Architect Frank Harmon shares his sketches of North Carolina

illustrations and words
by Frank Harmon

Whether you’ve lived here for decades or just a few months, it’s easy to be oblivious to your surroundings. In Native Places: Drawing as a Way to See, architect Frank Harmon reminds us to see beauty all around through a collection of sketches and notes he created over the years. “Since I was a boy, sketching has proved invaluable. If I took a photograph of a place, I would forget it. But if I drew it, I would remember it forever,” he says. By putting pen to paper, Harmon turns ordinary scenes into extraordinary ones and finds joy in the familiar. “I hope readers will share my delight and find some native places of their own… and perhaps even draw.”

A Wren and Change for a Twenty

At 3 p.m. on April 20, 2016, a Caterpillar 315L Excavator operated by Steve Finch cut into a hill on Bryan Street in Raleigh, North Carolina. A few feet away, a Carolina Wren fed her young in a nest she’d built in the rafters of a partially framed house. The Caterpillar, which was digging a hole for a swimming pool, weighed 18 tons and its 102 horsepower engine consumed 75 gallons of diesel fuel a day. The wren, which weighed two-thirds of an ounce, delivered her weight in caterpillars, spiders, cockroaches, worms, and centipedes every few hours.

The roar of the excavator was earsplitting.

Earlier that day, the US Treasury Department had announced that the portrait of Harriet Tubman would replace the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Thus, a runaway slave who couldn’t read but was impatient for the freedom of her people will replace a slave-owning President. Harriet Tubman repeatedly put her life on the line.

Later that afternoon, the wren paused to assess the roaring excavator, cocked her head then flew off to gather spiders for her chicks.

“Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers.”

Bryan Street Raleigh, NC 4.20.16

pots and barns

Japanese potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) often quoted this Zen proverb:

“The frog in the well does not know the great ocean but he does know Heaven.”

Hamada, who worked in Japan and England, didn’t sign his pots. He believed creation is the manifestation of a universal spirit, empowered by such qualities as anonymity, humility, usefulness, honesty, and repetition. Hamada focused his life on making useful things that are now treasured for their quiet beauty.

Something of his plain, tranquil spirit can be found in this barn in North Carolina. For Hamada, beauty lay in the right use of what lay at hand. Here a carpenter used stones picked out of a ditch and wood cut from nearby trees. We don’t know the builder’s name because his barn is one of a multitude built anonymously over two centuries in the middle South.

The barn now belongs to the potter Mark Hewitt, who trained in the tradition founded by Hamada and others. Hewitt’s pots are made of North Carolina clay and share the barn’s usefulness and honesty. Through repetition, barn and pots gain freedom from conscious design. Their beauty is a result of ordinariness.

Hewitt Pottery Pittsboro, NC 12.6.14


Darkness and Hope

Tonight the newspaper was full of world crises. Between global warming and war, children at the border and terrorism, we seemed to be on the edge of oblivion. But then I read this headline in The Washington Post: “New cricket discovered in long-neglected amber collection.” The story was about a cricket that flourished 20 million years ago.

I stepped outside.

Overhead the sky was a dark ceiling. Lightning bugs fired up and bats flashed by in the night-shade of trees. The visible world had given way to the sound of a thousand crickets, the same species whose ancestors sang so long ago.

“Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in 1580.

It’s not that listening to a 20-million-year-old cricket-song at night makes crises in the news inconsequential. It’s just that there’s nothing in the news than can equal the wonder of the eternal song of a creature no bigger than your thumb.

8:30 PM Raleigh, NC 8.3.14

A rug in the window

Every Tuesday morning at eight o’clock, my neighbor across the street opens her second floor window and shakes a carpet outside.

My heart leaps for joy.

I live on a street of houses built before 1941, when people were tough and resourceful. They cooled their houses by opening the windows. At night the sounds of crickets and nighthawks entered.

Then air conditioning arrived and a whole technology of home design and decor disappeared. Lace curtains and shutters were obsolete, so were paperweights and paper fans, insect screens and flypaper. We were happy to see them go, but we stopped sitting out on the porch at night.

As a result, no one opens the windows anymore and our houses look as if they have glaucoma. That’s why I am thrilled when my neighbor opens her window. There’s life on our street!

Today, houses are bigger and tighter with windows that rarely open. But hope is at hand. New ways of building include old-fashioned windows because outdoor air is cleaner than indoor air.

Brooks Ave  Raleigh, NC  10.25.16


Find more of Harmon’s sketches and notes in his book, Native Place: Drawing as a Way to See (ORO Editions, 2018) and on his online journal,