Harley’s intimate, sunny studio in his Tucson home, is a world away from the first one in the basement of a janitorial supply in Calgary Canada. High wooden ceilings, good light, and a fabulous fireplace draw him into this sanctuary early each morning, alert and ready to put pastels to paper. In the winter a covered patio gives Harley a quiet outdoor space to work his magic. An understated aura fills the studio, created in part by the normalcy Harley says his wife Carol brought into his life. Simple furnishings, minimal décor, self portraits and paintings by Bob Kuhn and other artist friends, produce an atmosphere conducive for Harley to produce his haunting, vibrant and beautiful pastel portraits which touch our souls. Presidents, movie stars, musicians and Native peoples come to life from the pastel sticks Harley says have always “made sense” to him, almost like a natural extension of his fingers, which still gives him shivers as he works.
Unique and colorful is the artistic path Harley traveled toward membership into the Cowboy Artists of America in 2005. Though art had been part of his world since the age of seven, Brown’s decision to become an artist came after high school when his father, also an artist, insisted he get a “real” job or go to art school. Knowing he would rather paint than work for a living, Harley entered art school, only to be thrown out a few years later for being what he calls a “scoundrel”. He then got a peddler’s license to sell his work door-to-door, was paid $1.00 for his first commission, sold portraits for .50 cents each at a local saloon, and played the piano at a brothel for extra money.
At one point in his career Harley painted under a false name and became jealous of his alter ego’s painting style and success. During those years Harley was a flamboyant, obnoxious, extrovert dressed in red suits, paisley shirts and white shoes, who exploded into any room and spontaneously entertained until exhausted. That manic person has greatly mellowed into the friendly, open, conversationalist whose laughing eyes sparkle whenever he and his lovely, quiet Carol gather together with friends and art patrons.
After a one man show at Montana’s Historical Society, and years showing at the C. M. Russell Auction, his mentor Robert Lougheed, another Canadian and member of the CAA, asked Harley to show at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. From that day till the present his notoriety for portraits of Native Americans, whose haunting faces that have fascinated him since boyhood, became the driving passion in his art career. Harley feels fortunate to have been raised in the West, exposed to the cowboy and Indian cultures, and privileged to create portraits of the distinctive people who have enriched his life and art. When speaking of the long and winding path he has taken to his wonderful life today, Harley says, “tall oaks from small acorns do grow.” He encourages young artists to never give up on their art, keep studying, keep working, make your opportunities happen and grow as a person. This seven year old, encouraged by his father, never dreamed his art would take him to meet President Reagan, Kim Novak, Charles Bronson, and so many wonderfully beautiful people who allowed him to look deeply into their souls and share that experience through his pastels, drawings and paintings. That small acorn of a boy has become a tall oak in the Western art world today and will be for generations.