An Introduction to Charley Harper
By Ava Bowers
Charley Harper (August 4, 1922 - June 10, 2007) a mid-century modern artist, and resident of Springfield Township for nearly 50 years, characterized his work as “minimal realism”. A wildlife artist dedicated to conservation efforts, he is best known for his simple, vibrant, and geometric silkscreen prints of the natural world. His career in advocacy through artwork spans six decades, resulting in a collection of around 5,500 works. He illustrated for brands such as Ford Motor Company and Proctor and Gamble, as well as organizations like the National Park Services and the Cincinnati Zoo. His work continues to be relevant today, shedding light on nature conservation in addition to the vitality of art and expression.
Charles Burton Harper was born on August 4, 1922 in Frenchton, West Virginia. Although he was raised on a farm, farm work was not for him. Instead, he spent his time sketching the surrounding wildlife and gaining a plethora of inspiration he would use to motivate his future career as an artist of the natural world.
He attended West Virginia Wesleyan College, the Art Students League in New York, and the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he graduated with a BFA, and ultimately taught design and illustration for 20 years. He met his wife, Edie Harper (née Edith Riley McKee) in 1940 on the steps of an administration building their first day of classes at the Art Academy. Edie, a fellow artist, used a myriad of art forms, ranging from painting, sculpting, photography, and like her husband, silkscreen printing.
Their occupational similarities were not only limited to art though, pausing their studies to aid in the Second World War. Charley was drafted for service, and back home, Edie utilized her background in photography to make film of hydro dams and cement cross-section samples for the Corps of Engineers. These would then be tested, and determine which were strongest for runways. Harper would draw maps for his role as a recon scout in the Army, as well as paint battle scenes and portraits of the other soldiers to send back home while away. It is often said his unit’s chaplain would carry his art supplies throughout combat. It is the experience of working with a limited timeframe on these pieces while traveling to which he attributed his minimalist style.
The couple graduated in 1947, seven years after the year of their initial enrollment. Their honeymoon following graduation was spent camping across the United States for six months and, true to Harper form, drawing the scenes around them. In 1953, they welcomed their only child, son Brett Harper, who now owns the Charley Harper Art Studio. Four years later, they would build their forever home in Finneytown in Springfield Township.
A New Approach
Harper’s use of simplicity was an innovative approach in contrast with the extreme realism found in nature art at the time. This fresh, distinct art style distills its subjects down to geometric shapes, bold colors, and clean lines. Harper described this new style as “minimal realism.” The principles of which align with the mid-century modern era of art, the time period and style in the 1950s and 60s known for its abstract and graphic design. The directness he utilized within this style to portray each subject is timeless though, making his art just as pertinent to today’s audiences, as it was to those 70 years ago.
He used the silkscreen process to produce the majority of his artwork. A wooden frame covered with a screen mesh is pressed against a stencil, and the artist compresses paint through this with a squeegee. A different stencil is used for each color, and with repetition and time, the bright prints are left on the paper below.
His pictures are often accompanied by a caption written by the artist himself, allowing for a further glimpse into his imaginative mind. In a 1974 interview with Frame House Gallery he said, “I try to make it a verbal extension of the picture, carrying the idea a few puns further.” He often accompanied this humor with a socially conscious message as a tool to promote nature conservation. For example, in “Frog Eat Frog,” where he summarizes how brutal the world can be, concluding with, “It froggles the mind.”
A Career in Creating
During his time as a student, Harper began freelance work for The Procter and Gamble Company, working as a cover designer for their Moonbeams magazine. He continued freelancing with Ford Motor Company’s magazine: Ford Times, where he contributed to covers, articles, and diagrams, beginning in December of 1948. The evolution of his style can be seen through his art for the publication, early pieces embracing realism and quickly developing into his iconic minimalism. The June 1982 issue concluded his work for the publication.
In a special edition of Ford Times, Harper collaborated with architect Rudy Hermes, to illustrate a futuristic new world of Fords. Harper would create the wild, scenic locations for Hermes’s homes of the future, all with a brand new Ford or two parked out front. The pair’s second collaboration was Charley and Edie’s own home in Finneytown in Springfield Township. Built in 1956, the house was the embodiment of Harper’s genius – a mid-century modern work of art, with a fully glass backside that allowed him to fully immerse himself with the inspiration he drew from the great outdoors.
Harper continued his work as a freelance illustrator with Western Publishing, beginning in the early 1950s, one of his most notable commissions for the company being The Golden Book of Biology. Here, he continued his work with Ford but began to branch out, eventually illustrating Philip Van Doren Stern’s Tin Lizzie and Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two. These were more similar to his work on Ford Times, his subjects being people and cars. They still, however, captured the movement and whimsy true to all Harper pieces.
In the 1970s and 80s the National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry Center commissioned Charley Harper to design ten posters to showcase the diversity within the parks through a vast array of landscapes. The depictions range from the snowy mountains of Washington in “The Alpine Northwest,” to sealife in “The Coral Reef,” and southwestern cacti in “The Desert.” Harper wrote his career would have been made in conservation had it not been for his career in art.
Commissions for organizations such as the Cincinnati Zoo, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and the Entomology Foundation, make evident his dedication to this cause.
Charley Harper’s life’s work is still as relevant today as it was at the time of its inception. Art is still a vital form of expression and advocacy – and nature is still begging to be preserved. Harper was a crucial advocate for wildlife, whose voice still speaks through his unique and expansive collection. To this day, his work can be seen on posters, prints, merchandise, and, more specifically, represented in Springfield Township's first sculpture “The Many Sides of Charley Harper,” by sculpture artist Micah Landers.
For further exposure to Charley Harper’s life, work, and his impact on the world of minimal realism visit and read from:
Wild Life: The Life and Work of Charley Harper Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life
Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper