A Conversation with Ed Harris November 24 2021

In conjunction with the 25th Anniversary of Arts on Douglas
Ed Harris working on a painting in Michigan, 2012

“I recently sat down with Ed Harris, co-founder of Arts on Douglas, to discuss his experience working with the late Doris ‘Doc’ Leeper on establishing Arts on Douglas. Ed has been involved with the gallery since day one, putting the interest of the gallery and its artists above personal gain or recognition. That is just how Ed is: humble and giving. He was reluctant to be the center of attention for this interview but agreed to tell his story to shine a light on how Arts on Douglas came to be. To properly share his story, and his role with the gallery, we will take a shallow dive into the past, to better understand the man and his friendship with Doc, which preceded the opening of the gallery by nearly a decade.

I met Ed when he joined Doc during my first interview for the gallery position in early 1995. For me, the most memorable part of the day wasn’t the interview but what happened after it. Ed asked me to join him for a tour of the Atlantic Center for the Arts which included the recently completed Leeper Studio Complex. Ed spoke to me at length about Doc’s vision for the Center and her art practice. While he spent the afternoon advocating Doc’s commitment to the arts, he shared extraordinarily little about himself. It was through the next 25 years of working directly with him and his wife Jeanie, that I truly got to know this remarkable man and how he operates.”

  – Meghan Martin, Gallery Director

Early Influences

When Ed Harris took up painting over 70 years ago, it sparked the beginning of a fulfilling, lifelong passion for the arts. At 25, the young engineer, his wife Joan, and their dear friend visited the local artist workshop in Flint, MI, where their friend was a member. Ed recalls, "She asked me what I thought of the show and I told her, 'I think I would enjoy painting,’ to which her reply was, 'there’s an art store across the street so let's go buy some supplies.' So, we did, and I have been painting ever since.”

In addition to his interest in making art, Ed is an art collector and arts philanthropist. Before his retirement in 1983 as President of Gulf + Western Manufacturing Company, he had a strong role in procuring the artworks placed in their corporate offices throughout Michigan. After he retired, Ed and Joan moved to Central Florida. Through a series of serendipitous events, he was introduced to Doris “Doc” Leeper, the visionary and founder of the Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA). He quickly became involved with the organization.

Harris explains, “My relationship with Doc began in 1987 when my late wife Joan and I were working with interior designer Charlotte Everbach on our new home in Apopka. During this process, I learned about ACA since Charlotte was a founding trustee for the art center. As we got to know each other and she learned of my interest in art, she invited Joan and I to a moving sale at the home of an artist friend who lived in Eldora. Her friend happened to be Doc. We bought one of her paintings that afternoon, and in typical 'Doc' fashion, she had it delivered to our home, over an hour away, that very same night!”

Atlantic Center for the Arts and Harris House

Not long after meeting Doc, Ed and Joan bought a condo in New Smyrna Beach. In October of 1989, Charlotte invited Ed to join her for a Board of Trustees meeting at ACA. This was the first time Ed saw Doc since buying her painting. At the end of the meeting, Doc updated the board on an innovative fundraising endeavor she developed. After the meeting, Ed reintroduced himself to Doc and expressed interest in taking part in the program. Ed recounts, “With that, Doc really glommed on to me and a few months later she visited me to discuss her idea for establishing a presence for ACA in downtown New Smyrna Beach. Doc began searching for a space and in 1990 came across a “great deal” on an old Lutheran Parrish House on Riverside Drive and she invited me to take a look. The 1915 building was garishly decorated and in need of renovations, but I trusted Doc’s vision. Joan and I agreed to fund the purchase of the building that day.”

Doc rallied many community leaders to ensure this new facility would meet the community’s artistic and cultural needs. The building, now known as the Harris House, opened in 1991. The space assumed the role of providing arts education programs for children, cultural enrichment for adults, and an exhibition space for Florida artists, high school art students, and children’s art shows. It also became the meeting place for an active and rapidly growing group of volunteers who were committed to Doc’s vision.

Arts on Douglas

After the Harris House was up and running, Doc had more plans for a downtown art scene. As an artist herself, she knew there was more she could do to support the careers of artists, and she began formulating visions for her next endeavor, a commercial art gallery dedicated to professional Florida Artists. Ed explains, “In early 1995, Doc called and said, ‘I bought a building!’ With that, she invited a group of artists to take part in a series of planning meetings and asked me to attend. I remember being referred to as the “level-headed man”. Everyone bought into her idea and we began to meet regularly.” Ed expounds, “I can’t even tell you how Doc and I ended as equal partners, it was almost a given. She just kept inviting me to the meetings, and it happened.”


Ed Harris and Doc Leeper standing next to one of Leeper's sculptures at Arts on Douglas.
The building Doc bought was on the same block as the Harris House. It was formerly a used furniture warehouse, and originally a 1920s era Ford showroom and service center. It needed a lot of work, but Doc also had a plan for that. To help with the financing, the artists were given two options. They could donate money to the future gallery or provide "sweat equity" by cleaning out and restoring the space. In exchange, each artist would have a solo exhibition once the gallery opened.

The organizational structure of the gallery was worked out while renovations were underway. Ed came up with the idea of hosting receptions on the first Saturday of every month, a tradition that continues today. Additional artists were invited to participate, and before opening, the gallery included 50 artists. A gallery director was hired at this time and Ed was at the heart of the decision to bring in Meghan Martin for the position. It was then time to name the space. After much debate, the artists voted to name the gallery 123 Douglas, to highlight the gallery’s address. The next day, Doc called Ed to let him know that she decided to name the gallery “Arts on Douglas” instead. In February 1996, Arts on Douglas hosted their grand opening to an amazing crowd of curious art enthusiasts.

In 1996, Ed married Jeanie, and she shared in his enthusiasm and support for the gallery. Jeanie explains, “My involvement with Arts on Douglas has expanded my appreciation of the arts, but I must say the greatest benefit of this experience has been the connections I have made with artists, volunteers, and patrons of the gallery.”

After Doc passed away in 2000, Ed and Jeanie remained committed to keeping the gallery open as they saw the direct impact it was having on the artists and the community. It had always been Doc’s vision that Arts on Douglas would eventually become a part of the Atlantic Center for the Arts, so in 2014, Ed and Jeanie gave the gallery to the Atlantic Center for the Arts and set up an endowment for its sustainability.

When asked about his thoughts on the gallery’s 25th anniversary this year, Ed remarked, “My first thought is that this is truly AMAZING! Maintaining our original concept all these years is quite a feat. We continue to only feature Florida-based artists, host first Saturday receptions and new exhibitions on a monthly basis, and most importantly, we have had continuous leadership, with Meghan Martin serving as the Gallery Director since day one.”

While Arts on Douglas was the vision of Doris Leeper, Ed Harris worked persistently behind the scenes to carry out her vision, even after her death. He wholeheartedly supported her endeavors as equally as he supported her. Their shared advocacy and support for the careers of Florida artists fueled their efforts, and deepened their friendship, as they laid the foundation for lasting success.

Ed and Jeanie Harris pose in front of Ed's gourds during the 25th Anniversary Exhibition and Celebration at Arts on Douglas.