Charley Harper's Magnificent Beasts

This article first appeared, with more images, in Discovery Channel Magazine, March 2014, pages 88–101.

American modernist artist Charley Harper is best known for sharing his love of animals and science through his popular wildlife prints, posters, and book illustrations. Here, Discovery Channel Magazine takes a look at his work and legacy, with the help of his son, Brett Harper—including a hilarious account of his dad's rather strong views on technology.

I think my father was slightly ambivalent about having grown up on a farm. On the one hand, the domestic animals on the Harper farm intrigued him, because of their fascinating behaviour. Yet on the other, he despised the daily chores of a farm boy: the hoeing of corn, the back-breaking work in the hayfields, and the delivering of feed from his father's feed-store, to farmers on a truck.

He told me that his least favorite job on the farm was cleaning out the chicken houses—while the second-worst was standing at the bottom of the fleece bin, where freshly shaved wool was tossed. To escape this kind of drudgery, my father would instead sneak off into the surrounding hills, armed with his trusty sketchbook and pencils.

He also claimed that he received very little recognition or commission work from the area in which he was brought up, in West Virginia. What I later found was that the people who remember him still feel an immense pride in his achievements. This despite his claim - which I'm sure seemed to be the case—that he had been greatly misunderstood. And that back then, art was scoffed at as a career aspiration.

People familiar with his work may know that Charley Harper began as a realistic artist, and that he struggled mightily between realism and the pull of greater abstraction, both in art school at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, in the US state of Ohio, and immediately after World War II. He worked in and tried out many different styles of illustration, which is obviously the benefit of going through art school, where he learned to paint and draw in a whole range of styles and mediums. In some of his early work you can see the influence of artists like Ben Shahn and Paul Klee.

During his honeymoon in 1947, he saw the Grand Canyon of Arizona, and questioned how it could ever be visually captured in its immensity, without abstraction. A cut paper collage of gouache on board was his answer. In a work called Railroad Tracks, he self-identified further progress towards abstraction—and by 1955, he had complete control over the iconic style which he himself called minimal realism. You can see for yourself the sophisticated leap he took in one year between the birds in Feeding Station in 1954, through to Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in 1955.

My father's breadth of style was a real advantage when he went to work at a commercial art studio, because he was able to create all kinds of art for a diverse stable of clients. As a studio illustrator, his job description required him to be comfortable with that kind of versatility, both in terms of conceptualizing art, as well as preparing it for reproduction. Most people for instance don't realize that he could paint realistically—at an exceptionally high level. He simply felt that, if he persisted in doing so, he wouldn't have anything unique to say as an artist. So instead, he began the process of stripping away all but the most essential elements of his subjects, leaving only what was vital for his audience to identify them. The result was still representational art. In fact, in his mature years, the only truly non-representational work was his design for a mural, titled Space Walk.

Large fish eat small fish, which eat krill, which eat small protists.
Aquatic Food Chain, which was in the 1961 volume, The Golden Book of Biology.
Not even a cow is safe from hungry piranhas.
A School of Piranhas Attack a Cow Crossing a Stream and Reduce Her to a Skeleton in Seconds, which was in the 1961 volume, The Golden Book of Biology. The description may seem sort of boring, but the imagery doesn't need any help to carry the subject clearly to a viewer.

He was of course a working commercial artist, which comes with its own compromises. My father even claimed that he was unable to satisfy Procter & Gamble Company, with his portrayals of what he called happy housewives using cleaning supplies. But that was after a long stint of pleasing the firm with award-winning designs—so the burnout may have been more on his side than the company's. He said, and I think this makes a lot of sense, that potential clients who didn't like his style, just avoided hiring him. And then those who knew about him, and liked something more risky and edgy, gave him creative assignments. After all, art directors are supposed to know who's out there—and whether those artists will be a good fit for how their clients want to be perceived.

My father worked during an exciting time for American illustration, and he tapped into all of the post-war developments in the art world. My parents, of course, purchased Dr. Seuss books for me—and our household was a fascinating way-station for artists, classical musicians, and culture-makers across a variety of fields. In the art world, this was also the time of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and while my father was not a part of the New York art scene, or the cool people in the club world, I do remember his connection with the late comedian Jonathan Winters, the pop artist Julian Stanzcek, and architect Michael Graves. But mostly, my father was connected with other nature artists&mdashlas well as scientists from the realms of animal behavior, zoology, biology, and ecology.

I happen to be an only child—which is an interesting term when one is 60 years old. But my childhood was indeed fun. My mother Edie was a great artistic talent too, and definitely went toe-to-toe with my father. My parents would often dash off creative things as gifts to friends. I got to personally witness the power of things that were made by hand, and with care, in the eyes of their recipients. It clarified for me that we were viewed as an artistic family. My own artistic efforts were supported heartily, but were never dictated.

