Naturally gifted: the art and legacy of Charley Harper

Elizabeth Meade pays tribute to the inimitable Cincinatti artist

Elizabeth Meade
14th December 2020
Charlie Harper: Early Risers (Spring Wildflowers) Photo: @CincyMuseum via Twitter
I was first introduced to the work of Charley Harper when I was in elementary school and bought a box of notecards featuring his iconic cardinal designs.

Years later, I still find his work very inventive and have a small collection of things printed with his avian-themed work. Although Harper died in 2007, his work remains popular among animal lovers due to the staying power of its iconic style.

Charlie Harper: Arctic Circle
Photo: @CincyMuseum via Twitter

One factor that makes Harper's nature images unique is the multitude of influences he incorporated into the design process. Although his principle inspiration came from growing up on a farm with ample opportunity to observe the local flora and fauna, his imagery differed from the work of other notable nature artists such as Audubon because he incorporated design values and visual elements from or similar to contemporary art styles - including Modernism, Cubism, and Minimalism - into his work.

Another factor that sets Harper's birds apart from the rest of the flock is their simplicity.

When interviewed for a biography, he said, '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.' Harper's animals, composed of straight and curved lines, are perfectly two-dimensional and look as if they could have walked straight out of your GCSE maths textbook. However, between compositions of playful raccoons in a chimney, a bird feeding a worm to its baby and an owl with a dormouse you might have to look twice to notice held in its clutches, his work is full of life and captures nature's quotidian events in a fashion both laconic and charming.

Given the relatability and aesthetic appeal of his designs, I think the work of Charley Harper is the perfect decoration for winter. Although he has a couple of Christmas-themed designs, his natural winter work is worth a look in that it reminds us to stop and appreciate the simple, natural elements and life cycles that make winter special beyond the consumerism of modern Christmas celebrations. Specifically, I think of his cardinals, which he portrays fighting over a sunflower seed, landing in birdbaths, and simply standing in the snow eating berries or surrounded by seeds and three-toed bird prints.

Charlie Harper: Bluebirds in the Bluegrass
Photo: @CincyMuseum via Twitter

Lastly, Harper's work had an impact on public interest in conservation. Although Harper was not an activist for any significant environmental, political or social justice movements and was likely unengaged with the bigger picture of environmental justice, his work was notable enough to reach a large number of people. Featured in The Golden Book of Biology, National Park service materials and materials for zoos and nature centres in his home city of Cincinnati, his natural compositions that focused on the simple interactions of animals with nature were a breath of fresh air amidst the general materialism of the 20th century, when the environment was not of cardinal importance to upper and middle-class US citizens. Given the meaning and visual appeal of his work, I recommend the works of Charley Harper to anyone interested in animals, the environment or clever, eye-catching compositions.

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