Here’s the thing about serendipity. You only know you’ve experienced it after you’ve experienced it. In the absence of hindsight it’s impossible to know when bits of information thrown your way are actually pieces of a puzzle until the completed picture is suddenly there in front of you.
About six months ago, I picked up a few cards by an artist I’d never heard of in a little shop specializing in art reproductions. The images stood out on the shelf like ripe apples on a tree: crisp, colourful, and irresistible. The first card was a stylized painting of a green jay eyeing a praying mantis. Very simple, but beautifully observed. I turned over the card and read the name, Charley Harper. No bells…must be a new illustrator. I bought several copies of each design, took them home and forgot about them.
At the same time, during my prowls through local bookstores, I kept running across an ABC board book that always seemed to be in front of some other book I was reaching for, or on a shelf adjacent to where I was looking. Each page was a different bird or animal, and the drawings were completely charming in a kind of retro way. I wanted the pictures, but not the format. There is just no room for chunky on my shelves, regardless of how fetching the illustrations.
As usual, my resistance was futile. I was about to give in and go for the chunk, but I thought, well maybe this guy has other books. Indeed he did, and more importantly, there was a collection of his work, recently published, and it was in stock.
Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, was designed and edited by Todd Oldham, a stylistic polymath and a man who appears to be every bit as charming and talented as Mr Harper. As I flipped through the 424 page retrospective, I was initially reminded of the the minimalist background art of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 50’s. But the retro feel of his approach does not preclude the absolute freshness of his images, so apparent in the second half of An Illustrated Life. It was at this point that the individual puzzle pieces coalesced, and I realized Harper was the same person who had illustrated the cards I’d bought just a few months ago. Funny how this happens.