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AJA Silver: David Harper's Wild things

The rising art star builds his own creatures using taxidermy and embroidery.


Five bearskin rugs lie cushioned in layers of plastic bags, under a utility table in David Harper's Almon Street studio. Only their heads are visible, stacked in a semi-circle chorus---count two tan, one brown, one white, one black. Their jaws are open and wet, shiny with vampirish fangs and pale pink tongues. What makes these skins unusual is the lack of fur---they're entirely hand-knitted, except for those salivating mouths. Mildly comforting, like nana's afghan, but also menacing: These bears have no eyes, which gives them a prisoner-of-war look, as if their real heads are trapped under knit-stitched hoods.

The table is jam-packed with tools, notebooks, paper and raw cotton. An old-fashioned oilcan sits beside a plaster animal jaw. Tall stacks of wood are perched in front of shelved boxes labelled "Faces" or "Teeth and Tongues." A sculpted polyurethane weasel-like creature peers out from a top shelf. Another table houses more woodworking tools, a bunch of gilded frames, a BB gun and a fedora. If you didn't know better, this could be Doctor Moreau's workshop.

David Harper is 23 years old. He is a young artist, and if his early career is any indication, some day he will be a big name in Canadian contemporary art. Physically, he is the embodiment of his practice, which involves concepts of nature, animals, living spaces and gender issues, mixing woodworking, embroidery, knitting, sculpture and yes, taxidermy. There's something rough and woodsy about Harper's beard, cowboy shirts and boots, but ultimately urban as he sports button-sized black discs in his ears, a nose ring and forearm tattoos. He's quietly charming, but talks easily and with self-assurance, like the horse-riding hero in a 10-cent movie matinee.

It's June, two months before Harper's next show, the Dalhousie Art Gallery group exhibition, Exalted Beings: Animal Relations, and his studio is crammed with materials to build a new piece; a half-scale camper trailer that's large enough to sleep one curled-up person, but not much else. Called "when the rain comes," he says, pulling out one of the walls, it's "my own Canadian Noah's Ark." Outside the wood trailer, which Harper is constructing meticulously by hand, two stuffed raccoons and two squirrels (purchased off eBay) will hang out. Inside the trailer, there will be framed embroideries of pairs of animals that will adorn the walls. He'll hopefully finish stitching those in France, while visiting his parents' summer house in the mountainous Pyrenees.

"Outside, the animals are in a live state," he says, explaining the concept. "Once they cross the live threshold, they're transformed into these embroideries, working as a collection. The idea that when you live in this environment---like a small trailer---your collections are limited to a set and small amount. I envisioned that when these animals enter this state, they're transformed into representations that would be collected."

The trailer is still raw and only half-constructed but it is obvious the artist knows his way around a saw. "My birth father was a boat builder and as a kid, I had an obsession, not knowing him and wanting to know him," says Harper, who grew up in Toronto, with his mom and brother. "I took out all these books he had written for, and magazines, and taught myself how to build boats. I built my first canoe when I was 14. It still exists somewhere on Georgian Bay. The blue canoe... ."

He was eventually hired by a camp, where he built about a dozen boats, outfitting racing canoes and repairing hundreds of others, before hiring an assistant to take over, as he prepared for school at NSCAD in 2002. He claims that the first year-and-a-half of art school was a write-off. "I could paint a rock like nobody's business but not a portrait," he says. "After being really discouraged in the painting department, I got the come hither from the sculpture department."

Then, in his second year, his mom was diagnosed with cancer, and Harper also found himself seriously ill in the cardiac ward of the hospital. They spent her 60th birthday together in the same hospital room. "My head was everywhere. I separated from a lot of the cultures university students get involved in here. I quit drinking and kept to myself even more than I already do, which people thought was horrible. I started reading a lot and writing a lot."

Both of them recovered fully and Harper returned to Halifax for his third year with a new game plan. He attributes a lot to of his success to the sculpture department faculty, including heavy-hitters like Rita McKeough, Thierry Delva and Steve Higgins. "I did get a lot of flack from family and friends that I was going too hard, but I didn't want to stop. I really couldn't. Now my life really revolves around my studio practice."

He was led to embroidery through a personal revelation, and more book reading. As a kid he loved making things from fabric, like Halloween costumes. Then, after graduation from NSCAD, he travelled around the Middle East for a couple of months. "I realized there had to be a nomadic aspect to my practice," he says. Nomads need a portable medium. So Harper bought an alpaca hide, which he brought back to Halifax, along with a sketchbook of ideas. He asked studio-mate Sarah Maloney, an artist who often designs luscious embroideries that reference the human body, to lend him books on the craft, and how to split threads. Soon he'd created his first embroidered animal skin. Harper developed a series where he stitched vertebrae and bones back onto the shaved fur of animal pelts, like reindeer, springbok and sheep, as if revealing their hidden fragility. They serve as a reminder that we're all made of skin and bones.

Harper often stitches for hours every day, stopping only for lunch and smoke breaks. After a particularly gruelling day, he writes in an email, "It's an approximation, but here it goes: About 35 stitches per centimetre squared, about 15 cm square per hour, about 525 stitches an hour, give or take. This piece I'm working on now is about 16-17,000 stitches. I like the small stitch, but it's an exhausting dedication."

