Burning Light: the Art of Keith Harder
An excerpt from an essay by Liz Wylie
We do know that Harder grew up in Three Hills, Alberta, and his father was the high school art teacher there. He went to art school in Calgary, first at the Alberta College of Art, then at the University of Calgary, where he received his BFA. Harder then moved to Edmonton to obtain an MFA from the University of Alberta, and afterwards began his sojourn teaching studio art in Camrose, Alberta, which has lasted now some twenty years. As one might expect, his career as an artist there has been one of relative isolation. He travels when/as he can, and stays informed by means of the internet, books and magazines. These are the bare bones of Harder’s biography, sufficient for our purposes here. One important aspect to note is his strong relationship with the natural world, even though he is not strictly speaking a landscape painter. Even more vital, however, has been his relationship with aviation. References to flight and to airplanes cut a broad swath through Harder’s work, beginning with the days of his first professional paintings. At times the reference may be distilled to the depiction of just a single feather as a freighted signifier for flight. After all, it was humanity’s jealousy and emulation of birds and their airborne freedom that fuelled our countless attempts to fly, and most early contraptions we invented had bird feathers as components. When we now board a huge, heavy, metal jetliner, the notion that it can fly is completely counter-intuitive. Those among us who become fascinated by flight can train as pilots, which is what Keith Harder did as a young man, but while he has been a licensed private pilot since 1978, Harder has not flown a plane for many years. I believe this may be linked to a tragedy that befell a close friend of his who was also a pilot and died in a crash along with his passengers in the 1980s under tragic circumstances. Doubtless this experience has marked Harder and thus the feathers and other aviation-related elements in his work have a deep and personal aspect that cannot be fully or truly known by any viewers of his work, even if they are made aware of this information.
So as the theme of flying winds its way through Harder’s paintings, it is an ambivalent one, to put it mildly. In fact, as we become more deeply acquainted with Harder’s work, we slowly discover that nothing really is exactly as it may have first seemed: there are layers of meaning and interpretation below the seemingly straightforward realism at which we assumed we were looking. A longer and slower look is required, a more penetrating and thoughtful gaze, and most people do not devote their time to this – not out of any resistance, it just does not occur to them.
The Penticton Art Gallery is honoured to be able to partner on this important exhibition which would not have come to fruition if not for the efforts of some major key players which were instrumental in helping make this happen: John and Joice Hall who first approached the gallery about this project; Liz Wylie who has been such a support and help to me throughout this project and whose curatorial vision has been realized both in catalogue and the accompanying exhibition; Bruce Janz for his contributions to this project and for his thoughtful and insightful essay; Dr. Roxanne Harde, Associate Dean, Research at the Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta for their financial support of this project, without whom this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue would not have been possible; the British Columbia Arts Council and the City of Penticton for your ongoing financial support which allows us to keep our doors open; and finally to Keith Harder for his commitment to his craft and his belief and support of this project. In learning about his life and career I can see many parallels with his life and my own, least of all our mutual fascination with flight, planes and the tragedy that can come from our desire to soar with the birds. Thank you for sharing your legacy and your art and I look forward to seeing and hearing the public's reaction to your work.