Charley Harper (August 4, 1922 – June 10, 2007) was a Cincinnati-based American Modernist artist. He was best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations.
Born in Frenchton, West Virginia in 1922, Harper’s upbringing on his family farm influenced his work to his last days. He left his farm home to study art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and won the academy’s first Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship. While at the Academy, and supposedly on the first day, Charley met fellow artist Edie Mckee, whom he would marry shortly after graduation in 1947.
Charley Harper returned to the Art Academy of Cincinnati as a teacher and also worked for a commercial firm before working on his own. He and his wife worked out of their Roselawn and Finneytown homes, and later, with their only child Brett Harper, formed Harper Studios.
During his career, Charley Harper illustrated numerous books, notably The Golden Book of Biology, magazines such as Ford Times, as well as many prints, posters, and other works. As his subjects are mainly natural, with birds prominently featured, Charley often created works for many nature-based organizations, among them the National Park Service; Cincinnati Zoo; Cincinnati Nature Center; Hamilton County (Ohio) Park District; and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. He also designed interpretive displays for Everglades National Park.
The first exhibition of his works in Germany took place in 2011 at Kunstverein in Hamburg in Hamburg.
Charley Harper had an alternative way of looking at nature. His serigraphs are large expanses of rich color which give the viewer a very different perspective on the animal kingdom. A conservationist as well as an artist, Harper revealed the unique aspects of his wildlife subjects through highly stylized geometric reduction. Harper said he is “the only wildlife artist who has never been compared to Audubon,” yet his wildlife art is just as instructive—the only difference is that Harper laced his lessons with humor. Harper believed that humor makes it easier to encourage change in our attitudes and awareness of environmental concerns.
In his artwork, Harper imaginatively investigated the similarities between human and wild animal behaviors, but completely without anthropomorphism. “I learn as much as I can about the creatures that interest me, and they all do. I observe them and find out how they interact with each other and their environments and ask myself, ‘What if?'”
In a style he called “minimal realism”, Charley Harper captured the essence of his subjects with the fewest possible visual elements. When asked to describe his unique visual style, Charley responded:
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.
He contrasted his nature-oriented artwork with the realism of John James Audubon, drawing influence from Cubism, Minimalism, Einsteinian physics and countless other developments in Modern art and science. His style distilled and simplified complex organisms and natural subjects, yet they are often arranged in a complex fashion. On the subject of his simplified forms, Harper noted:
I don’t think there was much resistance to the way I simplified things. I think everybody understood that. Some people liked it and others didn’t care for it. There’s some who want to count all the feathers in the wings and then others who never think about counting the feathers, like me.
The results are bold, colorful, and often whimsical. The designer Todd Oldham wrote of Harper, “Charley’s inspired yet accurate color sense is undeniable, and when combined with the precision he exacts on rendering only the most important details, one is always left with a sense of awe.” Charley, on numerous examples, also went outside the medium of graphic art and included short prose poems for the artwork he made.