"I buy tongues in bulk," Harper says, laughing. "Want to see human eyes?" He pulls out a nightmarish pill bottle filled with glass eyes. He didn't order them, they showed up with sets for foxes and skunks.

Harper's first attempt at taxidermy was during his intro to sculpture class. He laughs again, pointing to a small furry animal in a glass box. "I think every student who works with taxidermy tries this: Taking a piece of animal you find at a flea market and sticking it to something else." He used a turtle shell his mom bought him and, along with a partridge hide, "I made this elaborate montage/sculpture/collage about my grandfather and his insanity---my grandfather eventually went crazy. Everyone said, 'That's weird, weird.' And I said, 'Yes it is.' But that's when I had to ask myself the first question: If I was really ready to go further."

His first mount was a fox, missing an arm. "I was also buying a lot of deer heads and stuff at antique stores and flea markets, but you don't really know where those have come from. But I looked at it as saving them from an awkward fate. I found actual done taxidermy almost everywhere, at flea markets---there was a seal from Value Village, they had it in their stuffed animal section, they didn't know it was real."

As he started doing more work, he relied less on flea market finds by tracking down suppliers of sustainably-obtained hides, usually from road kill or natural death. He bought books on taxidermy and through trial and error, taught himself. Harper says, "It was the weirdest experience ever. I'm glad I find the hides already---the other aspect is not my cup of tea. It's traumatizing. I always knew what was involved but there are words that taxidermists toss around, like there's a machine called the flesher. Even though it's just a wire wheel that's what they call it because that's what it does. After learning it from start to finish, I felt alright taking it from where I felt comfortable."

In many ways, Harper says, taxidermy is like upholstery. You take a form---he either buys them online or makes it himself---and a hide and you fit it around the shape. His biggest animal to date is a bear, which was a showstopper at NSCADU's Seeds Gallery, and is now part of the Dalhousie show.

He brought the bear hide back on the plane from British Columbia. From the front, the black bear, standing erect on top of a small, glowing, fake stove, is intimidating, but check out the back. Shaved into a large oval shape is the embroidered portrait of a woman's face with sweetheart lips and flowers in her hair, not out of place on a Victorian wall or on a lovelorn sailor's chest (old tattoos are another Harper motif---he worked in a tattoo shop in high school). Far from a cutesy Disneyfication, it's a startling juxtaposition, a pretty face on a fierce animal. He first sketched the face, projected the image onto the hide and traced it with a Sharpie. Then, for two months in his living room, Harper embroidered that bear hide, stapled to a painting stretcher, across his lap. That's an intimate relationship.

Finished, he took the hide to his studio, and together with an assistant, started at 6am to mount the animal. "It's a one-shot deal. Once you get the hide wet and once you resaturate it, there's only one chance," he explains. "It stays malleable for a couple days afterwards, but the glues and adhesives you use, you're really fighting the clock."

It's a messy business. There's a roof leak in his studio and the floor was wet. "By the end of the day I was covered in bear hair and the juice from it being wet all day. That day was awesome."

When Harper was about seven or eight, he was in his bedroom, working on a painting. A crow flew in through the screenless window and perched on the sill, about five feet away. As the young boy and bird sat and stared, examining each other, Harper's godmother walked into the room, scaring away the crow. A spiritual woman, she apologized for breaking the moment. "I didn't realize until much later what she meant," Harper says. Now he never keeps screens on his windows.

Animals would appear: A two-dollar puppy. In high school, secretly breeding and selling hedgehogs out of his parents' garage. Working in Georgian Bay, Harper spent a summer fattening up a mangy fox with cat food. At 17 or 18, coming home from a night at the bar and waking up in his attic bedroom to discover a raccoon on the pillow beside him. There was a black bear encounter while camping that "changed everything. I was just a stupid artist and just wanted to stare at it. I think it was confused because I wasn't running, I was going towards him. But it was fine."

Harper's pieces aren't straightforward autobiographies, nor do they document his life exactly, but they are often nods to his personal history. Take the trailer ark---another boat, really.

"One of my parents is Jewish, and in the Hebrew calendar, your birthday lines up with different pieces of the Torah and my birthday just happens to line up with the story of Noah's Ark." When he was young his mom commissioned an artist to paint his portrait. In the background is that ark.

Harper's been asked by younger art students if he's read certain books about animal-human relationships. But while Harper pours through books to learn skills, he doesn't seem as interested in theory. "It's not about books. I mean, it's great to read essays or books about that bond. But this is about my relationship. It's my magical experiences with animals that makes me think I was meant to do this."

There is a giant black-and-white Brindel cow hide hanging on Harper's shower rod. It carries a faintly sweet smell, like polished shoes. He bought blonde hair dye from Shopper's Drug Mart to turn the black spots into a rich, tonally deep brown, and has tested it on a small section. For his upcoming Art Gallery of Nova Scotia residency this fall, Harper's creating a full-sized taxidermied racehorse, and the cowhide will stand in for horsehair.

