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Charley Harper

Harper at His Desk © Charley Harper Art Studio

Charley Harper

Artist Spotlight

For more than sixty years Charley Harper’s vivid, often humorous paintings have delighted art and animal lovers, transporting viewers into the natural world via lively but self-described flat images that don’t lay claim to the third dimension. Rather, his paintings of colorful canyons, teeming coral reefs, and, above all, brilliant birds, emphasize hard-edged simplicity. Harper (American, 1922–2007) expressed his deep appreciation of nature through his design, forming the innovative “minimal realism” that would become his artistic hallmark and inspire an entire generation of artists and designers.

“When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings,” Harper once said of his style. “I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of the painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.”

Mystery of the Missing Migrants Mystery of the Missing Migrants, 1990

Though Harper began drawing and painting early, he grew up in a rural setting, isolated from the art world.

“Where I grew up, the only time you heard the word ‘art’ was if you were talking about somebody named Arthur,” Harper recounted with a laugh during an interview with designer Todd Oldham. “It was just not a career one aspired to.” His father was a farmer and operated a feed store, footsteps Harper wasn’t interested in following. “I hated farming. I couldn’t wait until I got out of there.”

So he spent his childhood days exploring the Appalachian foothills in West Virginia, closely observing the beauty, habits, and natural habitats of birds and other wildlife. He went on to pursue an art education at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he met his future wife, Edie McKee, also an artist. Harper spent his summer breaks back at home, though, and found it difficult to be away from Edie. Harper wrote to her in July 1941,

Portrait of Edie Portrait of Edie, 1947

“I wish you were sketching with me. It’s not so much fun alone … and I do long for somebody who will comment on something besides ‘good likeness’ in my drawings.

“You know, the thing about art that discourages me most is that nobody but artists think they understand it. And I find I’m almost living in a world alone here.

“Sure an’ it’s a nice world to live alone in, but it becomes monstrous when there is nobody around who talks your language.”

The Sierra Range (detail) The Sierra Range (detail), 1990
The couple married in 1947, and, thanks to the Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship, spent their honeymoon traveling and painting. After spending time teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and working for a commercial firm, Harper and his wife formed Harper Studios.

Harper’s paintings and prints have been published by a variety of nature- and conservation-oriented organizations. His work has been featured in Ford Times magazine (1948–1982); on posters for the National Park Service, the Audubon Society, and many other conservation organizations; and in several books, including Pomegranate’s Harper Ever After: The Early Work of Charley and Edie Harper (2015), a series of children’s board books with text by Zoe Burke (2015), and the Charley Harper Nature Discovery Series (2013, 2014).

Cardinal Cuisine Cardinal Cuisine
Lucky Ladybug Lucky Ladybug

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