Bay Is Once Again The Backdrop For Artist's Life And Work

February 06, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

In winter when the trees are bare Neil Harpe can see the Chesapeake Bay from his front window. From the room where he keeps his art supplies and his drawing table, he can look out and see the water behind black tree branches.

The bay makes a backdrop for Harpe's life onceagain, as it did when he was growing up in Annapolis. But even though Harpe was away from the shore for more than 20 years, the bay continued to command his attention. Soon it took over his artwork, inspiring lithographs of skipjacks, oyster tongers, half-sunken sloops and bushels of crabs.

Several of these prints will be featured in a charity show and auction at Anne Arundel Community College's student lounge Saturday at 6:30 p.m..

Harpe -- a soft-spoken man with a passion for art, blues guitar and his 1972 Volvo sports car -- will be there, meeting people and shaking hands. That part of being a full-time artist comes hard for Harpe, who spends much time in quiet observation.

"I tell people I'm left-brain dead," said Harpe. "Sometimes I think my thoughtsare visual before they get translated into language."

Harpe, who is 45, was about 8 when he painted his first picture of a boat, a scene he copied from a book.

"When I was a kid I used to draw all thetime. I never thought about it. It was such a natural thing to do. Inever knew I was going to do it seriously, as something you could earn a living from, until I went to a few semesters of college."

He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute of Art and a master's degree in lithography from George Washington University. After years of college art teaching, then working as a commercial artist, Harpe decided seven years ago to leap into fine art as a full-time occupation.

Since then, although he had moved from Annapolis to the College Park area, the Chesapeake Bay inspired almost allof his work.

"I like to go out every winter on a skipjack," says Harpe, to take photographs to be used as sources for his lithographs.

As it happens, he's producing a pictorial record of a declining way of life. When he made his first trip in 1984, he remembered seeing22 skipjacks clustered, their crews oystering in the Choptank River."Now you're lucky to find three," he said.

Having established a reputation for marine art, Harpe said his challenge now is to keep thesubject fresh, for himself and for the viewer.

"I think each timeit should be a new discovery," he said. "It's very easy for people to come up with a formula that works and repeat it ad infinitum."

And since he moved back to Annapolis last spring from Greenbelt, Harpeenjoys the continuing inspiration of his new neighbor, the Chesapeake Bay.

"The water is amazing. It never looks the same, depending on what time of day it is . . . It made sense to move back to Annapolis, since that's always where my heart has been," Harpe said.

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