Cincinnati wildlife artist Charley Harper passed away on Sunday, June 10, 2007.
Charley was born Charles Burton Harper, in Frenchton, West Virginia on August 4, 1922. He graduated from, and taught art at, the Art Academy of Cincinnati where he met wife, Edie, also an artist. The two married in 1947 after graduating.
In the 1950’s Harper gained acclaim as a commercial illustrator with “The Golden Book of Biology” and “Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two cookbook.” Over the ensuing two decades he contributed to the Ford Motor Company’s magazine, Ford Times. The response to this work was so positive, it led to his silkscreen print business reproducing those images. Charley’s paintings have appeared in nature-oriented magazines and on posters for many conservation-minded organizations, among them the National Park Service, Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Nature Center, Hamilton County (Ohio) Park District, the Michigan Audubon Society, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. Besides “The Golden Book of Biology” he has illustrated “The Animal Kingdom”, Birds & Words”; and “Beguiled by the Wild; The Art of Charley Harper.”
Charley has designed over 50 “bio” posters for non-profit conservation groups, nature centers and zoos, United States national parks and monuments, and international wildlife sanctuaries and biosphere preserves. One of the first federally commissioned posters was the ecology of Glacier Bay National Park in the 1960’s. He also designed interpretive displays for Everglades National Park. He had produced more than 100 limited-edition silk-screen prints.
When once asked to describe his art style, Harper replied, “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. 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 painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.”
Charles Harper’s wildlife art is created without the fuss and feathers. Minimal realism, he calls it, “I don’t try to put everything in, I try to leave everything out”. he explains, adding impishly, “I never count the feathers in the wings; I just count the wings.”
Charles asks the people who enjoy his art to “remember that I didn’t start out to paint a bird – the bird already existed. I started out to paint a picture of a bird, a picture which didn’t exist before I came along, a picture which gives me a chance to share with you my thoughts about the bird. Once you accept this seemingly simplistic but really quite profound premise, you will appreciate the many varied approaches to the making of pictures, all of which start where realism leaves off, but all of which require an understanding of realism for their successful execution.”
Frame House Gallery excerpt, 1977