Diane Harper’s (b. 1962, Palm Springs) childhood was one of a nomadic Military dependent. She lived amidst the shadow of the Cold War of the 60’s and 70’s in Europe and the US. Growing up with her French mother added a layer of richness to her perspective and worldview. Her early years fostered a fascination with maps, flags, different cultures, WWII, European fairy tales, and all things French. Following her accomplishment as a career social worker, Harper pursued her creative passion and obtained a degree in art. She then established herself as a nexus for various innovative art projects including forming the Arkansas Society of Printmakers and organizing a weekly breakfast where artists meet to discuss and collaborate on art and art business. Some of her favorite things to do include linking artists, fostering creative collaborations, and formulating ways to exhibit art in both traditional and nontraditional venues. She lives with her husband Jim in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her paintings, mixed media, and fine art prints can be seen at Gallery 26 in Little Rock and in private collections.
Popsicle Toes (nod to Michael Franks, singer), Mixed Media on Paper, 14" x 20"
Why art? There are lots of things you can do in life, why did making art grab you and not let go?
We traveled a lot growing up, so I always carried coloring books and crayons, colored pencils, and other art supplies on planes, trains, and automobiles. We never had the luxury of private art lessons or formal training, but I always excelled in art at school and was always considered creative. Especially now, I always have to be doing something creative. When I make something, I know “I did that.” Where words fail me, I find expression in art.
At the crucial point as a teen when I had to make a decision about what direction to go in college, I thought about art school but erroneously decided it wasn’t something I could make a career of so I decided to go to school to study a social science. I didn’t take a single art class.
It wasn’t until I had already obtained a Masters degree in Social Work and established my career that I realized I wanted to pursue an art degree. I shifted my hours at work to part-time, and then took off some time to take care of my parents as they each battled cancer. Fast forward to eleven years after signing up for my first art course at UALR, I graduated with a BA in Art in Studio Art.
Yeah, it’s a question that gets asked a lot, but I’m going to ask it again: What inspires you?
It’s fascinating to me how people grow up with certain narratives and beliefs about the world at large and about whom they are in that world. As they grow older they begin to question or become curious about these narratives. It doesn’t even matter if the stories are factual, they are true for those who heard the stories and built their lives around them. I’m mining the stories from my life along with photos, maps, and other ephemera for images and places from my childhood. As an adult, I question assumptions and beliefs, looking for new ways of being and seeing.
Fairy tales inspire me. They are historically often dark cautionary tales designed to keep children safe and to pass on a moral and behavioral code. Magic both dark and light, or some sort of enchantment is a basic element in the telling. My past as a military brat living in Europe during the Cold War and all that comes with that life fills me with stories and mysteries that I try to make sense of now as an adult. There were idyllic days of playing with friends and riding bikes along a river with old medieval battlements peppering the way. Traveling along the Mosel and the Rhine rivers and exploring old castles and ruins in quaint little European towns sporting gingerbread-looking houses added to the fairy tale. Old black and white photos and old maps from my father provide imagery to remember the past. My mother’s stories of her childhood in occupied France on the French/German border, her parent’s involvement in the Resistance, and her town’s liberation by American soldiers filled my imagination with romantic notions of heroism.
A sense of the dual nature of man took root at an early age. Visiting Dachau and other Holocaust museums filled me with a sense of grief I am only now able to understand. Post WWII Berlin and the scary world of old regime Soviet guards, the Wall, tanks and weaponry, and museums dedicated to those who’ve attempted escape from the iron curtain of East Berlin all add to the sense of living in a dark fairy tale. I grew up crossing armed borders worrying about losing our dog or being detained by guards if our papers weren’t in order. To a young child, these threats seemed real, especially when the military and your parents admonished you with a strict behavioral code. Later we lived in Frankfurt during the Bader-Meinhopf Red Army Faction raids on military and American civilians. We lived under curfews and in fear of being attacked or bombed.
What do you find to be the hardest aspect to being an artist?
Getting started! Everything becomes a potential distraction. It’s like a dog that sees a squirrel; it doesn’t matter what you do to get the attention of the dog, the squirrel is all that dog sees, and off she goes to chase it! However when I finally get into a project – in the ‘Art Zone’ – it becomes difficult to stop. I don’t notice I’m hungry, thirsty, or tired. Once, I stayed in the printmaking lab for thirty-six hours, with few breaks for supplies, food and water! I can become so focused that the rest of the world just melts away.
There is a lot of other work besides making the art that is critical to success. Framing and preparing art for exhibition, promotion, and the financial aspects of being a successful artist take a tremendous amount of time and energy away from the artmaking itself. We learn through trial and error. Thankfully, programs like Artist INC have come along to address the business aspects of an artist’s training.
If you could say there is one thing that drives your creative process, what would that be?
More recently, journaling. Prior to working on an art piece, I’ve gotten into the habit of spending a few minutes writing about anything that comes to mind, as in automatic writing. After a few pages, I stop and read what I wrote and highlight phrases or sentences I like. I take those sentences and the emotions and imagery evoked in the writings and start to work. I write the text into the background. It then becomes part of the history of the piece. I pull some words through to the surface to be part of the end result, while other text is obscured. In this way, everything I make has a personal connection to my writing and my experience.
