With a unique vision, informed by a broad-ranging knowledge of art history and a keen understanding of human nature, William Harper has created a compelling and innovative body of work over the past forty years, one that exerted a profound influence on enameling in this country in the late twentieth century. Trained as a painter as well as an enamelist, he has produced a wide range of two- and three-dimensional forms, from chalices, rattles, and talismans to boxes, jewelry, paintings, and sculptural installations. An unrivaled master of the cloisonné technique, Harper creates multi-faceted objects that juxtapose his intricate enamel designs with gold, wood, and various other precious and, in some cases, distinctly nonprecious, materials. Rather than using cloisonné in the traditional way to contain cells of color, Harper employs silver and gold wires as a form of drawing, creating abstract linear rhythms in passages of rich enamel color. Throughout his work Harper establishes a provocative dialogue between opposing principles: the beautiful and the commonplace, the opulent and the mundane, the public and the intimately personal.
Born in Bucyrus, Ohio, a small town north of Columbus, he enrolled in 1962 in a five-year program offered jointly by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was awarded his BS (1966) and MS (1967) degrees from Case Western Reserve with both advanced work in enameling and a certificate in teacher training. At the institute he studied with the enamelist Kenneth Bates, whose mastery of all forms of enameling and commitment to technical refinement had a lasting influence on Harper. However, he was also exposed to a freer, more spontaneous approach to enameling in classes offered by Mary Ellen McDermott. In 1966, while on vacation in New York, Harper first encountered the work of the enamelist June Schwarcz in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Schwarcz’s highly unorthodox approach to object-making and enameling encouraged and reinforced Harper’s own experiments in the medium.
In the early 1970s Harper produced a series of fetishistic rattles and amulets inspired by his study of diverse cultures and his particular interest in African art. Several years later he began to focus on jewelry, creating provocative new wearable forms that combine skillfully executed enamel, often stoned to diminish the shiny properties of the material, with fine gold and disparate non-traditional materials such as scarabs, baroque pearls, feathers, animal teeth, and bones. Endowing his pieces with rich narrative content, often of an autobiographical nature, Harper formulated a new direction for jewelry and influenced generations of artists working in the studio jewelry and enamels field in the late twentieth century.
A dedicated educator, Harper taught at Florida State University from 1973 to 1992. Harper published Step-by-Step Enameling: a Complete Introduction to the Craft of Enameling in 1973. His work has been widely exhibited, including a one-person exhibition in 1977 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and an internationally traveling retrospective in 1989. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among many others in the United States and Europe.