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January 5, 2010

AARFAM to exhibit Steve Harley's work

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg begin the year with a special exhibition opening Feb. 13 at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. “Steve Harley: An Original Life” reflects the American image of rugged individualism as expressed through his entire body of work — five extraordinary oil paintings, several pencil drawings, a sketchbook and photographs.

A Michigan native, Steve Harley (1863-1947) is a relatively unknown artist, sometimes described as self-indulgent, irresponsible and exasperating, but also charming, affable, and entertaining. In the light of modern concerns for the environment, he was a man ahead of his time.

Harley’s yearning for the natural world culminated in a visit to the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The region’s magnificent scenery awed him, and it inspired four brilliantly-colored, painstakingly-detailed vistas that have become his legacy. Harley’s itinerary is imprecisely documented. In February 1925, he was in Redondo Beach, Calif. By June, he was in Harbor City, Calif., and in Petersburg, Alaska by September. He must have been having the time of his life. Exuberance peppers the language of his souvenir post cards — the word “beautiful” cropping up three times in as many sentences.

Harley first tried to record the West’s scenery with a camera. Only when he saw how inadequately his photographs captured the grandeur around him did he return to painting.

The artist’s western scenes are records of the grandeur and serenity that enthralled Harley. Drastic changes wrought by Michigan’s logging ventures had opened his eyes. He realized that the magnificence he witnessed was fragile and threatened— a foresight gives his wilderness scenes a sharp sense of poignancy. His paintings show no human beings and the absence of human activity reinforces the calming stillness captured by mirror-still water and immovable mountains. Through his eye and hand, we glimpse what once was.

“Interestingly, a magazine article a few short years after Harley’s death introduced him and his work to the art world,” said Barbara Luck, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture. “It forced the realization that folk artists — creative and self-taught — were a contemporary phenomena, not just confined to the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum owns all of Harley’s recorded work, including the oil paintings, pencil drawings, a sketchbook, as well as snapshots, post cards, and other ephemera related to the artist’s life and work, all of which create a context for the vistas that remain Harley’s most memorable work. Two of the oil paintings, “Harley Farm,” and “Mt. Hood and Mirror Lake,” have never been exhibited before.

“Steve Harley: An Original Life” will be on view at least through 2011 at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, a Museums ticket or Good Neighbor Card.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are comprised of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made in America during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and embracing most categories of American folk art by well-known folk artists. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from the period 1670–1830.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets, in Williamsburg, Virginia and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Beginning Jan. 4, the operating hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Beginning March 15, hours revert to 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281