On January 2, 2021 Professor Harry F. Breen passed into the clouds he so famously painted. He died due to complications from COVID-19. Harry Fredrick Breen was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 4, 1930. Chicago was where he spent his childhood and adolescent years. He was a child of the Depression but counted himself as lucky as his family always had meat on the table. When his father entered the sanitarium with tuberculosis, his mother went to work at the shipyards as a “Rosie the Riveter”. At age 13, Harry was left to run the household and care for his younger siblings, Bill and Maryann.
He spent his summers at his grandparent’s farm in central Minnesota. He expressed that this was when he first became aware of the integral relationship of the sky and the land and what that could express. This realization would become the foundation of his artistic career. He enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. Soon after, he met the love of his life, Diane Dahl. They married on August 9, 1952 and spent the next 60 years side by side creating beauty until Diane’s death in 2011. From 1954 – 1957 he taught art to grades 4 to 12 at Emerson School in Gary, Indiana. While in Gary, he did a series of landscapes of the dunes on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. In 1957, the family moved to Champaign-Urbana where Harry taught at University High while completing graduate studies. In 1959 he joined the faculty of the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois. He retired in 1985 as Professor Emeritus of Art. During his time at the U of I he taught countless students, both art majors and non-art majors. He had the amazing ability of helping students reach their artistic potential by creating art they had never believed possible. Harry was instrumental in starting the popular Saturday Morning Art School offered through the University for the community.
His early retirement from the University allowed him to do what he loved most—paint full time. The fertile fields and big skies of Central Illinois were dominant themes in his work. Professor Breen’s art has been exhibited in invitational and competitions nationally and internationally. Over the years he had forty solo exhibitions and his work received multiple awards. His art is included in over 1000 private collections and fifty-six public and corporate collections including the Butler Museum of American Art, the Illinois State Museum, The President’s house at the University of Illinois and McDonald’s Corporation to name a few. In addition to landscapes he was known for his ceramic animals. Harry’s ceramic animal sculptures reflected his love of animals. Whether cows, pigs or horses on his grandparent’s farm; the abundant wildlife on his property in Southern, IL; rescue dogs and cats in his home or wild animals viewed on NatGeo Wild or at a zoo. He felt animals had a special place in art. To him, animals’ forms and movements held strong aesthetic appeal and symbolize qualities with which human viewers can identify: nobility, ferocity, dignity, silliness to name a few. He hoped sculptures like his “Asian Menagerie” on display in the foyer of the Colwell Playhouse Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts conveyed the expressive force of the animals they represent.
Harry’s artistic vision expanded to include interior renovations of Roman Catholic churches. Cathedral and church projects included major examples of his art in two and three-dimensional media murals, sculptures and furniture. One such example is the “Risen Christ” at Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Terre Haute, IN.
In 1993 he and his wife, Diane were awarded Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medals by Pope John Paul II for their work in liturgical art and design. Several years later, they presented His Holiness with a Breen painting Agony in the Garden as a gift for the Vatican.
Harry was a spiritual man with a strong faith in God and saw the beauty in people and in nature. An avid gardener, his yard was a large canvas and became an extension of his art. His shovel was like his paint brush to constantly sculpt and enjoy.
Harry was blessed with amazing friends, some of more than 50 years. Friends became family—with many dinners shared, countries traveled, tears shed and much laughter. Harry was preceded in death by wife, Diane; daughters, Claudia and Jessica. He is survived by children, Paul (Christine) Breen, Melissa Breen (Cheryl Snyder) and Lydia Wisegarver, eight grandchildren: Felicia (Chad), Christopher (Mary Jo), Kye, Claudia, Claire, Gracie, George, and Wilson, and one great grandchild: Camile.
The family would like to thank Carle Hospice for their expertise and kindness. We would especially like to thank Christy Ricks, Taemara Lawler and Mary Jo Laws for the exceptional care they provided for our dad. We would like to thank Ryan Gatche for taking over gardening duties while Harry gave pointers from his wheelchair allowing him to continue “working” in his garden.
A celebration of his life will occur at a later date due to COVID. In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to the University of Illinois Foundation to support “Krannert Center for the Performing Arts / Lyric Theatre Student Excellence Fund” (fund # 11335473), Krannert Art Museum “Acquisition Fund” (Fund # 11332232) or the Humane Society.
Harry spent his life seeing beauty everywhere. He considered Holy Cross Church and the “Illini Series” at Meyer Capel Law Office conference room two of his most outstanding examples of his work in public places. Both located in Champaign, IL separated by a short walk through West Side Park.
He was constantly teaching and always learning. He brought beauty into our lives and our homes. The next time you look to the sky and see a storm front moving in or clear blue skies with jet trails and the whitest of clouds, be reminded of a “Harry Breen sky”.
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