” Harrington admits. “It’s so exact, you have to get the lines perfect. It’s much harder in a way than doing a painting, where there’s forgiveness.”

Harrington started a sign shop and lettering business that provided local companies with their advertising for decades. His talent and attention to detail had the market cornered: Dunkirk Ice Cream, DFT, the steel plant – those and dozens more hired Bob when they needed a sign done. Of course, if the signs called for graphics of any kind, Harrington could do that, too.

And this can-do man’s resume of accomplishments extends beyond the fine arts.

“I got so busy, and the signs and lettering got bigger, until I had to build a new building to house everything and do the work,” Harrington says.

That’s right. Bob needed a new sign shop, one he could pull semi trucks into, so he built one, right in his back yard on Harrington Road. He also builds all of his own artist’s easels. Is there anything he doesn’t do?

“Computer stuff,” Harrington says. “I’m not really good at that. But my daughter-in-law, Kelley, she’s a fanatic about me. She takes all the pictures.”

Kelley Harrington, wife of Robert Jr., is Bob’s promoter and publicist. She built his facebook page,, and helped put together his Fine Art webpage, She takes pictures of his art and at his gallery shows. In fact, his whole family is very supportive of his craft, as was his late wife, Betty.

“My whole family really loves me,” Harrington says. “They go to all my shows. They went to Cooperstown with me, and went last year, too.”

Actually, Robert Harrington has always had a lot of fans, evinced by the name of his road.

“It used to be called Cook Road,” he says. “But when I got out of the Navy, they renamed it Harrington Road. They must have thought I was some kind of war hero. I wasn’t, but now I can’t get lost anymore!”

His charm must have affected this year’s National Exhibition gallery manager, too. Harrington’s painting was hung in a special place by itself, where passers-by could give it their full attention.

Harrington shrugs, a noncommittal, egoless gesture his loved ones surely would recognize. “Maybe she liked me, I guess.”

Next week: Part 2: Harrington Road Reflections