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.
Born in West Virginia in 1922, the Cincinnati-based Charley Harper grew up on his father’s seed farm, surrounded by animals and cornfields. However, according to the interview in An Illustrated Life, Harper attributes his connection to nature and the origin of his artistic style, which he calls ‘minimal realism’, to the hours spent observing water striders, or Jesus bugs:
“When they walk on water, on a shallow stream, and the sun is shining, they cast shadows of themselves on the bottom. The ripples that ring around their feet also cast shadows-round shadows. And these move around over the bottom of the creek, which is what I painted.”
It’s an evocative image, one Harper comes back to several times in the interview. What a remarkable thing to be able to trace the birth of an artist back to these quiet, childhood moments by a creek.
“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, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an 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.”
Life, in its beautiful, distilled form is the essence of Charley Harper’s art.
Serendipity played a roll in the publication of Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, just as it did in the purchase of the book. Todd Oldham ran across some of Harper’s Ford Times magazine covers, illustrated over a period 35 years (or more than 400 paintings), in a thrift store and was so taken by the illustrations, he bought the entire set. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the covers resonated with Oldham because Harper had illustrated the Golden Book of Biology textbook he had studied as a kid. The images stuck in his brain all these years, waiting to be dislodged in a rural store in Pennsylvania. Again, funny how this happens.
From that moment in 2001, Oldham began researching the life and work of Charley Harper, and the result is this incredibly compelling, comprehensive, and deeply pleasurable book, in addition to a friendship struck between the two artists which lasted until Harper’s death in 2007.
I would suggest that you not wait for serendipity to deliver this book into your hands. Take the initiative. It’s the most fun you’ll have between two covers this week.
Oh, and FYI? I bought the board book anyway. Yes I did.
Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham, Ammo Books, 2009 ISBN: 978-1934429372
ABC’s (board book) illustrated by Charley Harper, Ammo Books, 2008 ISBN: 1934429074