No more commissions: Artist's path leads to small-scale paintings

Friday, October 12, 2012
Diana Harvey holds the cast-iron Derby pot her great-grandmother brought west in a wagon from Virginia, the focal point of the still life in background. The iron horse was a childhood toy of her brother's.

For 30 years, Diana Harvey was a print-maker, traveling to art fairs and festivals with her husband to sell their etchings. When print-making caused nerve damage in her hand, she switched to oil painting, teaching herself by copying old masters. For the next dozen years, she was a portrait painter in El Dorado, where she and her husband had a gallery and studio. When the building and their artwork was destroyed by fire, they moved to Eureka Springs, where Harvey decided to stop accepting commissions and turn her hand to something else.

She just didn't know what.

"I spent four to five years painting my cats," she said.

Harvey has now found a new niche as a miniaturist and still-life painter in the tradition of the masters she studied at the Prado when she was a girl. She no longer takes her art on the road, and exhibits at galleries and museum exhibits throughout the country.

"I'm on my second lifetime as an artist," Harvey said.

In her feline phase, Harvey not only painted a series of domestic pets but also did etchings and paintings of the big cats at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Tiger Rescue, which were used for posters for fundraising events. Then she started painting still lifes of household objects, like the cast-iron Derby pot here great-grandmother brought from Virgina in a Conestoga wagon, and an iron horse that was her brother's childhood toy. Sometimes the idea comes first. Sometimes the object will bring the idea, she said.

"I look around antique stores and see things that catch my eye," Harvey said. "They jump out at me -- I can't tell you why. I choose them, then I build a concept around them."

One of Harvey's paintings has been in the C.M. Russell Museum's annual fundraising auction. Last month, a still life was accepted into Best of America, a national fine art exhibition put on by the National Oil and Acrylic Painters' Society. Harvey also sent off five miniatures to a show in Florida that draws collectors from five states and is one of the largest miniature shows in the world. The paintings won't come back.

"It's been a real bread-and-butter thing for me," she said of the miniature market. "It's not slowed when the economy slows."

Harvey comes by her talent naturally -- her grandfather, Henry Harrison, was an artist who painted backdrops for vaudeville and opera houses throughout the South and Midwest. He also did murals and decorative paintings for hotels. Diana grew up loving art -- when her father, who was in the Air Force, was stationed in Spain, the family lived in Madrid, where Diana studied with a tutor at the Prado national art museum.

"I never thought I could make art," she said. "My path was art history leading to being a conservator or curator."

But while studying art and archeology at the University of Arkansas, she met her future husband, Bob Harvey, at a bronze pour. Bob, an electrical engineer in Tulsa, was also a sculptor. After their marriage, Diana took a course in print-making and loved it. She left academia, Bob left engineering, and they moved to Sante Fe to pursue their art careers.

They did go back to Arkansas in 1990 to be close to Harvey's family, opening the studio, gallery and frame shop in El Dorado. A judge, a senator and a professor were among the dignitaries who came to have Harvey paint their portraits, and Harvey was the runner-up in a competition to create a portrait of Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, the first woman senator elected to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.

"I thought portrait painting would be easier than doing art fairs, but it wasn't," Harvey said. "You are always trying to fulfill other people's expectations. The stress level was high."

After the fire in 1999, the Harveys came to Eureka Springs, bought a house on a ridge on the east side of town, and started over. They work in a two-story building next to the house -- his sculpture studio on the ground floor, her painting above, facing north for the light.

"It's addictive making art," Harvey said. "There's no going back. Forty-two years later we're still doing it."

Harvey said that as an artist, she is always upping her game by entering shows, and is now gaining acceptance at the top level.

"I am constantly challenging myself," she said. "I have no idea when I start a painting how it's going to go, and always hit a point in the middle where I'm in despair, asking myself, 'What makes me think I can do this?'"

"I keep working on it, and somehow it turns out."

Harvey, whose mother died earlier this year, said her work is tending towards birds lately, and specifically, a bluebird that hovers just outside the window, catching the light.

"I know it's a cliché, the bluebird of happiness," she said. "But it's coming. It's on its way."

A postscript to Harvey's family history: her father was the model for Sgt. Snorkel in the "Beetle Bailey" comic strip, something her mother kept secret until a year before she died. Harvey now has the original drawings of the strip in the development stage, in which Sarge is known as "Sgt. Weatherwasp," a version of her father's name, Sgt. Weathersby.

"My Dad was Sarge," she said.

Meet Diana Harvey this Saturday, Oct. 13, at Zarks Gallery, 67 Spring St., during Gallery Walk. For more information, call 479-253-2626 or go to

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  • What a wonderful story about talent and art's impact on a meaningful life of creative expression.

    -- Posted by Juju Freeman on Thu, Oct 18, 2012, at 9:36 AM
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