Charley Harper’s mural Untitled (American Wildlife), 1964, John Weld Peck Federal Building, Cincinnati

Looking for a good chuckle? Step into the John Weld Peck Federal Building in downtown Cincinnati, where, after passing through the metal detector and enduring an invasive pat-down, you’ll encounter heavily armed guards who’ll inquire about your purpose. That’s when you can surprise them by saying you’re there to admire the mosaic behind them. In my experience, it tends to evoke a fair amount of confusion.

From their vantage point, you catch a glimpse of one of the two sections of Charley Harper’s brilliant 36-ft mosaic mural, Untitled (American Wildlife), 1964, sometimes referred to as the ‘Tree of Life.’ Harper, a renowned illustrator, crafted three such murals during his lifetime, one located in Pearson Hall at Miami University in Oxford, and another that was hidden behind drywall for years in the Duke Energy Convention Center. His distinctive art, characterized by highly stylized interpretations of nature and wildlife, with bold lines and geometric shapes, proved ideal for translating into one-inch ceramic tiles, simplifying the imagery into triangles, squares, and lines.

While Harper’s mosaic work may not have gained the same recognition as his illustrations, this may be attributed to matters of accessibility and proximity, as one must visit Queen City to fully appreciate them. Nevertheless, his mosaics constitute an essential and valuable part of comprehending the versatility of his artistic legacy.

Born on August 4, 1922, in Frenchton, West Virginia, Harper’s upbringing significantly shaped his artistic sensibilities. Growing up on a farm in the Appalachian foothills, he once remarked, ‘When there was hay to be stacked or corn to be weeded, I did some of my best roaming, for I disliked farm chores immensely.’ Instead, he spent that time cultivating a profound appreciation for nature and wildlife, themes that would later become central to his work. He was equally captivated by the simple elegance of shapes and forms in his surroundings, a hallmark of his artistic style.

After enrolling at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Harper’s artistic journey took an unexpected turn when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He served as a reconnaissance scout on the front lines in France and Germany. Remarkably, even during wartime, his passion for drawing persisted, with the unit’s chaplain shouldering Harper’s art kit into battle. Upon his return from the war, he furthered his education at the Art Students League in New York, ultimately graduating in 1947.

Upon settling back into life in Cincinnati, he refined a style he described as ‘minimal realism.’ Harper possessed a remarkable ability to distill complex subjects into simple yet precise, elegant shapes and patterns while preserving the essence of the subject matter. His clean lines and limited color palette conveyed a sense of clarity and purity in his illustrations.

Some of his most renowned works emerged from a series of commissions for Ford Times, a monthly magazine produced by Ford Motor Co., promoting cross-country travel by car. The Harper family would load up their Country Squire station wagon and set off to various destinations, be it the coast of Maine, the wilds of Tennessee, or the majestic Rocky Mountains, wherever the assignment took them. Harper’s role was to depict wildlife and natural scenes with a playful and abstract style, capturing the essence of each subject with remarkable simplicity.

Harper had a gift for portraying animals, plants, and ecosystems in a manner that celebrated their inherent beauty and harmony. His illustrations were not mere depictions but invitations to explore and appreciate the natural world. Although his works exuded warmth and lightheartedness, Harper used his art to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and environmental preservation. He pondered profound questions such as, ‘Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain?’ His illustrations often featured birds, insects, and other wildlife, conveying a sense of wonder and reverence for the interconnectedness of life on Earth.

From the charm of the Snowy Owl to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s swift wings, the Harlequin Stinkbug’s finesse, the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, and the Redear Sunfish, Harper’s art beautifully captured the diversity of the natural world.

Back to the Federal Building, where Untitled (American Wildlife) by Harper offers a unique perspective. It’s as if Harper, working as a wildlife biologist, brought a menagerie of 101 animals from land, air, and water to life on a wall that seemingly stretches endlessly. These creatures, ranging from big to small, extremely cute to potentially dangerous, are depicted in a flat, forward-facing manner, each bursting with its own unique character. The mural, positioned at eye level, emphasizes the intricate and complex interconnectedness of all living things. It reminds us that every species plays a vital role in maintaining the balance and health of ecosystems, contributing to the well-being of the planet as a whole.