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Levin: Charlie Harper's Art

(Host) Recently, naturalist and commentator Ted Levin took in an exhibitof the works of world-class wildlife artist Charley Harper - now on display at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. And he says it's wildlife art at it's most entertaining.

(Levin)For more than forty years, Ilsquo;ve enjoyed the playful art of the late Charley Harper, first in the pages of Audubon magazine and later in an instructive mural in Everglades National Park and then in posters for the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Nature Center, and several other national parks. Harper's work is original and patently recognizable: richly colored and two-dimensional, his stylized wildlife is portrayed as geometric reductions, all circles, squares, triangles, lines. Minimalrealism is what Harper calls it.

I'm probably the only wildlife artist in America, Harper once wrote, who has never been compared to Audubon.

Throughthe next few weeks, The Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, is hosting a retrospective of Harper's work, a collection of limited edition silk-screen prints, and a companion exhibit by students from theCenterFor Cartoon Studies, in White River Junction, who were inspired by Harper's iconic art.

Harper took pride himself in capturing the essence of his subject with the fewest possible elements. He once claimed, When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don't count the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming... 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. He didn't try to put everything in a painting. He tried to leave everything out.

A beaver dining on a collection of white birch limbs, for instance, is distilled into a series of three progressively larger circles - face, head, body - all overlapping and an oblong tail. A family of barn owls is a gathering of heart-shaped faces.

Not only are the prints whimsical, but also Harper's accompanying text is laced with puns and alliteration and is often LOL funny. Take the print titled Flamingo-a-go-go. Two pink necks, heads touching, form a frame-fillingheart, around which the rest of the flock busy themselves with flamingo activities. A portion of Harper's caption reads:

A flock of flirting flamingos is pure passionate pink pandemonium, a frantic flamingle-mangle, a discordant discotheque of delicious dancing, flamboyant feathers, and flamingo lingo.

Another favorite of mine is the image of the great horned owl carrying a striped skunk against a star-lit sky. The black of the skunk and the black of the night merge together seamlessly; and the skunk's bright yellow eyes and the bright yellow stars are indistinguishable except for the position of the eyes in the camouflaged head. Wrote Harper:'s stink, stank, stunk when you confiscate a skunk.

And then, there's the caption for the ruby-throated hummingbird, which Charley Harper calls the ...fiercest, fastest, feistiest flyer in the firmament.

Not Audubon, perhaps, but pure Harper.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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