Charles Harper’s Birds & Words (Charley Harper)

birdwords8090Charles Harper’s Birds & Words [LibraryThing / WorldCat] is a collection of about five dozen bird prints originally published by the Ford Motor Company in the 1950s and reprinted in a very limited edition twenty years later. Now, a year after Harper’s death, his paintings are gathered together again.

Working in a self-described “minimal realism” style, Charley Harper simplified each bird’s shape but remained faithful to its personality and colors. He skimmed over distracting details to capture the broad spirit of his subjects. “I just count the wings, not the feathers,” he said.

Sometimes the effect was remarkable. One painting, for instance, centered upon a simple red teardrop with a touch of black. The combination of colors and shape became the unmistakable image of a cardinal. In another composition, hair-thin lines drawn against a pale lavender sky were enough to imply the motion of scissor-tailed flycatcher wings as the bird chased a butterfly. I particularly liked the grace and color of Harper’s blackburnian warbler.

A couple times, Harper took the minimalism too far for my tastes. He reduced a family of chickadees to black triangles circumscribed within ten white circles. The effect was far too abstract for those cute little avian missles flying around my back yard.

The “words” in the title refer to the simple text, usually a witty paragraph, that Harper included with each print — from his intentionally preposterous 22-word mnemonic for remembering the name of the puffin, to his ironic take on the natural world: “The barn owl is a murderer, say we who constantly strive to build a better mousetrap.”

Explaining the dab of black on the red teardrop cardinal that I mentioned earlier, Harper asked us to “excuse the napkin under the chin — no lap.”

Fifty years after its contents were created, this small book of illustrations is to be enjoyed. This is not a field guide to birds. It’s more of a modest armchair tribute to them.

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