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Inside the Collection: Harris Sorrelle

Harris McLean Sorrelle is known locally as a gifted sculptor and professor who inspired students at the University of Memphis for nearly 30 years.

Sorrelle was born on August 27, 1929, in Dyersburg, Tennessee. As a young man, he served in the Army during the Korean War. After returning home, he went on to graduate with his BA from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1957 and then earned his MFA from the University of Georgia in 1959. Sorrelle taught at U of M from 1962 to 1989, eventually becoming the head of the sculpture program. Sorrelle’s wife Shirley described her husband as a man who "always felt that academics had to come before art. He was a very scholarly man. He was a strong believer that the two had to go hand in hand." Sorrelle passed away on September 19, 1997, at the age of 68 and is buried in Memphis’ historic Elmwood Cemetery.

(Image: Harris Sorrelle, Monorail, 1968. Photo courtesy of the Inventory of American Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Harris Sorrelle, "Monorail," 1968, Cor-ten steel, copper, and bronze. Photo courtesy of the Inventory of American Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Sorrelle is known for his large-scale sculptures that are displayed across the country, including two prominent works here in Memphis. The Monorail is currently installed at the U of M campus. It was finished in 1968 and is made from cor-ten steel, copper, and bronze. According to Sorrelle, the piece symbolizes "the abstract nature of modern life and implies the necessity of education to create harmony between individuals and the accelerated experience of their contemporary world."

Memphis's second Sorrelle sculpture is the Yellow Fever Memorial on display in Martyrs Park. It was finished in 1971 and features a portal made of two tall rectangular pillars with simplified nude figures filling in the space between them. The memorial’s plaque reads, “In grateful memory of the sacrifice of the heroes and heroines of Memphis, in the 1870’s, who gave their lives serving the victims of yellow fever.”

The Metal Museum has four works by Harris Sorrelle in the permanent collection. They were all donated by Dr. George W. and Ann J. Huckaba in 1996. Two of these works have classical influences, Areopagus and Phalanx, while the other two are both inspired by the Christian story of St. George slaying the dragon.

Areopagus was made by Harris Sorrelle in 1962. It is comprised of 5 human figures with voluminous garments. The title of the piece, "areopagus" (meaning "Ares Rock"), is a prominent rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The Greek god Ares was supposed to have been tried at this rock by the gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Halirrhothius. In classical times, the court for trying deliberate homicide was called the Areopagus. The figures in this piece look very similar to the ones in the Yellow Fever Memorial, aside from their garments.

Sorrelle also made the piece Phalanx in 1962. The sculpture is comprised of multiple human figures carrying swords and/or shields. The ancient Greek term "phalanx" refers to a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas or similar weapons.

Stories of St. George slaying the fearsome dragon date back to the 10th or 11th centuries. Sorrelle made the first St. George and the Dragon in 1963. The prominent figure is the abstract dragon, hunched over the human form of St. George. The 1965 St. George and the Dragon II is quite large in comparison with the earlier work (24 x 38 in vs. 10 x 11 in) and the somewhat chaotic movement in the piece is more similar to the Yellow Fever Memorial. In this version, St. George sits astride a horse with a lance in hand, poised to strike the multiple monster forms surrounding him. Both of these works are made of steel.

In addition to the Metal Museum, Harris Sorrelle has work in the collections of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Fielding L. Wright Art Center of Delta State University. He also completed numerous private and public art commissions, like The Garden Party at the Garden Plaza Hotel, Murfreesboro, Tennessee (now a DoubleTree by Hilton), and the Temple Tower from Temple Anshe Ameth, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

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