Charley Harper

Charley Harper

The Cincinnati based modernist artist left a legacy that will live on through his wonderful art work. He was perhaps best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations. Harper was born in West Virginia and lived on a farm with his family prior to studying art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He credited his early life on the farm for helping to shape his art career. He won the first Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship. He met another artist, Edie Mckee, while attending the academy and married her shortly after they graduated in 1947. Harper returned to the Art Academy as a teacher and also worked for a commercial firm before becoming his own boss. He and his wife worked out of their home, later teaming up with their only child, Brett Harper, to form Harper Studios. During his long career, Charley illustrated numerous books, including The Golden Book of Biology and magazines such as Ford Times. His subjects were predominantly birds. He created works for many nature based organizations, including the National Park Service; Cincinnati Zoo; Cincinnati Nature Center; Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania and created interpretive displays for Everglades National Park. Charley Harper captured the essence of his subjects with the fewest visual elements. Charley described his own work in this way: “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.”

CH : "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."

Martha Ericson's words on Charley:

Charley Harper was one of those people you wish there were more of in this

world. He was funny, kind, generous and very smart, with a mind and an eye
that could reduce the most complicated natural subject to its very essence,
a style he called "minimal realism". Many of his prints and paintings are
of the flora and fauna found in the woods right outside his door near
Cincinnati, offered up to the viewer as an invitation to delight in the
beauty, humor and quirkiness he saw in nature. I first saw his work almost
thirty years ago when I volunteered for the National Park Service, which had
commissioned him to create a glorious poster of the ecology of Glacier Bay
National Park. Inexplicably, this gem was hung on the inside of the ladies'
powder room door, affording frequent opportunities for close scrutiny. I
fell in love. I followed his work over the years until one day, when I was
living in Cincinnati, a quiet, gentle fellow in a beat-up corduroy jacket
and red flannel shirt walked in to the print shop where I worked. When he
handed me his card, which was in need of re-printing, I nearly jumped over
the counter. I shrieked, "You're Charley Harper? I'm one of your greatest
fans!" He was kind enough not to run away, but instead invited me over to
see his studio. I spent a very happy Sunday with him among the beeches,
oaks, maples and birdfeeders which crowded around his home. The day I was
there, he was working on a big masonite panel, painting freehand with
acrylic a design in which a bluebird, a telephone wire, and a yellow highway
were reduced to a sophisticated geometry in his trademark style. His studio
was a dark little shed, not much bigger than one of our office cubes, jammed
floor to ceiling with a hodgepodge of paint cans, tools, feathers, rocks,
skeletons, dried weeds...a delightful place, entirely. We spent the
afternoon in his study with his wife, Edie, looking through six-foot-high
stacks of flat files where they kept their collection of art gathered from
friends and colleagues over the years, things that ranged from traditional
prints to Caribbean folk paintings to art of the Harlem Renaissance. I left
with a gift of "Beguiled by the Wild" under my arm. I saw him two more
times, but soon after, I was in the throes of moving to Cleveland. When I
heard he'd died a few years ago, I cried. However, if you're looking,
there are reminders of his humor and generosity everywhere. If ever you
travel to Cincinnati, you'll see his art, much of it donated by him, in
every park, nature preserve and gift shop in the city. I think he'd be
tickled to know how much he delights and influences many of us at American

In the words of Marty Mihaly:

I met him just once – when I was ten years old. He came to my art class at Covedale Elementary in Cincinnati. At that time, he had just completed the illustrations for a science text book (which I was later privileged to use). He gave a very casual lecture on how he reduced the visuals in his images to the bare essentials, which showed a greater TRUTH about them than even photographic images could. I remember being SO intrigued by what he had said. He pointed out how a child’s drawing of a table without perspective – showing all four legs – was a more accurate and truthful representation of what a table really IS than an image drawn in perspective. I was so taken by that. I’ve never forgotten that day. I must have had a very wise art teacher. I don’t have any idea how it came about that she invited Mr. Harper to our class, but I am grateful she did.

Charley Harper Tile Mural in the Federal Building Downtown Cincinnati. This is just a sample, you need to see this in person-AMAZING!