Don Harvey's paintings explore the tensions between opposites: sculpture and painting, rural and urban, human and animal, the untouched environment and man's intervention, the divisions between nations. Harvey grew up in rural Iowa and makes his home these days in urban Cleveland; his father was a successful inventor with a machine shop-facts which may or may not offer some light on the artis's frequent tendency, in his early work, to juxtapose the agricultural and industrialized worlds. Employing elements of collage, Harvey has used things like real industrial fluids to represent lake water and manipulated digital photographs on metal to represent the industrial and natural environment.
He has produced public art for urban spaces (an example is The Habitat We Share, created in 1993 for the West 25th Street Rapid Station) and politically charged art that demands attention (the 2008 series of prints titled Cities and Walls). It should come as no surprise then that Harvey is a political activist as well as an artist and teacher. He has been active, both as an environmentalist and as a photographer, in educating the public about Cleveland's natural resources and the threats to them posed by unthinking human activity: In 2006 he documented wildlife in the city's industrial valley for a Cleveland Public Art (CPA) project called "The Natural Flats: A Field Guide to Habitat in Unexpected Places."
As co-founder of CPA, former editor of Dialogue and former board member of Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Harvey has also had an impact on Cleveland's artistic community.
Don Harvey was born in 1941 in Gruver, Iowa, where he was encouraged in his artistic inclinations by his parents. In high school he painted scenes of the changing seasons on the side of his father's store; but it was not until college that he decided on a career in art instead of mathematics. Harvey received a BA from Mankato State University in Minnesota in 1964 and an MFA from Temple University's Tyler School of Art in 1971. He taught in Rochester, Minnesota, before beginning his college teaching career at the University of Akron in 1973. Since retiring from the university he has continued to teach, currently as a visiting professor at Oberlin College.
Since 1983 he has lived in Cleveland, first in the Warehouse District, then in the Flats, on the city's west side and now in Cleveland Heights. He says the greatest influence on his art has been the immediate outside world around him and that he has received inspiration from looking out his window at the industrial landscape of Cleveland and while rowing his boat on Lake Erie just to watch nature and its survival amid man's incursion.
The artist who has most influenced Don Harvey is Robert Rauschenberg, whose work shows a similar instinct for constructions and collage and an all-inclusive and expansive artistic vocabulary. Like Rauschenberg, Harvey was to push the boundaries of what painting and sculpture could be, incorporating text, photographs and sculpture in his early work. He used whatever materials were at hand-industrial and windshield washer fluids, vinyl tubing and steel-to create disturbing images of the urban landscape. He experimented with an industrial three-color jet-spray process and sign-painting technology. To portray the dichotomies in his subjects, he often bifurcated his pieces, which resulted in the "push-pull" aesthetic associated with Hans Hofmann that he so admired.
Later, Harvey incorporated human figures into his work, and gradually color became more dominant. In 2008, as artist-in-residence at Zygote Press, he experimented with printmaking and photography, applying ink with a squeegee and attaching three-dimensional objects to his monoprints.
With the incorporation of more color, Don Harvey's works have grown more aesthetically beautiful, and his digitally manipulated images (by combining the figural with the abstract) more evocative. He continues to believe, however, that art must tell the viewer where the artist stands on a matter: "An art object always has a position." Whether suggesting the split between the power of man and the vulnerability of nature or depicting the man-made walls that cannot stop the urgent flow of immigrants across borders, Harvey's art sometimes takes positions that may make us uncomfortable, even in its beauty. The important thing, he says, is to make the viewer look-and think.
-Diane De Grazia