Expressive marks have always been a hallmark of my work. Whether I paint with brushes, or build up surfaces with splatters, spills, mediums, or other texture makers, or draw or sew, my marks tend to be expressive and often look somewhat accidental.
Most artists have some idea of where they are going with their work while they are creating it. However, there is always the aspect that the viewer will project their own ideas and experiences onto the work when they see it. Do you feel that you, in a sense, lose some control of the work once it is released into the wild? Is this bothersome to you?
My only wish is that somehow the viewer will have a personal connection to the work. Nothing is more gratifying than to know your work touches something deep in the person who stands before it. I always love hearing what others see. Sometimes they highlight something so obvious that I missed. I would like to be able to explain every piece of work I make to those who would listen. But sometimes it’s enough to let the work speak.
Once the work goes out into the public, the ‘conversation’ changes from a monologue between the artist and the artwork to a dialogue between the artwork and the people. I don’t have much control over the dialogue. It’s thrilling in a way to see what comes of it. People are wonderful and usually end up surprising and even delighting me with their insights.
Any ambitious or exciting projects on the horizon for you? What’s new in your career that you’re excited about and looking forward to?
I’m excited about an ongoing posthumous collaboration called, “Through His Lens” with my father who was a professional forensic photographer. He taught himself photography by taking thousands of photographs of his family. I am working with piles of his photos and transforming them through different mediums into new works of art. I also have a box of his old maps; maps that he carried in his pocket during our travels as a family. I’m studying them as artifacts of our life together. The places have all changed dramatically, but the memories remain. I enjoy reproducing them in paintings and in other mediums.
Looking through his lens, especially at his portraits of us, I see how my father really saw me and my family. I feel connected with him through art. I hope to exhibit his photographs and my artwork side by side.
I’ve started learning about and working in mixed media. It’s a natural fit for me since the examples I am looking at and studying are very personal, positive, and thoughtful and at the same time use many different mediums. It’s a very freeing experience. I have recently moved my studio and am setting up to have classes on trusting intuition to guide artmaking, particularly in mixed media.
Did you ever have that “aha!” life-changing moment with a piece of art in your formative years? What was it and how did it affect you?
In my first painting class at UALR we had the assignment of abstracting a still life that we had already painted and drawn about a half dozen times. After a day of mounting frustration and perhaps the utterance of a bad word or two, I just ‘went for it.’ I painted quickly and aggressively with different sized brushes, then went to the garbage and pulled out plastic, paper towels and other things and dragged them across the canvas a bit, scratched into the paint, made a few more marks, and declared it done. My goal was to make as many different marks as I could and as few as I could, in a balanced composition. It was the piece that began to define my style. It was expressive, had some drips and splashes, and few strokes looked alike. Afterwards, I began to study the New York School of the 1950s. There have been several other ‘firsts’ since then, but that first painting is the most significant in terms of building my confidence and direction. I became known in painting class for my brushwork.
If you had the ability to take a class or workshop with any artist, who would it be?
I’m afraid I would choose dead artists – Elane and Willem de Kooning – for a workshop. I know, I’m breaking the rules. Their artistic process, their tumultuous relationship, their peer network, and most of all the brushstrokes emblazoned in their work all fascinate me. I also want to soak in their boldness and their courage in facing a world that initially didn’t understand them or their art.
This question is sort of like the question about whom you would invite to your dream dinner party! If we had a workshop AND a dinner party, it would be amazing to invite the de Koonings, Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo, Grace Hartigan, Arshile Gorky, Henri Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and Anselm Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer – have you seen his huge mixed media pieces? They are fantastically crusty, evocative, and are personal works that have great power. He was born just after WWII but bears the marks of the war in his psyche. A work of his moves me to sit in front of it and weep.
There is the common idea of the starving artist, and this idea keeps finding traction in society today. Do you think there is any truth to it, or do you think it is mostly a myth that keeps being perpetuated by people?
I think its true of any profession where the professional is undervalued and not paid well. Artists are people pursuing a passion, and that passion doesn’t always pay for itself unless there is a patron. Many artists have other jobs to support their art careers. It’s a choice I make, working part time as a social worker. Not every artist has the same options.
I do think it’s sad when artists feel they are ‘selling out’ by working on commissions or making production type art so they can cover their costs and make a living. The work they do to make money supports and sustains them. There’s no shame in that.
I don’t believe in perpetuating romantic notions of artists as ‘starving artists.’ I do think that some societies value their artists highly and take care of them better than we do. I think other countries, for example, place a greater value on the economics of art. I’d like to see some changes in our tax code for artists. Hopefully we are realizing that artists need education in business and we can do some things to help them be more successful.
Sometimes artists feel that their studio is something of a sacred place to them. It can be very personal for them, and allowing others in can make them uncomfortable. Is your studio like this? How do you see your studio or workspace?
I need both my alone time in my own space and I need time where I have people visiting or working with me in the studio. I am fortunate to have a space at home and a studio space outside my home that I share with another artist. I thrive on collaboration and shy away from competition. Ideas multiply in the sharing.
I’m working on a curriculum for teaching mixed media and classes on trusting and tapping into creative intuition. I love seeing artists and nonartists involved in making works of art from their own experience. I love to see the lights go on in someone’s eyes and their huge smile when they create something they’re proud of.
Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions Diane!