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    By Sean Patrick Hill

    When I lived in Crescent Hill, I often visited a small antique dealer just off Frankfort Avenue. In the back of the historic building, the owner would lift a garage door, revealing an assortment of furnishings. It was there I first saw the painting leaning against a cabinet.

    Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was not a painting of cedar waxwings but a print, a photo-offset lithograph produced on finely made paper, signed in ink by the artist, Ray Harm. Set in a gold-toned frame, under a canvas matting, the 16-by-20-inch image was remarkably intact, despite a spare amount of sun damage.

    In the image, two birds perch in what appears to be a chokecherry tree, set against an entirely white background, perhaps a nod to Chinese painting. Each bird is rendered precisely: the belly’s yellow wash, the red tips on secondary feathers, the white-bordered black masks, the russet-colored crests. The branch is no less articulated; even some of the leaves are curled, broken, torn. One of the birds squeezes a berry in its beak. I had seen waxwings only once in Kentucky, a small band in the trees around Waverly Lake in a park in southwest Louisville.

    I turned over the frame, which had been stamped with the date of the framing — Nov. 6, 1968 — and found, tattered but still affixed to the paper backing, a text by Ray Harm. “None of the birds I know,” he wrote, “has the silky, fine, satin-like plumage equal to the waxwing. A more handsome bird, in my opinion, cannot be found.” Standing among the antiques, I took out my phone and did a bit of research on the artist. The print itself dates to 1968 — hence, it was in its original frame — and was one of an edition of 5,000. They originally sold for $20, and I paid some $60 for it. I hung it in my living room above the coal fireplace.

    In time, I found more Ray Harm prints. They often show up in antique malls but are also widely available on sites like eBay and Etsy. In a since-closed used bookstore on Bardstown Road, I discovered a lovely image of a northern cardinal on a sunflower. (Cardinals, Kentucky’s state bird, were a perennial favorite for Harm.) I found a print of the Carolina wren, native to the state. Later, a friend gave me a print of three warblers.

    I doubt many outside Kentucky have heard of Ray Harm, save the few states where he lived for a time, including Arizona, where he died. Harm’s daughter, Linda Stampf, told the Courier-Journal after her father died in 2015: “His career became a rags-to-riches story.”

     

    On a stormy day in late May, I visited the Filson Historical Society on South Third Street to see its Ray Harm materials. When I told the man in the lobby what I was researching, he commented on the popularity of Harm’s prints.

    David J. Wagner, a former executive director of the Kentucky Derby Museum, published an article in the Filson Club History Quarterly in 1998 that offers details about Harm’s life, which began in Appalachian West Virginia. After a stint out West as a teenager — working as a cowboy in Wyoming, competing on the rodeo circuit as a bull rider and training horses for the Ringling Bros. Circus when it was still held under a tent — Harm served in the U.S. Navy for four years during World War II as a radio operator. Under the aegis of the GI Bill, he took classes in commercial art, completing coursework in Ohio’s now-defunct Cooper School of Art and, later, at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He married and built a six-room house out of sugar maple logs in the woods east of Cleveland. He painted, harboring his dream of sustaining himself through sales of his art while working as a truck driver as well as a horse trainer and ditchdigger. Sales were infrequent, and despite a few showings of his work, his reputation grew slowly. He struggled this way for nearly a decade and, when offered a job as a foreman on a ranch in New Mexico, he accepted.

    Things began to change for Harm in the 1960s. In a pamphlet written in 1962, University of Kentucky President Frank G. Dickey extolled Harm’s “genius.” “Ray Harm’s name is looming large on the horizon of wildlife art in America,” he wrote. “I predict that his will be one of the most famous in an area of art which is gaining more and more recognition the world over.”

    A year earlier, Dickey and Wood Hannah, an Oldsmobile dealer and art collector who lived in Louisville, noticed Harm’s watercolor paintings while vacationing in Florida. Hannah, deeply impressed, went to Geauga County, Ohio, outside Cleveland, to visit Harm. A former investment banker, Hannah commissioned Harm to paint some 20 Kentucky birds. He also persuaded Harm to move to Kentucky, and he introduced him to Gov. Bert T. Combs, who ended up appointing Harm as an official naturalist and lecturer for the state park system.

