In 1986 the United States National Park Service commissioned Charley Harper to create a painting that captured the abundance and variety of flora and fauna residing in the American deserts. The piece titled The Desert was one of ten illustrations dedicated to the natural beauty of the American national parks.
Harper’s distinctive style promoted a sense of excitement and joy, inviting the viewer into the artwork and on an adventure to explore all of its hidden secrets. Each animal and plant have its purpose in the piece, the straight lines direct your eye from one creature to the next. When admiring one of Harper’s pieces, I often find my eyes traveling diagonally across the painting, back and forth, searching for something different, as if a new animal has emerged and joined the others.
The Desert - Charley Harper 1986
The Desert has a special sense of nostalgia for me. As a child, my parents had a large print of the painting displayed in the house. I remember my father holding me up as I pointed to the different birds perched on the saguaro cactus. As a little kid, I was drawn to the foreground with all of the bright colors and the easily identifiable animals. However, as I got older, I began to notice all of the quiet details incorporated into the background. As night in the desert begins, the only thing standing out from the shadows and sand are the glowing yellow eyes.
When I was nine years old my parents took me on a trip to Arizona. I remember avidly searching for animals that I might recognize from the painting. I saw plenty of cacti. I pointed out countless birds that to nine-year-old me all looked like they were from the picture. I even attempted to catch a lizard that I could have sworn was on there somewhere. Yet, what stuck with me the most was not what I could see but what I had heard.
At night, I went out with my dad searching for more animals from the illustration. It is very dark in the desert after the sun goes down and there were no glowing yellow eyes like I expected. The desert was alive with unseen creatures, hiding right in front of me, obscured by the darkness. A chorus of animal calls filled the air. I may not have been able to see the animals from my favorite painting, but they could certainly see me.
Over the next 10 years I would travel to numerous national parks. I have visited Yellowstone, Yosemite, The Grand Tetons, The Rocky Mountains, and The Dry Tortugas. Each of these locations exemplifies natural beauty and hosts a plethora of wildlife. Most importantly, in my opinion, each of these locations preserves a sense of adventure.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, once said, “Life is a great adventure… accept it in such spirit.” I believe that Charley Harper captured the essence of adventure in his paintings. At a glance, his art may appear overwhelming but to me, that’s what makes it so exciting. Life should be an adventure. It should overwhelm you. You should have to search for the hidden treasures and enjoy the journey that search takes you on.
A picture my younger sister took on our hike around the Grand Prismatic Spring in YellowStone.
I’ve found that nature has a way of unifying people under a sense of discovery and adventure. I was very fortunate to have met David and Corey. Two individuals united in a mission to transform the world through nature. Something as simple as a straw made from grass has pulled together people from around the world.
I would like you to take a moment to look closely at the photograph of The Desert and single out one animal. Charley Harper’s paintings are very distinctive, as each animal consists of overlapping shapes filled with solid colors. Parallel lines and dots make up the rest of the detail. Harper’s art style is simple, yet, when you collect the different animals and plants together, they tell a story all on their own. This is what I found during my time with Strawlific. A simple product, with a simple goal, but a piece of a much larger adventure.
The world is massive, and life is short. If you look for the hidden details, you will be pleasantly surprised by the journey they take you on. I have four prints of Charley Harper’s National Parks Collection hung in my room. Of the four, I have visited all but one. The Desert hangs next to my bed. I find myself looking to it when I need motivation. Nature has a funny way of teaching us so much without ever having to say a word. Whether it’s a painting of birds on a cactus or a trek around the world, find what drives you. Adventure is out there for those who seek it.
A photograph of myself on an excursion to a small coral reef in Key West Florida.