It's now a week before the Dalhousie opening on August 21 and everything is ready for the trailer, except for one tiny mouse embroidery. The stitched rodent will be placed alongside a real mouse---only one has been transformed, entered into his etherworld. Harper is already missing his naps inside the trailer (ironically, it was modelled after a real one called the Siesta), beside the embroideries of frolicking kittens and jumping wolves, while a stuffed raccoon munches Cracker Jacks on the roof.

But now, there is work to be done. In Harper's living room, he has Deal or No Deal-style metal suitcases, filled with bags of rainbow-coloured embroidery thread. A bright, swiveling lamp is set above the couch to help strained sewing eyes. It gives off an interrogation-style light, out of place in the cozy room. This place is a modern-day curiosity cabinet. Two deer heads, originally from sculptures (previously one had a long knitted scarf wrapped around its head), keep watch over four fish and two toads (all real). A plastic wind-up puppy sits on an enormous moose antler, and a collection of pocket watches hangs on a wall.

Everywhere you look, there's something to see, like a small animal belly up on a bottom shelf. "That's a Nova Scotian squirrel. A friend gave it to me. Its foot's broken off and it's filled with plaster," Harper shrugs. It's an occupational hazard that "people will show up with some mangy thing." Nearby there's a plastic bag containing fur. It's a rabbit face. "I bought it from a company that sells remnants from factories that use hides, like for coats. I bought it for the strangeness. I was interested in how this company worked, as they claimed they were sustainably obtained. But they had hamsters and horses. I also bought a fox face to see what they're like."

He's slowly trying to get rid of possessions, as the nomadic spirit is stirring---Harper's now obsessed with trailers and portable living spaces. "I've been thinking a lot about the trailer home and the ability to get up and go. Like circus culture. Really, what do you collect when you live in a trailer? You can only have the best of what you collect."

Some of his previous sculptures, like the plaid upholstered rocking chair with the deer head emerging from its back, already imagine living spaces where the barriers between inside and out are blurred. It's funny in the context of design publications, like the Globe and Mail's recent Style section, declaring that "faux-taxidermy" is hot for interiors this season. Pushing the needle in and out of an embroidery, Harper says this just confirms his work: "Our desire to have the animal or nature or flora and fauna interjected into our lives. I think we miss it a lot."

"Since I've started doing this, I've had a recurring nightmare of Pam Anderson showing up at one of my openings."

Although PETA hasn't shown any interest, Harper admits that he was initially nervous showing the bear at Seeds. "Sometimes it's the small animals that break people's hearts. Sometimes it's the big ones. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Now that I've lived with him for a year, and shown it, I'm confident in a conversation that can emerge from that," he says. Harper talks with friends who "put me on the block," and sometimes when alone, pretends he's being interviewed by James Lipton. It's not an ego thing, more like a way to form succinct answers to complicated questions. "But no one has ever flipped out. I think because my work isn't gruesome or offensive. I think of it as kind of romantic."

He says that most of the interesting arguments aren't actually from his use of animals, but because of embroidery being perceived as a gendered art. And even today, sculpture is still considered by some to be part of the boy's club, so crossing the two makes a statement. But again, Harper sees his use of materials in personal terms: "Living with a single mom and a brother, not having a masculine influence for a really long time, where do you find your masculine side when all you have is your mother and godmothers? There's this lifelong exploration of what masculinity and femininity really means and the associated art context. At what time were men and women allowed to make art? Is it a male art or a female art?"

Still, some see his work as aggressive, and a lot of people want to talk about hunting culture. While he's intrigued by the hunter's thrill of the draw, he's refused invitations. "I don't want to kill an animal. I'll gladly immortalize one in my work," Harper says. "I was raised in downtown Toronto and have no connection to that culture other than when I lived up north and became fascinated and obsessed with it. I eat meat and I know where it came from. I have a firm grasp and understanding of how different people and different cultures perceive animal-human relationships."

Besides the racehorse in the washroom, Harper's also working on a piece he's sending to the Yukon for a show next year that will have six working Victorian lampposts, each with a half-deer attached and a different portrait embroidered on its cross-section. The elaborate embroidery of a man's face sits half-finished.

But as he receives more exposure nationally, is he ready to become "the taxidermy guy?" He's been thinking about it a lot this summer, talking it out with his mom, while in France. Harper sits back into the couch, and gives his best Actor's Studioanswer.

"I never really want to be a slave to a fixed idea. I like what I do and I like using the iconography that I use and symbols---taxidermy, old things, antiques, woodworking, elements of history---but I'm young and my art practice is just beginning. The way I feel now, I'm just getting my training wheels off and there's going to be a day, I know, where I have an idea that doesn't involve taxidermy, and it doesn't involve animals. It will probably connect to my current practice some way, where it's referencing gender or archetypes or maybe even animals. I'd like to have a show and not use some of these things that are becoming known as 'Harper's,' and have the viewers and people who know my work accept it."

Coming from one of Canada's most promising young artists, one who's willing to take risks and experiment to get what he wants, you get the sense that whatever he wants to happen will happen. As Harper says, "When I was a kid I always wanted a pair of cowboy boots and a deer head. Now I have many."

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