    Harm settled first in Berea and later built a house in Nelson County that bordered Bernheim Arboretum, where he frequently went birdwatching. In 1962, he and Hannah founded Ray Harm Wildlife Art Inc. That same year, Harm was commissioned to paint a pair of bald eagles, the original of which was given to President John F. Kennedy. After Harm was appointed the artist-in-residence at the University of Kentucky in 1963, WHAS named him Kentucky’s “Man of the Year” in 1964.

    Harm and Hannah’s company rapidly expanded and became Frame House Gallery Publishing Inc., located on East Market Street. Frame House, which helped Cincinnati wildlife artist Charley Harper produce more than 100 serigraphs, grew into a nearly $3-million business before it sold in 1974 to a Chicago ad agency.

    The owner of the bookstore where I bought the cardinal print was somewhat dismissive of Harm’s tendency, as he saw it, to overprint and thus lower the value of his art. But Harm and Hannah are credited with cultivating the idea of the limited-edition art print, which has since become an industry that many artists subscribe to. (Even photographer Ansel Adams took advantage of the poster reproductions of his work, his attitude being that the public should have access to fine art.) Some Harm editions, like the American redstart or the black-throated blue warbler, had print runs of up to 7,500 copies. In Wagner’s article, he argues that Harm and Hannah managed to resurrect wildlife art in America. They went on to print other wildlife artists until market saturation collapsed the endeavor.

    Harm painted nearly 150 different birds and was awarded six honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Louisville. He wrote a weekly nature column for the Louisville Times, authored two sketchbooks (including one from Africa) and illustrated two others. Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Eastern Kentucky, where he was a resident naturalist and lecturer, houses a gallery of all 180 of Harm’s prints.

    For all of that, Harm remains something of a forgotten wonder, like a birdsong one hears at the edge of the yard while busy with other things. Harm eventually moved with his wife Cathy, a polymer clay artist, to Arizona, where he went on to paint desert birds like the cactus wren and the Gambel’s quail.

     

    The librarian at the Filson brought me, in several rounds, the Ray Harm prints from the collection, some made from original watercolors owned by Hannah himself, including a pair of cardinals on a dogwood branch, flowers in bloom and a ladybug hovering in flight. One shows a collection of ground birds (sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasant); not only are the birds distinctive, but so is the morel mushroom growing beside a rotting log.

    On the slip that accompanies the bald eagle print from 1967, Harm notes that, by that time, the largest populations were found only in Alaska and Florida — a fact that has since changed. Once again, eagles frequent Kentucky.

    Looking at a watercolor painting of a great horned owl, I understood Frank Dickey’s reaction to Harm’s paintings: “They were so lifelike that one wanted to feel the feathers to see if they were real,” he wrote in his 1962 pamphlet, “and one could almost believe that the birds would move or fly away.”

    Harm deplored drawing birds from photographs or tracing. On the website that his widow, Cathy, maintains, he described his process this way: “I believe by the tracing or copying of photos, the artist misrepresents his or her finished work to the public since the camera provides the primary image automatically. In conceptual free-hand art, one should have a knowledge of light and how it creates form, perspective, anatomy, proportion and an immense amount of practice, which, more often than not, takes years to accomplish.”

    He saw himself as a “purist.” As a child, he says, he was “amazed” by Renaissance and Impressionist painters, and it stimulated in him the urge to be an artist himself. In an interview for the television program Kentucky Afield, Harm recounted that, as a child in the West Virginia mountains, he drew constantly, immersed in nature, his nearest neighbor some 11 miles away. His father, a concert violinist and herbalist, taught him to be a naturalist, and later in life, with his own son, Hap, he disappeared into the wilderness for weeks at a time to observe animals, building a blind to watch from, as his father had taught him.

    Even as a young man, working in the West, Harm preferred the outdoors. “While hitchhiking or riding stock outfits I was always close to the thing I still love best, the open sky,” he says in Dickey’s pamphlet. “I could watch prairie chickens courting at daybreak in one state and in the same week catch a sight of mountain quail.”

    To draw the birds, Harm recounts in the pamphlet, he studied their “gestures, habits, and flight abilities.” One of the main problems for the wildlife artist, he states, was anatomy. Birds, of course, are nearly constantly in movement, and sketching an entire bird could prove impossible. Instead, he would focus on parts of a bird, perfecting, say, the leg, or the colors of a feather.

    A few years after his death, I was searching through an antique mall in an old lumber mill in Madison, Indiana. I immediately recognized Harm’s style in a portrait, hung from a beam, of a wood thrush perched on a rhododendron leaf.

     

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Bird By Bird.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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