Artist Harry Seymour’s life on Martha’s Vineyard is a portrait of activism and beauty. His work in the unique mediums of scratch art and egg tempura, along with the poetry he writes, depicts the African American and Martha’s Vineyard experiences with a strong message. His commitment to social change began when he was a doctoral candidate in speech and hearing at Ohio State University; it grew and flourished when he became a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Harry successfully took up the cause to increase the number of Blacks at both institutions. His work in speech pathology and audiology improved the lives of African American children who were over-diagnosed as language impaired, and it began a career-long mission for social justice for, in his words, the “underdogs” — a mission that thrives in his art as well. This year Harry and his wife Charlena will celebrate their wedding anniversary on the Island they now call home – and where they honeymooned 57 years ago.

Q. How did you find your way to this unique specialization in speech pathology?

A. My early career aspiration was to be an entrepreneur and make a lot of money. I soon realized that I did not have the temperament to be a successful businessman. My wife Charlena was getting her masters in speech and hearing at Ohio State University and I looked at what she was doing and realized the compassionate and emotional side of me was longing to come out.

Harry's studio is above his Oak Bluffs garage Jeanna Shepard

Q. Do you recall a first artistic inspiration in Oak Bluffs?

A. I fell in love with the beauty of the Island, as most people do, but the diversity of the Island has meant so much to me, too.

Q. When did you officially retire and take up art fulltime?

A. I took early retirement in 2002, and one of the reasons I retired from my profession as an academician was because I wanted to paint. I never had any formal training, but I knew I loved doing it.

Q. Today your art is featured in many private collections and the celebrated installation at the [Mass General Brigham] Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Who first took a chance on this untrained retiree fulfilling a life aspiration to be an artist?

A. The All-Island Art Show! I remember the excitement and enthusiasm of people coming by and seeing my work – my work that had never been shown any place formally. Many other people were significant in my development as an artist. Holly Alaimo practically launched my artistic career at Dragonfly Gallery. Other Oak Bluffs galleries and Carol Craven in Vineyard Haven supported me. The publishing of my poem/painting commentaries in the Vineyard Gazette is among the highlights of my Island experiences. And the inclusion of two of my paintings in the hospital’s public spaces is particularly gratifying.

A lifelong commitment to activism fuels Harry's art; the beauty of the Island inspires him. Jeanna Shepard

Q. Are you an activist or an artist first?

A. While the issues are serious, I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m not going to eliminate racism. It’s here, we live with it, we have to deal with it. I don’t care if I sell anything. I don’t do art for that reason. What I do I do to satisfy a need I have to express certain issues. I’m not going to change the world. I want to produce something that matches my creative muse.

Q. Is the Island your muse?

A. I would say the Island is the catalyst for fulfilling my muse. There’s something inside of me that I can’t explain. There was always something driving me to these kinds of issues and these kinds of problems, and it was natural and unavoidable that when I became a painter, it would be more of the same. Martha’s Vineyard has nurtured my art in ways that probably no other place could.

Q. One of your most recognizable pieces is your Oak Bluffs Fireworks painting in the scratched art style.

Fireworks, painted in the scratched art style, is one of the artist's most popular works.

A. It’s gotten a lot of attention. It just keeps popping up and it never seems to go away, and I don’t want it to. That’s the best compliment you could ever give an artist — that a piece of work has legs and is remembered.

Q. It’s a wonderful piece; a gift that keeps on giving.

A. Well, you can also measure it by the number of people who buy the prints. In fact, India Rose is going to feature it on the cover of [the print version of the] Martha’s Vineyard Black Owned Business Directory this year.

Q. What is the most satisfying aspect of making art?

A. Art is extremely meditative. If you want to really shut out the noise, do something like art. It focuses you for that time and gives your mind a rest. We all can be creative but sometimes we are afraid to let it flourish within us. If you allow yourself to let your creative drive take hold you would be amazed. Most of the things that I have done that are successful were not intentional. They just happened.

Q. How has Juneteenth influenced your work?

A. Juneteenth commemorates our need and our aspirations to be free, whether you’re Black or whether you’re white. One of the things I try to convey in my art is that we, as Black Americans, are not in it alone. We’re not going to solve the issues that face us without the help of our allies, white Americans. If we look back on history, aside from the heinous act of slavery and the role that whites played in that, much of the progress that we’ve made in fighting racism and discrimination was done with allies who’ve been white. Even going back to slavery — the abolitionists who risked their lives to fight slavery — and going forward to the civil rights movement, there were whites who were also marching and white students in Mississippi who also died. I hope when people look at my work, they’re looking at a statement that says that we have to defy injustice but we also have to be allied in that fight against injustice.

Q. How would you spend a perfect June day on the Island?

A. First and foremost, I would give my beautiful, lovely wife a kiss and a smile and then I would go out and play 18 holes of golf! Then I would come back and finish the day off working on a painting and listening to music.


To learn more about Harry’s art, visit


Sissy Biggers is a regular contributor to The Vine and a frequent contributor to Martha’s Vineyard magazine.