You can take the artist out of England, but you can’t always take England, or at least an era in the country’s history, out of the artist.
Stoke-on-Trent-born, Post Falls-based artist Keith Harrop is showing a collection of animal pencil drawings in the style of Victorian portraits at the Liberty Gallery through Dec. 30.
Growing up, Harrop was the odd one out when it came to artistic abilities. His brother dabbled for a bit but eventually lost interest, leaving Harrop to practice on his own. Using what he had, most often colored pencils and colored felt tip pens, Harrop would try to emulate the styles of the artists behind his favorite comic books and Disney films.
“That was a great template because they knew how to convey a feeling or a character in just one pose,” Harrop said.
While his parents supported his interest in art, his school teachers didn’t. Harrop said he isn’t bitter about the lack of support; it was simply the mindset of the town that art wasn’t worth pursuing.
Harrop eventually internalized that mindset and put away his colored pencils and felt tip pens, putting more focus on finding a real job. It was only when he got an opportunity to move to Santa Barbara, California “with two suitcases, some borrowed money and a set of paintbrushes” that he considered creating art again.
“It’s that old adage about the USA but it’s very true that you’re able to reinvent yourself and start again when you come over here,” Harrop said. “And people genuinely got behind me and encouraged me … Once you get wind underneath your wings, it’s crazy how high you can fly on that alone.”
Harrop initially tried his hand at oil painting, creating a series of about 20 figurative surrealist pieces. The series received positive feedback but not so much that Harrop felt he could make a career out of oil painting.
It did give him an idea, however, to create art which featured a handful of characters interwoven into multiple pieces. One series featured the relationship between two characters over the course of 20 years.
Harrop, who left school at 16, also began taking night classes in subjects like art and graphic design but also in anatomy so he could better understand the structure of the human body and apply that knowledge to his artwork.
“I started to even pay for myself to go to these night classes by winning all these local design competitions,” he said. “It sort of funded me. I mean, the story goes on from there.”
And indeed it does. Within just a few years of moving to Santa Barbara, Harrop grew from a struggling but encouraged artist to a creative director for a major corporation designing trade show events in Las Vegas. He later worked as a merchandising director with an office on Rodeo Drive.
After eight years, Harrop left Santa Barbara, moving to Marina Del Rey and then Thousand Oaks. He met his wife, Amaryllis, in 2003 and the pair later bought a home in Santa Clarita. Eventually, the couple decided they missed the changing of the seasons, “the marking of the passage of time,” and wanted less stress and traffic. They moved to the Inland Northwest in 2011.
Harrop’s current focus, the Anicurio Collection, a Victorian era-inspired series of portraits, calls back to one of his collections from his time in Santa Barbara, as it features several characters who appear in each other’s lives.
Two mice, for example, are friends who work together for a cat featured in another portrait. Another drawing features a duck, who is a sailor and is friends with a rat and his wife. The duck and the rat met their wives together when they were traveling around France.
“I give them all these long biographies and people absolutely love them,” Harrop said. “I thought it was going to be boring for them and they wouldn’t bother reading them but people are going round reading every single one. It’s world building.”
This world doesn’t stop at the portraits and biographies, though. Harrop ages each portrait to give it an antique look (“I’ve settled on soy sauce and lemon juice,” he said), and when he holds an exhibit or appears with his work at an art show, he dresses in Victorian era clothing.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to lean into it,” he said. “I’m not going to try and slip it under the door. I’m gonna go big … People love it because it’s bringing them into a little world that nobody else is offering around here.”
Surprisingly, Harrop hasn’t spent his entire career building this Victorian world; it started a few years ago, thanks to a budding interest in pencil drawing.
Harrop said he liked the cleanliness of it, the fact that it can be unforgiving and seen as a “literal form of craft,” but he wasn’t interested in doing standard still lifes. He started with a portrait of his cat, Harvey, wearing a suit. A horse portrait followed, then one of a peacock.
“I thought ‘I think I’ve got something going here,’ ” Harrop said. ” ‘I think this might be my voice, my signature, my style.’ I just kept going and 46 pieces later, it’s called the Anicurio Collection.”
Harrop doesn’t want the scenes to feel contrived but rather as if they could be actual portraits taken during the Victorian era. He’s found that some animals tend to work better in certain social classes. Mice, for instance, are better as houseworkers, while a stag works better as gentry. Foxes and moose are country gentlefolk, while badgers fit best in the self-made, middle class.
Though he does see his characters as falling into one social class or another, Harrop appreciates that the style of work he’s creating – portraiture – calls back to stoic Victorian photographs, because he sees the invention of photography as something that, in a way, removed social classes, albeit briefly.
“Prior to that, if you wanted an image of yourself and your family, you’d have to enlist an artist to paint it,” Harrop said. “Who could afford that? Only the rich.
“I love the idea that you can have somebody going in perhaps their only suit they have and the ladies in their best dresses, it might even be a borrowed dress, but they would sit down and for that time that the aperture is open on the camera, 10 seconds then that click, you are on a level playing field with the aristocrat and everybody else who’s in a status above you, because it’s a great equalizer.”
Harrop sells prints of the Anicurio Collection on his website. He said “A Conspiracy of Ravens,” which features ravens wearing long coats and bowler hats sitting on park benches, is his best-selling print. He currently has 22 original works remaining from the initial 46 pieces in the series.
The collection isn’t only popular with Inland Northwest art lovers, however; Harrop’s Victorian style is catching attention in the art world at large as well.
Earlier this year, Harrop was contacted by Jennifer Stevens-Bawcum, sister of illustrator Dave Stevens, and the Rocketeer Trust, which oversees the work and legacy of the renowned artist, most celebrated for creating “The Rocketeer.” Stevens-Bawcum invited Harrop to create a tribute piece in his style for an exhibit on Stevens at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
The exhibit runs through Feb. 25, and while Harrop’s piece has already sold, it will be featured in a catalog the museum is printing about the exhibit.
Stevens-Bawcum visited Harrop at his studio and shared some of her brother’s personal sketchbooks so he could get inspiration for his tribute artwork.
For Harrop, this piece is a true full-circle moment. In his early days in Santa Barbara, Harrop would lock himself inside his room in the house he shared with other artists and musicians and study Stevens’ work.
“I was analyzing, dissecting his style and I couldn’t come close to it,” Harrop said. “It’s bringing things around again from me being the guy who was trying to learn from this guy, and now in the end, I’m invited to do a tribute to him.”
Harrop laughs when he thinks back to his early days in Santa Barbara, recalling the time when he had $1.87 to his name one week and was offered a job as an art director the next.
“I’m thinking ‘What’s an art director? How do I pretend I know what this is?’ ” he said. “To go from that to actually having a seat at the table now, it’s one of those weird stories. Tenacity, I guess, would be the key word.”
Sharing another memory, Harrop thinks back to when he took art classes in Santa Barbara. His professor told the class that a representative from the Chicago Institute of the Arts would be visiting and offering portfolio critiques.
During his portfolio review, the representative asked Harrop why he was interested in the school. He responded that he was aware of how respected the school was and wanted to receive an art degree.
“She said ‘Usually people come through the Chicago Institute of the Arts to get a portfolio like this,’ ” Harrop said. “I went around the regular channels and it was one of those golden moments, those profound moments that we have some times where you think, ‘Somehow, I did it.’ ”