Woman pens biography of nature artist Charley Harper

BUCKHANNON — He is deemed one of the most collected nature artists of all time, but until this year, Upshur County native Charley Harper lacked a biography.

Through a new book published in April, “Count the Wings, the life and art of Charley Harper,“ author Michelle Houts tells the story of Harper which began in Frenchton, Upshur County  and ended in Cincinnati where Harper passed away in 2007 at the age of 84.

It’s precisely stories like Harper that Houts sets out to tell.

“I am the editor of a series of books from Ohio University Press,” Houts said. “It’s part of the series called Biographies for Young Readers. We are looking to tell the story of interesting people who maybe are not household names.

A young reader can go to the store or library and find a book on Amelia Earhart but they are not going to find one on Jerrie Mock, who was the first woman to do what Amelia Earhart was trying to do,” she said. “You can go to the library and find a book on Picasso but Charley Harper contributed so much to art. We wanted to find people with very interesting stories that haven’t been told yet.”

So far, Houts has released five books in the series, written for ages 8 and up, with Harper being the latest.

“I live in Ohio and I was signing books in Cincinnati and I met Charley’s son Brett,” Houts said. “Charley and his wife had one child, Brett, who is in charge of the estate and the art Charley left behind. Brett told me no one had written his father’s biography before and he would certainly collaborate. He provided a lot of material for me. I spent two years on the book from the time it was decided they would publish it to the time it was actually published.”

Living in Ohio, Houts said she was very familiar with Harper’s artwork.

“Prior to writing the book, I was familiar with him being a mid-century modern artist and that his designs were on things everywhere if you looked around,” she said.  “These lady bugs and this cardinal are classic Harper. When you see these either on mugs, T-shirts or calendars, children’s puzzles, La-Z-Boy furniture, Crate & Barrel plates, napkins and towels, Land of Nod has a nursery bedding with his art…. You say, ‘Oh, that’s Harper.’”

Houts learned that Harper coined the term minimal realism.

“This style that is Charley Harper’s style, it existed but didn’t have a name and he gave it a name,” she said. “That was reducing everything to its most basic shapes.”

The title of the book, “Count the Wings” comes from a Harper quote: “When I look at wildlife or nature subjects, I don’t see the feathers in the wings. I just count the wings.”

As Houts delved deeper into Harper’s life, she also gleaned more information about the Cincinnati-based artist.

“Before I started the research, I knew he was an artist but I didn’t know he was a soldier,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about his World War II service. He continued doing art throughout the war for the Army, sometimes as mundane as lettering jeeps and sometimes doing fine art in the battlefield.”

The book contains a picture of Harper’s artwork, “Stroll Through Oblivion” of a boy and girl running in front of a bombed-out building.

“He did this on the lid of an ammunition box while in the battlefield,” she said. “Being a soldier was part of his art training, then he went to art school.” 

Houts said she was excited to be in Upshur County for the first time and to see where Harper grew up.

“I’m going to see the house on Barbour Street and we are going out to Frenchton and to Rock Cave,” she said. “Charley’s parents, Cecil and Ulma, are buried in Rock Cave Cemetery.”

Houts also learned how much Harper’s early life played into his art inspiration.

“I want people here to know that Charley left here in his early 20s but he had Upshur County in him his entire life,” she said. “He didn’t know anyone that was an artist for a living. He knew he wanted to live in a big city but he never discounted the value of growing up in a rural area, growing up in the country side and having farm chores gave him the appreciation for nature that you can see in his work his entire life.

“I think sometimes he worried that people thought he had some disdain for his West Virginia upbringing but that was so not true. He valued the first 20 some years of his life here and gave it a lot of credit both in his art and in his memories.”

In addition to a book signing at the Upshur County Historical Society’s summer exhibit Sunday, Houts planned to be at the Upshur County Public Library Monday afternoon for a signing, slide presentation and children’s activity.

To learn more, visit www.michellehouts.com.

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