Check it out: Artist’s work speaks for itself



"Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life"

By Charley Harper; American Modern Books, 405 pages

“Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life”

By Charley Harper; American Modern Books, 405 pages

A couple of years ago, I bought a Charley Harper calendar. I was not familiar with his work, but I couldn’t resist his colorful, stylized paintings of birds and animals. Not long after my purchase, I started seeing Charley Harper calendars everywhere. Must be a new and upcoming artist, I thought to myself.

Flash forward to 2013. While browsing the shelves recently at Vancouver Community Library, I happened upon “Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life,” published in 2007. I recognized the name from my calendar purchase, and as soon as I started flipping through the pages, I knew I had to check out the book. Reading the introduction, I learned that Charley Harper was born in 1922, grew up on a farm, and had been drawing pictures since the fourth grade. His artwork was a commercial success in both the publishing and advertising worlds, especially during the 1950s and 1960s; he produced four large-scale mosaic murals during his lifetime; and he created numerous paintings and posters. So much for “new and upcoming”!

To help celebrate this prolific but relatively unknown artist, Todd Oldham, a well-known American designer, worked closely with Harper beginning in 2001 to present the best of his oeuvre in one volume. Once you starting looking through this delightful compendium, it doesn’t take long to sense a true connection between artist and nature. A connection, according to Harper, that took place “not because I was working in cornfields or hayfields [on his family’s farm], like I should have been doing, but because I discovered water striders.” Little did he know that watching insects as a child would shape and influence his creative process for the rest of his life.

Sadly, Charley Harper passed away in 2007, but I am grateful to all those before me who appreciated his unique and delightful style and wanted to share it with the world. If it’s true that art can speak to the soul, I plan to continue this conversation with his artwork for a very long time.

Jan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at