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Thinking the World of Birds

An interview with artist Charley Harper

It was an event we had anticipated for two years: the unveiling of a new painting that Charley Harper created especially for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. On November 16, 2005, more than 100 people joined Charley in the auditorium at the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity to celebrate his acrylic painting, "We Think the World of Birds."

"This has to be the capstone of my career, and I can't tell you how flattered I am to be here," Charley Harper remarked at the unveiling. "I am sitting in this room, surrounded by Louis Agassiz Fuertes' paintings and filled with awe and humility because he was the first artist who did birds so well." After a pause, he added, "Of course, I'd never do it that way myself."

This combination of humility and irreverence is what makes Charley Harper's work, and Charley Harper himself, so appealing and likable. He describes his style as "minimal realism," a term he coined himself. His works distill reality by reducing his subjects to the simplest possible visual terms. Many of his works include entertaining commentaries that focus the viewer's eye on the pun embedded in his work. I was honored to be able to visit with Charley at his studio to talk about his work.

"We Think the World Of Birds" is available as a poster ($25) from Wild Birds Unlimited at Sapsucker Woods (877) 266-4928,

What inspired the concept for "We Think the World of Birds?"

Well, interestingly that came to me the first night when I visited the Lab in 2003. I stayed at a nearby motel, but I don't think I slept all night long. I was trying to think of ideas and I finally came up with the clincher: "We think the world of birds."

It seemed to say two things at the same time, both of which are important to the Lab. One is that we like birds--we're fond of them, we like them in our backyards, we just enjoy living with them. But the other is we do research on birds. To me, this said both of those things at the same time.

After that it was a matter of illustrating that idea. It occurred to me that I could make the world the shape of an egg, and then make the trees upside-down eggs--a visual pun. After that, there was just the matter of putting in the birds. Most were recommended by the Lab, but not all. Some are ones I wanted to put in, but I didn't tell them!

Your works portray the essence of birds so well. Are you a bird watcher?

Over time I have developed an enjoyment of birds. After I found out what a feeding station was, I got one and started drawing birds. But they wouldn't sit still. I found a bird guide by Don Eckelberry and realized that was all I needed--those birds didn't move. I'm the world's worst bird watcher. That's my dirty little secret. I do all my bird watching in bird guides. Usually, before I start painting I look at how everyone else has interpreted birds. If I can, I do look at birds. (I will even stoop to do that sometimes!) I have trouble seeing how birds look from below, so I also use study skins.

In the early '60s I was asked by Golden Press to illustrate the Golden Book of Biology, which was published in 1961, followed by The Animal Kingdom, published in 1968. This was my first education in nature, and it's gone on from there. Now I read about birds and watch them around my house.

I love the unique and entertaining essays that accompany your works. When did you develop this style?

I started doing captions when I was working for the Ford Times magazine in the 1950s. The first one or two groups of birds--backyard birds and maybe the next one--were written by E. B. White. He didn't want to do them anymore, so they asked if I would like to. I took off from his style, then added my own awful puns, too. They loved them. And that's how it came about that I was a writer.

Tern, Stones, and Turnstones
(1982 serigraph)

published in Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper, 1994, Flower Valley Press, Gaithersburg, Maryland

If you?re terned off--I mean, "turned" off--by puns, don't go away. The ol' punster has terned (make that "turned") over a new leaf. I promise not to punctuate this paragraph with such punishments as no stone unterned, no U-terns--no more awful puns. Just the facts: a Roseate Tern and some Ruddy Turnstones share a pebbly beach along the ? WAIT! I CAN'T STAND IT ANY LONGER! Ternabout's fair play. No terning back now. The ol' punster has passed the point of no retern.

--Charley Harper

I've always enjoyed puns--they are the purest form of creativity. Taking two words never connected, and making a new creation--that equals creation at its purest. I'm constantly thinking of puns all the time. If it's a good pun, I'll make a picture for it. Sometimes I will wake up at 3:00 a.m. with an idea for a pun and write it down. Later, I may turn that pun into a painting.

What is your process for creating a painting?

I start with a sketch. For the Lab's painting, I cut out a lot of bird shapes and pushed them around until I was sure they were where I wanted them to be. This let me try different combinations and different compositions very easily, and then, when I finally decided where to put them, I stuck them down with rubber cement. That gave me the basis for the painting. The problem is that I kept wanting to make changes and every time I did that it added another hour or two to the process. I tried so hard to make this painting the best thing I've ever done, which is a measure of how important it is to me.

Crow in the Snow
(1973 serigraph)

published in Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper, 1994, Flower Valley Press, Gaithersburg, Maryland

Crows are black birds and blackbirds are also, but a crow in the snow is so much the more so. If you're pro-crow you proclaim his intellect, his resourcefulness, and the visual poetry of his somber silhouette on the calligraphy of the cornfield. But if it's your cornfield, you have good caws to compose creative crowfanities when he arrives. Think of it as sharecropping: he gets the grasshoppers, you get the corn, and the few ears missed in the harvest are held in, well--escrow.

--Charley Harper

Charley continues to paint at his studio near Cincinnati, Ohio. He has recently completed an anti-sprawl polemic called "Coming Soon--Quail Valley Condos" that is a comment on the fact that we usually name our developments after the creatures we destroy to build them, and "Can You Hear Me Now?" a painting about what can happen to you if you talk on your cell phone while driving.

A biography of Charley Harper by Todd Oldham will be published this year by Regan Books/Harper Collins, and will include a nearly complete catalog of all his work. The publisher will also reissue Harper's 1974 book, Birds and Words.

Diane Tessaglia-Hymes is the Lab?s senior graphic designer.


For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email:

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