Ask A Librarian

Charley Harper, Wildlife Artist

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 11th, 2015

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.

Charley Harper saw shapes.  He didn’t see birds, or trees, bear, or fish.  He saw shapes.  And shapes in the natural world are what he painted.  His art was minimalistic, modern, and playful; a style Harper called “minimal realism.”  It was a style that was perfectly suited to the Mad Men era when his work was at its peak of popularity, the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Born in 1922, Charley Harper grew up on the family farm in Frenchton, West Virginia, just outside Buckhannon in Upshur County.  His interest in wildlife began in his early years on the farm and the love he developed for depicting wildlife informed his artwork for the rest of his life.

Shadowdancer, the painting of water striders dancing across the surface of a pond, above, clearly shows Harper’s technique of applying repetitive shapes to capture his concept.  Concentric and overlapping circles are the key to interpreting the shadows of the striders on the pond’s surface.  Ripples ring the solitary floating leaf, its oval shape serving as counterpoint to all the circles.  Ripples also surround the striders feet as they make contact with the water.  Scientific accuracy is ignored in favor of something akin to a geometry of shapes that create this compelling artwork.

This painting, called Loonscape, is one of my favorites by Charley Harper.  I love the way he captured the bark of birch trees in the background and bordered them with darker trees to the right and left as contrast.  The beautifully patterned loon seems to glide across the glassy liquid surface above his reflection.

Harper’s career in art began in West Virginia. During his student days at West Virginia Wesleyan Harper served as the Art Director for Wesleyan’s 1940 edition of the yearbook, the Murmurmontis,  a significant yearbook in the annuals of Wesleyan’s history because it celebrated the college’s golden anniversary.

After leaving West Virginia, Harper studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, returning there later in his career to teach art.  Harper was best known as an illustrator, notably for his work in Ford Times magazine, and in books, such as The Golden Book of Biology for children.  He also created posters for the National Park Service, the Cincinnati Zoo, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, among many others.

You can learn more about Charley Harper and his work at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.  Several books capturing Harper’s art are available for browsing including this book by designer Todd Oldham:  Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life.

Cover of Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life

Image Sources:

Banner image:


Black & White portrait:


Book image:


West Virginia Wesleyan 1940 Murmurmontis yearbook at

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