he interest just keeps growing for Charley Harper, the late Cincinnati artist whose work has become recognized as a colorfully stylized pinnacle of mid-20th-century Modernism.
Always popular in Cincinnati for his wildlife depictions, Harper died in 2007 just as national discovery of him started in earnest with the publication of Todd Oldham’s Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life.
The most significant development lately occurs at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Duke Energy Convention Center downtown. Amid much ceremony, there will be a private unveiling of the painstakingly restored “Space Walk” ceramic mural, which Harper created in 1970 for the then-new building. It was covered up and partially damaged in 1987. (Everyone will subsequently be able to see “Space Walk” whenever the Convention Center is open for public events.)But much more is happening, too. The Cincinnati Art Museum confirmed it is considering a retrospective of the work of Harper.
And Brett Harper, the son of Charley and Edie Harper who runs Charley Harper Art Studio, worked with Pomegranate Press to publish this year’s Harper Ever After: The Early Work of Charley and Edie Harper, which has an essay by local artist/writer Sara Caswell-Pearce.
Edie, herself a prolific Modernist artist, met Charley in 1940 on their first day of classes at the Art Academy. Brett is especially happy this new round of activity is elevating his mother’s profile. (She died in 2010.)
“I always felt she was forced as a homemaker to compromise her own creative career,” he says. “I feel I want to help her — not that she’s here to appreciate it — to rectify that imbalance. I feel they were toe-to-toe the same stature of artist. But she never quite had that same opportunity.”
The mural restoration, which has cost approximately $300,000, will make “Space Walk” one of Cincinnati’s key pieces of public art. It will also be more readily accessible than Harper’s other Cincinnati ceramic mural, which depicts wildlife and is inside the Peck Federal Building. One must pass through a security system to get to it, while the Convention Center mural will be available whenever the building is open to the public.
A rare non-representational work for the artist, inspired by but not directly depicting the 1969 moonwalk by Neil Armstrong, “Space Walk” was drywalled over during a 1987 building renovation.
It is actually in two sections, each roughly 15 feet high by 30 feet wide, that sit above entry doors to an exhibition hall on the center’s Elm Street side. Each section is different, but both feature multi-colored, multi-sectioned shapes in the center of a grayish-black field.
Brett’s suspicion is that the mural’s lack of more traditional pictorial elements befuddled the Convention Center’s officials.
“I think that’s probably a pretty good guess,” he says. “I never spoke to anybody about that, but it probably didn’t fit in with somebody’s scheme of decoration. It just didn’t quite fit with what they thought it would look like.”
If that was the case, it’s not an opinion shared now by the Convention Center’s current general manager, Ric Booth, who came to the job in 2006.
“It’s actually quite expensive to get this art uncovered,” Booth says. “But it’s priceless art, and it’s going to be great for our center’s name in the convention business and in the local community. I can’t think of a better project for us than to have this local art in the building.”
Booth had heard talk of a secret mural soon after arriving at his job, but he thought it was probably an urban tale, he says. But in 2007, someone mentioned Harper’s name with it. “So I asked one of the guys who had done construction with city if there were some murals covered up and he said, ‘Yes. You’ve got two murals in there,’” Booth says.
Meanwhile, around that same time, Brett had written to Duke Energy inquiring about the mural. That inquiry made its way to Booth. “When Todd Oldham did his book Illustrated Life, one of the things we put in there was some photographs of the mural,” Brett says. “It resurrected our memories of it and the fact it had been covered up for so long. I thought, ‘Let’s see if it can possibly be uncovered again.’ ”
That put the idea of restoration in motion, but it took a few more years to happen. Last year, David Smith — a board member of cf3, a Cincinnati group that promotes Modernist design — approached City Councilmember Chris Seelbach about “Space Walk.”
“Within a few days of my having met with Chris, he and I met with Ric Booth for the first time,” Smith says. “And prior to the meeting, Ric had somebody at the facility open up a small hole in the wall. He put each of us on a lift separately to look through a hole and we saw the mural.”
When the Hamilton County Convention Facilities Authority sought City Council permission to reissue an existing bond to generate $5 million for various improvements, Seelbach got Council to earmark $195,000 of that revenue to go for mural restoration.
The ordinance allowed the amount to change as needed. And as contractors removed materials that obstructed the mural, including a lowered ceiling, the price climbed. The bottom 10 inches of mosaic tiles on both murals had been removed — and subsequently misplaced — during the 1987 remodeling, and Koverman Mosaics, a Cincinnati studio, had to replace them. John and Marcia Koverman also had to fill in some holes drilled into the murals to place conduits in 1987.
“We’ve gotten so much interest in this from folks that have encouraged us,” Booth says. “We’re so excited about this opportunity to showcase our center and our Charley Harper art. The only thing that could make it better would be if Harper could have been here for this.”
Charley Harper’s SPACE WALK mural will be unveiled in a private ceremony Tuesday at the Duke Energy Convention Center and will subsequently be on view during the center’s hours for public events including the Greater Cincinnati Holiday Market Nov. 13-15 and the All Star Challenge Nov. 20-22.