BUCKHANNON – Ladybugs, water striders and crayfish.
Those are just three of the numerous creatures the late renowned modernist painter Charley Harper used as inspirations for his minimalist works of art.
And now, thanks to a donation from the artist’s son, Brett Harper, Upshur County residents and visitors can soak in Charley Harper’s visions of those creatures in the form of four larger-than-life murals in vivid oranges, yellows and reds that now line Trader’s Alley.
Brett Harper, who runs the official Charley Harper Art Studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, traveled to Buckhannon for Friday’s late-evening unveiling of a series of wildlife-focused murals, which include “Ladybugs Hibernate,” “Crayfish Molting” and “Shadow Dancer” in the Trader’s Alley Arts District. He also delivered a speech earlier in the day as part of West Virginia Art Education Association’s annual conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
‘I count the wings, not the feathers’
Following Friday night’s unveiling – which Buckhannon mayor David McCauley dubbed “Buckhannon’s next big thing” – Harper reflected on his father’s style of minimal realism and how that style literally shaped Charley Harper’s unique depictions of wildlife.
“Minimalism is basically taking all of the elements of usually some kind of creature, whether it’s a bird or some other animal, and reducing it to the simplest common denominator, so it’s still recognizable,” Harper said, “but as Charley liked to say, ‘I count the wings, not the feathers.’”
Harper, who now lives in Lebanon, Ohio, said he was honored by Friday’s unveiling, which was orchestrated by ART 26201, the City of Buckhannon and architect Bryson Van Nostrand.
“It’s an honor, and really, Buckhannon is ground zero for anybody who’s interested in Charley Harper’s early life in terms of the sites where he lived and where he frequented that inspired him to draw and paint,” Harper said. “To me, it’s a lot of love given back to me by the community, and I always felt welcome in West Virginia from the time I was a child.”
Although Harper eventually relocated to Cincinnati to attend the Cincinnati Art Academy, he was born in in Frenchton and attended both Buckhannon-Upshur High School and Wesleyan. He lived in southern Upshur County until he was drafted to serve in World War II, Harper said, noting his father drew a great deal of inspiration from West Virginia’s native wildlife.
“I think they do really represent that landscape of West Virginia as you go about in nature and see the creeks and fields,” Harper said of the murals. “Those are the things he saw and loved, so I think he would feel the love that everyone showed who came tonight.”
As Harper pulled the black plastic covering off one the murals, he noted his dad fished frequently.
“Charley particularly liked to lay on the side of the creek bank and look at the water striders, which some people call Jesus bugs, and crayfish,” he said. “He liked to fish a lot.”
The push for public art
The installation of the murals and a sign at the intersection of Trader’s Alley and Main Street that reads “Arts District” in stenciled-out letters is part of an ongoing push to put visual art in public places, Van Nostrand said at the outset of the unveiling.
“This is just the best,” said Van Nostrand, who’s a key member of ART 26201. “It’s a daily struggle to make the arts actually relevant to all of us. I think that West Virginia, as a whole, is in a crisis management role of keeping our population and keeping our quality of life and especially keeping our kids at home.”
“The arts projects that we all at ART 26201 and others work on here in this town, I would say the underlying purpose all the way around is to help engender in our kids the concept that Buckhannon is cool,” he added. “Buckhannon is not old and dusty and decrepit and boring. There are warm, fun, progressive, welcoming aspects. [This effort] is so focused on the youth … that’s what the bottom-line goal is: To get youth to stay here and choose to plug in and stand up on the line with the rest of us and make this place awesome.”
Van Nostrand noted the art-in-public-places initiative began in 2014 with the unveiling of “Monkey Mural” further down the 440-foot-long alley.
“At that unveiling, we talked about our goals, and one of those goals was the development of Trader’s Alley as an actual arts district that would really be bookended by the Jawbone Pavilion and Dairy Queen at the other end, and it’s happening,” he said, “and here we are a couple years later, and the city has bought into it and supported it, put down new asphalt and sidewalks, and if we’re lucky, all the vacant properties further down the alley will become populated with cool little funky things, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
McCauley said Charley Harper’s murals “will forever remind us of the artistic genius of one of our own” and thanked Van Nostrand and other property owners whose buildings abut the alley.
“It’s largely Bryson’s vision and imagination that’s gotten us to where we are with these projects. We truly all owe him a debt of gratitude,” the mayor said, also thanking Sharon Chapman of Chapman Technical, John Moss, the Foster family and Almost Heaven CrossFit, David Health System and C.J. Martin.
McCauley said more public art projects are on the horizon, including the installation of a “Men in Black” car in tribute to Gray Barker, the renowned science fiction writer who penned “They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers” on which “Men in Black” is said to be based. (Barker owned the Colonial Theatre in its heyday.)
“In the months ahead, more public art will be unveiled – installation of the ‘Men in Black’ car in tribute to Gray Barker, the completion of the first phases of your Colonial Theatre where Buckhannon Community Theatre’s ‘Dracula’ is playing through Sunday evening, the Jimmy Pankow Trombone Cove in Jawbone Park and formal recognitions of the late Jim Knorr and Garland West, who dedicated their lives to art forms,” McCauley said.
‘He was a perfectionist’
Asked if he’s a visual artist like his father, Harper said although he’s “dabbled” in silk-screen painting, he primarily considers his area of expertise to be writing, marketing and operating the Charley Harper Art Studio.
With a smile, Harper noted that his father’s nationally renowned creations didn’t come to fruition without some degree of frustration from time to time. After all, it was a meticulous, tedious process, cutting stencils out for each print and ensuring every element fit together properly.
“He was a perfectionist,” Harper said of his dad. “He had to make sure that the first few impressions registered properly and were working. Well, sometimes, after all day – and even maybe a couple of days – nothing would work correctly, and he would get very frustrated because he would have to recut the stencil and every time. It was very tedious.”
“The only time I ever saw him get angry was when something didn’t happen the way he wanted it to with his work,” Harper said. “I saw him take a sledgehammer to the family station wagon one time because his print wasn’t working the way he wanted it to.”
“Keep in mind he never cared much about his car anyway,” Harper said, smiling. “He never washed it, never cleaned it out, so it wasn’t a big deal for him to pound on it with a sledgehammer. Not many people saw that side of him.”
Read more about Charley Harper, his life and his work at the Charley Harper Art Studio’s website.