Saturday morning, pastries spread on a table, nametags inscribed and stuck to breasts. Thea, Jane, Chris. Nice to meet you. We hold cups of chain coffee and discuss the things we know we have in common: architecture, modern houses, art.
Our host counts heads. He tells us we're heading through his yard, past makeshift fountains made from water pumps and barrels holding overflow from last night's rainstorm, into the neighboring driveway to Charley's house out back. Everyone here knows Charley by just one name: Madonna, Cher, Charley. To our host, he was a good friend; he wishes they'd had more time together, before. Before? Well. Our feet squish in the grass. I skirt a dead garter snake on the driveway and warn the woman behind me (her nametag reads "Meg") of its presence: "Dead snake..." She hops over it nimbly. We're all so excited. Nimble. Dead snakes are nothing. There are no bad omens in dead snakes. ("Watch where you walk.")
We're heading to Charley's house.
Charley and Edie
"Charley Harper (1922 – 2007) was a Cincinnati-based American Modernist artist. He was best known for his highly stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations. While at the [Art Academy of Cincinnati], Charley met fellow artist Edie Mckee (1922 - 2010), whom he would marry shortly after graduation in 1947." (Wikipedia)
"With Charley’s scholarship and Edie’s car, the newly-married couple spent six months on an extended honeymoon. They painted, sketched and photographed throughout the West and South. They even met Edward Weston and his cats in California. The trip inspired both of them throughout their careers." ("Charlie and Edie," Codex 99)
"'We took four months, camping often to make the money last, absorbing the feel of the vast landscapes of the plains, the Rockies, the desert. I had begun to lose interest in realism after several years of preoccupation with it. I felt fettered by the laws of perspective and shading and decided that the constant attempt to create the illusion of three dimensions on the two-dimensional plane was limiting.'" (Charley's Story)
"In 1958 the Harpers built a mid-century modern home in the middle of the woods in Finneytown. Cutting edge by the day’s standards, lean and spare like his artwork, the home was a laboratory in nature, the perfect setting for Charley’s observations and research." (Nina Kieffer, House Trends)
"'I'm the world's worst bird watcher. That's my dirty little secret.'" (Charley Harper interview with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
"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." (Zachary Petit, A-line Magazine)
Two year ago, almost to the day, I picked up a book of Charley Harper's illustrations at The Strand in New York. Charley Harper had long been a presence in my life; the cardinals in the background, hung on people's walls, adorning their bookshelves and their coffee mugs. I'd been eyeing the book for months if not years, but hadn't been able to afford it until that moment. That very moment.
In that book, between colorful shapes and lines and circles representing the entire animal kingdom, I spotted a picture of Charley standing next to a wooden fence in paint smeared pants, green hostas and buckeyes and maples at his back. His hand is to his eyes, he's looking up, as if the photographer instructed the self-described world's worst birdwatcher to pretend he'd spotted a bird.
I saw that picture and said to J: I want to live in Charley Harper's house.
That Saturday we found a house for sale down the hill from the Harpers' house in Cincinnati, a house with windows overlooking the wildnerness behind it (the email I sent to my mom with a link to the house is titled "THE HOUSE OF OUR DREAMS"); by the following Wednesday we'd put an offer on it. That August we moved into our new home. I looked at the cardinals frolicking in the wilderness outside our giant windows and remarked that they might be relatives of the cardinals Charley once drew.
The house of our dreams.
And Then We Met the Architect
Rudy Hermes was dressed in khakis, perched on a chair in Charley's studio, waiting for our questions. On the table before him was a placard showing the house he'd designed for an architecture competition that won him a trip around the world, as well as a case displaying the Ford Times illustrations he worked on with Charley.
"'Keep it simple,'" Charley had instructed Rudy when he'd asked him to design their house on a lot in these steep forested hills. Rudy tapped one of the illustrations in the case: "That's the one I originally did for Charley, but we never did a budget to see if it would work."
"Did anyone ever ask you to do one of these after this came out?"
"Well I'll take one." I asked him if he was still working, but he tapped his knee and explained that since its replacement he hadn't really been able to work the way he wanted to.
And so I thanked him for the work he had done. Told him that if he hadn't built this house for Charley, and if we hadn't seen a picture of it in that book, we wouldn't be where we are now. "And we're so happy," I concluded, "so thank you for making that possible."
A List of Things I Meant Note in Charley and Edie Harper's House (But Didn't)
- What radio station the little boombox was tuned to in Charley's studio.
- What books had bookmarks in them and where. And why.
- What they kept on their bedside tables.
- What the ceilings were made of. How they cleaned the tops of their windows.
- Where Edie preferred to sit: outside or in; upstairs or down.
A List of Things I Did Note
- The bits of shell and rock and wood collected in a planter near the doorway.
- The rubber waders and fishing net, empty and unused, leaned up against the rear of the house.
- The plants and tools resting on a wooden shelf out back, tools for poking in the dirt, excavating.
- The look on Edie's face in her portrait hung next to Charley's in the downstairs gallery: knowing, confident, appreciating, discerning.
- The glass ornaments strung from every window: ladybugs, birds.
- The lids to ice cream pots used by Charley for paint palettes.
- The sketches of cardinals on tracing paper pinned to the underside of his shelves.
- The cushioned bench next to the window within arm's reach of the desk in the studio; how easy the window looked to open and let the breeze in.
- The low branches visible just outside, good for watching how birds flew, and perched, and landed.
- The framed reminder above the stairs to his studio basement: "Be Sloppy." (It was J who pointed out the one below it, the one we presumed was Edie's reminder: "You Are.")
Is Cleanliness Next to Charleyness?
I came home and started to clean my house, suddenly aware of how it might look to other people if I were to suddenly die.
"I wonder if he left his studio that night saying 'you know, I should really clean up this desk tomorrow.' And then never got the chance."
Then I remembered the framed reminder: "Be Sloppy." And considered for a moment putting everything back the way it was.
I know he wasn't talking about housekeeping, but rather about being loose and free with your art. I know he wasn't talking about chores, but process. But there's something in the mantra of "Be Sloppy" that can be extended to other moments of life: the moments when you judge yourself too harshly, when you're stuck, when you're afraid that you'll make mistakes or not do something properly, so you don't do it at all. When you've found yourself suddenly too rigid, too "fettered by the laws of perspective," too bound by expectations that you never venture to veer off the path, outside of the lines. When you're too busy subsisting, toeing the line, obeying laws of shading to realize you'd rather be elsewhere. Doing other things. When you are so busy looking at the road ahead that you nearly step on the dead snake right there under foot. Be Sloppy.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.