Most artists that I have known seem to think that their own style is the best—or at least, that it suits their own purposes best. But speaking specifically of my father, from what I saw, he was respected by his peers, especially for his innovation. Those whose goal was total realism never acted threatened by my father, but were congenial. And he had friends ranging from enthusiasts of conservative animal portraiture, all the way through to pop-art and abstract expressionism. I do think they thought of him as a leader of sorts. But artists are like musicians; they enjoy each other, and seeing what each other is up to.

Curiously, of all the people that I've known, I would have to say that Charley Harper hated computers the most. A lot of people asked him why he didn't embrace the technology—which after all, probably would have allowed him to work much faster. For one thing, he would not have had a beautiful original acrylic painting to show for his work. Secondly, he was a creature of habit and was used to working with drafting tools like T-squares, compasses, rulers, curves, straightedges, and other equipment familiar to an aged generation of architects and engineers.

Today, even though there are automobiles, many old-order religious sects such as the Amish still prefer to ride in buggies. In the same way, I don't know if my father would have ever converted to computers. He even stretched his own canvasses over wood frames; at 80 years of age, he could hold a solid stream or line of India ink from a ruling pen, for an incredibly long time. Sometimes, an artist loves the process too much to give it up.

Intriguingly, if he had, it might have allowed him to create more rough ideas for major works, especially those that included backgrounds with step-and-repeat patterns. I will hazard a guess that had he overcome his aversion to computers, my father might have produced 25 percent more work over his already productive 60-year career.

At his most curmudgeonly, he painted an indictment of mobile phones called Can You Hear Me Now? Would he have used a computer to rail against computers? I doubt it. That's my take on it. In his own words to Todd Oldham, in 2006, my father gave some different reasons: that computers may have discouraged him from developing his own direction in art, because they made acceptable art too easy to make. He also believed art that was created on computers looked like art created on computers - and that art students tended to rely on the computer to do work they should be learning to do manually, such as life-drawing.

Under the microscope, a fruit fly examines a banana peel, preparing to eat
 the remnants of its fleshy interior.
This image, named Fruit Fly, was in the 1961 volume, The Golden Book of Biology.

My father always brought a lot of knowledge to each of his paintings - and it was his detailed research that was at the root of it all. For many of his assignments for the Ford Times magazine for example, he first drove to the various locations in question, where he would sketch and produce color thumbnails for what would later become full-sized paintings. If he needed to check out the form of a particular weed, he might make a quick run to the zoo, or to a field at a nearby county park. Sometimes, he even borrowed the skins of birds from Cincinnati's Museum of Natural History and Science, or would pull photo files of actual incidents—like the consumption of the cow by carnivorous fish (seen above, page 92 in original)—from the public library's reference collection.

As to whether it was the hard science around each subject that took precedent over the drama and story aspects, I think it probably depended on the kind of project he was undertaking. If he was doing an assignment or a work for hire, for example The Golden Book of Biology or The Animal Kingdom, he would have to follow the manuscript given to him by the editor or writer.

Of course, there was some give-and-take between them about what to emphasize. And my father really loved learning about science, so it was no hardship. I think he was very much the dramatist, too, always zeroing in on the conflict that would appeal most to the viewer. Achieving both is difficult, but that was part of his genius. It's hard to make a mollusk sexy—sometimes, colourful is the best you can do. But just about every creature on this planet has something cool going for it; for the artist, the secret is tapping into that.

Today's educators seem to be using my father's art more and more in the classroom, to teach students about concepts around making art, and about better conserving our planet. I've recently been giving a lot of thought as to why this is. One reason I would offer is that it's because his ideas were broken down into word pictures, which for children can make a greater impression than essays do. Adults, on the other hand, appreciate my father's non-militant, we are all in this together spirit. The work doesn't expressly indict anyone, yet it does hint at what could happen to the creatures that we claim to love unless we act. Sometimes, a painting really is worth a thousand words.

The surge of interest in licensing my father's work in the last five years has been enormous. Todd Oldham's books about my father have obviously helped boost his work's visibility, and the team at the Todd Oldham Studio has done a great job as our exclusive licensing agent. Given that the reaction to my father's work seems to be as strong now as ever, it's interesting to think about why his minimal realism style feels all the more appealing in today's world. We could probably conduct a seminar on the topic&mdsah;and still run out of time. Sometimes, I compare the generation-after-generation of love for my father's work as similar to the art of Walt Disney. It never seems to grow old or stale. Do we see something of ourselves in these creatures? Is there a vulnerability? Are we laughing at the situations he poses because the animals seem to face the same kind of problems that we as humans do, too? Is there a purity of form to my father's work that cuts through all the noise and visual clutter we face every day? Does his mid-century style hitch a ride on the nostalgia train? Or is the answer as simple as the promotional message of our newest licensee, international wall-covering manufacturer Designtex: Why Charley Harper? Because he makes us smile.