The night before Josh Harris’s funeral, his SEAL brothers gazed into his soul.
Hanging on the walls of his family home in Lexington, N.C. were Harris’s life’s work: a series of paintings, some created in a barn at his parents’ house. Others were completed during his college days studying studio art.
The images varied—some, crystal-clear, like a farm house or a portrait of a relative. Others more abstract, even playful. A bird in a superman outfit. A crying clown. There was even a self-portrait, a square-jawed man crying.
As the SEALs gazed at the paintings, Harris started to make sense. His sense of humor. His introspection. Even some darkness. Harris drowned on Aug. 30, 2008 during a SEAL Team Six mission on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He was 36. The more than 100 paintings left behind offer a rare glimpse at the man hidden away when Harris enlisted in the Navy with one goal: to be a SEAL.
That artistic man was a secret to his SEAL teammates—and even his family—until after his death.
“We’ll never be able to question him about most of these,” his mother, Evelyn Harris, said. “He was just that creative, but closed-mouthed about things. He felt so free about his art. No one was going to question him. I think that is why we didn’t know so much about his art.”
Harris’s life blows away the stereotype made popular after SEAL Team Six members killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. They are not superheroes with bulging muscles any more than they’re war criminals running unchecked across the battlefield collecting scalps. It’s more complicated than that.
They’re just men with varying hobbies—painters, writers, poets even—with a common bond built during the long nights and days training in the cold water of the Pacific. All SEALs are created on the beaches of Coronado, Calif., Harris’s path seems more unlikely than most, but it was a legacy cemented by his brush strokes.
Harris was one of three children born to Sam and Evelyn Harris. His parents—whose house is decorated with his artwork, mementoes from his SEAL career and pictures of Josh and their other children—described him as quiet but focused. He was a natural leader, playing linebacker and leading Lexington High School to an 11-1 record. The team lost in the state championship game.
But Josh Harris wasn’t just an athlete. His interests varied. He acted in community theater with his mother and loved to read. He also painted. When he was being recruited for football, he insisted on visiting the school’s art department on every trip.
He also had a great sense of humor. Both his family and SEAL teammates said his comic timing was perfect.
“He was hilarious,” the SEAL teammate said. “Funny as shit. But he wasn’t a talker. He would talk when it made sense. He didn’t talk to hear himself talk.”
After high school, Harris chose Davidson, a small liberal arts college near Charlotte. Its most famous alum is Golden State superstar Steph Curry. But Harris’s athletic career ended before it started. He injured his shoulder as a freshman. While considering his prospects as an undersized linebacker, he watched one of his professors studying at the library before class. A light bulb went on in his head. If the professor had to study hard, so did he. He quit football and dived into his studies. A studio art major, he traveled to France to study art history and spent long hours in the studio painting. His work was displayed at several shows, including at Lincoln Center in New York City.
“He never really talked much about his future,” his father, said. “He liked art, but he knew that wasn’t a livelihood.”
After graduation, Harris tried his hand at architecture, studying two years at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But the rigidity of drawing buildings didn’t agree with him. When his twin sister, Kiki, moved to New York to pursue acting, he followed to “protect” her. He worked as a carpenter to make ends meet, but was still searching for his passion when he met a group of SEALs during Fleet Week.
His father remembered talking to his son after meeting the SEALs.
“I think I’d like to be a SEAL,” Harris told him. “You really don’t like authority,” his father said.
But it was clear the meeting stirred something in Harris. “I’d really like to try,” he said.
Harris gave up art when he enlisted, his mother said. He wanted to focus on being a SEAL. He joined the Navy in August 2000 and after boot camp reported to basic SEAL training. He was 28 years old, near the maximum age for eligibility, his father said.
“Josh was always the gray man,” a SEAL teammate said. “He slipped through the cracks.”
The gray man is a candidate that doesn’t stick out. He is neither the best or the worst. He is the middle of the bell curve.
Harris’s SEAL teammate remembers how an instructor at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL or SEAL training didn’t recognize Harris during the land warfare phase.
“Who are you and how long have you been in this class?” the instructor said.
But his gray man status didn’t last for long. After training, he joined SEAL Team 10 based in Virginia Beach and deployed to Iraq. Six years later, he was selected for Green Team, the selection and training pipeline for SEAL Team Six, dubbed the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the time.
“He was part of some missions that people will never know about,” the SEAL who served with Harris said.
He was remembered by his teammates as aggressive. He sought action, which is why he was the one swimming a guide rope across a river on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan when he drowned. Flooding had caused the river to swell. The swift current carried his body for miles before he was found, according to his parents.
It wasn’t until Harris passed that his family found the trove of his paintings. His mother and a friend were clearing out a loft in the barn when they found his work. Since the discovery, his work has been showcased at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Florida and now graces the walls of his childhood home.
His life as an artist was unknown to his teammates until after his death.
“Josh and I were tighter than anybody,” the SEAL teammate said. “It never came up. Art was never a topic.”
Harris told his parents all of his work was unfinished. When they found it, none of it was framed, as if he’d planned to come back and work on the paintings again. Maybe Harris figured when he was done being a SEAL, he’d return to the studio.
The collection he left behind—finished or not—rewards a long look. Both his parents said they often find something new in the paintings. Hidden faces in the brush strokes. Symbolism, like two egg yolks in one piece. A nod to being a twin, his mother thinks.
One noticeable painting—which hangs in the house’s main sitting room—is of a bare-chested man, his left eyebrow raised. It’s unclear if the figure is asking or answering the question. A perfect metaphor for Harris, who was remembered as one part serious and introspective, and one part with a fantastic sense of humor.
Several paintings feature clowns, which is curious to his parents.
“He hated clowns,” Sam Harris said with a shrug. “I’d like to talk to him about it. But it all went with Josh.”
But Evelyn Harris likes the mystery of her son’s work, including a piece he painted for her 60th birthday. It depicts a monkey with a long tail that ends in the shape of a heart. The picture fits perfectly on the wall of her dining room. Evelyn Harris has no idea what it means except that he painted it for her and had it framed, unlike his other pieces.
“I didn’t want to delve into his creativity that much,” she said. “I just think it was a special gift for me.”
His work hangs all around the house, giving his parents a constant connection to their son. Each painting is a little bit of Josh Harris. A snapshot of his wit, his pain, his life. His inward journey laid bare, or a perfect joke to enjoy forever.
Depends on what you see in the brush strokes.