A Bird in the Hand
Born in 1922, Charley Harper started out life on a family farm in West Virginia. Farming was not his bailiwick, but his love of nature was established there, and he spent hours avoiding chores by observing bugs, crayfish and the like. After a year of art courses at West Virginia Wesleyan College, he decided to focus seriously on art and transferred to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he met his future wife, artist Edie McKee. After two years in Cincinnati, he was drafted and spent the last couple years of World War II as a scout in a recon platoon. He continued to draw while stationed in Europe—portraits of fellow soldiers that they sent home to loved ones and of towns his platoon passed through. Returning to Cincinnati at the end of the war, he finished school, married Edie in 1947 and the two of them honeymooned by camping across the country on a traveling scholarship Charley won.
He and Edie settled in Roselawn and his first job, at Schaten Studios, taught him the craft of commercial art—color separation, using typography. His flat, hard-edged illustrations lent themselves to the silk screening process, which a co-worker taught him. Although realism was the prevalent painting style he learned at the Art Academy, he began to realize that the style would reveal “nothing about the subject that nature had not done better.” His work became more distilled, minimal, architectural, abstracted, more about shapes and colors. He said there were “some who want to count all the feathers in the wings and then others who never think about counting the feathers, like me.” He is perceived by the art world as a modernist and called his own work “minimal realism.” Although his main focus was the animal kingdom, some of his most charming works illustrate humans going about their business.
In 1958 the Harpers built a mid-century modern home in the middle of the woods in Finneytown. Cutting edge by the day’s standards, lean and spare like his artwork, the home was a laboratory in nature, the perfect setting for Charley’s observations and research. In the International Style, the home is opened to the natural world by a two-story wall of windows. A small studio is connected to the house by a wooden walkway.
Art here was a family affair. Edie, Charley and their son Brett all participated in the creative processes of drawing, painting, photography, printing. Brett was recruited at an early age to produce the family Christmas cards. Charley worked mainly out of his studio for the rest of his life, although he spent many years as a part-time instructor at the Art Academy. Charley also devoted untold hours visiting schools and interacting with children about the natural world.
The 50-plus years in the “lady bug” house were prolific. Chip Doyle, the curator of the Harper Estate and close family friend, has spent the years since Charley passed away in 2007 caretaking the Harper home, organizing the vast output of Charley and Edie’s careers. He works closely with Brett Harper and others he calls “Team Harper” on multiple projects: preserving the core collection of Harper art, developing curricula with the art for schoolchildren, planning Harper exhibitions (a show in Hamburg, Germany is currently in the works) and publishing Harper products like posters, cards and calendars. He feeds the winged ones who are surely the descendants of the subjects of so many of Charley’s endeavors. There is reverence in his voice when he speaks of Charley and his contributions to the world, noting the untold legions of us who “grew up on Charley Harper.” He strives daily at the house in the “enchanted beech forest” to foster awareness of and exposure to Charley’s art and feels “a grand sense of accomplishment finding good homes for original works whether they be museums or private collections, knowing the work will be looked after and cherished for generations to come.”
In a career spanning over 60 years, Charley’s wit, whimsy and unique style entertained, educated and beguiled multiple generations. From Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook, Golden Books’ Giant Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom, Ford Motor Company’s Ford Times magazine (1945-1985), and Birds and Words, to countless advertising promotions, paintings, prints and posters, Charley gave us all a priceless gift: his very particular and singular view of the natural world.
Editor’s note: You can see and purchase original works of art by both Charley and Edie Harper at the 15th annual 20th Century Cincinnati, a show of vintage modern art, furnishings and fashion, February 26-27, 2011 at the Sharonville Convention Center.
For more information, visit www.20thcenturycincinnati.com.
Photos of the Harper home and Chip Doyle by Ross Van Pelt
Images of Charley Harper art and Charley and Edie Harper courtesy of the Charley Harper estate