A look into the life and love of Cincinnati-based modernist artists Charley and Edie Harper.
Sometimes, when you look deep enough into a couple’s past, the seminal moments seem to almost come alive, fall all about you like black-and-white photographs from a lost era:
Two kids in the 1940s sit next to each other on the first day of a life drawing class at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Charley Harper, the son of a farmer from rural West Virginia, has just moved to Cincinnati to attend the Art Academy. He chose the Art Academy over another school because he thought the girl on the cover of the Academy’s brochure was pretty. He sits next to a young Wyoming High School grad, Edie McKee. They meet.
“They just were in time with each other,” says Chip Doyle, curator of the Harper estate. “You get a sense that once they connected, they were always together and in each other’s hearts.”
A world war breaks out and the couple is split apart as Charley enters the conflict, becoming an Army scout. From the battlefield, he sketches his version of what he sees. Back home, Edie puts her studies on hold to help the American effort by taking photographs for the Army Corps of Engineers.
After the war, the Harpers returned to their studies—and each other—at the Art Academy.
Charley wins a traveling art scholarship, and he and Edie marry in 1947 and turn the scholarship into a six-month-long cross-country honeymoon. Side by side, they venture from one coast to the other, drawing, painting, and photographing their way across the American landscape. Charley sharpens his style: How do you fit a mountain range onto a single sheet of paper? You don’t. You simplify it; pare the shapes down to their stunning essentials. Edie keeps an illustrated journal. Decades from now, after both have passed away, some of Edie’s fascinating art-dabbled honeymoon letters can still be found in Charley’s studio.
“They enjoyed each other’s muse,” Doyle says. “They complimented each other. They leveled each other out.”
The couple returns home and maintains studios in the basement of Edie’s parents’ home in Roselawn. Their son, Brett—who will also grow up to be an artist and writer—is born in 1953. Eventually, the Harpers commission young University of Cincinnati architect grad Rudy Hermes to build them a mid-century modern house in Finneytown. The house gives Charley two stories of windows to the natural world of the forest in his backyard. He takes jobs as a commercial artist to support the family, creating images for magazines such as Ford Times and Writer’s Digest, books such as The Golden Book of Biology, and honing his unique American modernist style. Edie creates art in a variety of mediums, and the two work closely out of their home, helping each other when they get stuck, cheering each other on.
“They both regarded each other as equals,” Doyle says. “It was a family of art.”
Today, walking into the Harper house is a bit like walking into either of the artists’ brilliant paintings—or the minds of the artists themselves. Past a long, hidden driveway and into the woods atop a hill, you’ll find lively color palettes and striking geometric shapes. Retro furnishings. A vast stockpile of art and botany books. Quirky handmade creatures. Hanging glass birds. Vintage chessboards. Original paintings. Charley and Edie’s studios. The Harpers’ two cats, Gussy and Snowy, who still roam the house.
Hidden within a cabinet next to the refrigerator, there’s a tiny white button. Edie opens the cabinet and pushes it so it rings in Charley’s studio to let him know supper is ready.
“They finished each other’s sentences,” Doyle says. “They were just in sync.”
Charley died in 2007, and Edie—his “most-respected critic”—passed away in 2010. But sometimes—if you sift through their photographs, walk through their house, and discover treasures such as Edie’s small box of woven cats, take in their lifetime of famous art at an exhibition, see Charley’s desk in his studio, with its paints still scattered all about—the past comes to life.
And it’s almost as if they just left.
THE GLASS SLIPPER FITS
One of Edie’s “Cinderella” works. Curator of the Harper Estate, Chip Doyle, likens the Harpers to the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of the art world. “Two artists find each other, get married, have a child,” he says. “It’s just the storybook tale.”
CHARLEY AND EDIE HARPER
In addition to painting, Edie tended to explore more mediums—enamel, acrylics, and in this piece, cross-stitching. “They loved each other’s works,” Doyle says. “They absolutely celebrated each other’s works.”
Charley and Edie with their son, Brett. Brett, an artist today, learned to silk-screen by watching his parents at work in the basement.
Edie’s loom, which she used to make woven textiles. “She could do anything,” Doyle says.
INSIDE THE ARTIST'S STUDIO
Charley’s studio, across a small courtyard from the house. These days, it contains some of his original work, busts of Edie and himself, prints, and numerous odds and ends. It’s also where Edie’s secret doorbell would ring.
Charley and Edie’s charming riff on “American Gothic.” Doyle says the photo was likely taken in the ‘90s. “They both had an awesome sense of humor and a sweetness to them,” he says.
WHERE THE HEART IS
The house tells the story of their relationship and the decades that followed: honeymoon mementos; Edie’s studio downstairs; a giant image of one of Charley’s famous ladybugs. One of the house’s most striking features is the giant glass window set that offers an uninhibited view of the wilderness beyond. Not a bad feature if some of your primary subject matter happens to be nature, as was Charley’s.
A painting Charley did of the Harper house. Like much of his art, Charley’s home was created in a minimalist style. The Harpers told Hermes they wanted simple, clean design, then set him free to plan the house. “They made it a nice environment to entertain small groups of friends, artists and whatnot,” Doyle says.
Charley and Edie both loved cats, and their two felines, Snowy and Gussy, still call the Harper house home. Here, Gussy sits on a cardinal quilt that was gifted to the Harpers.
All interior and exterior house shots provided by RVP Photography. All personal photos and photos of works provided by the Charley Harper Estate.