American Fork • Cristall Harper’s art career didn’t get off to a rousing start. She was, she readily admits, “hustling” 15 years ago — doing “little 6-by-6 [inch] paintings that I would list on eBay” to raise money for paint.
She had to fight for her art degree from Brigham Young University, staying on an extra year after professors rejected her first senior show. Two years after graduation, as she was primarily painting florals, she remained convinced that failure was “never an option.”
“I was, like, I’m just going to work hard. I’m going to hustle. I’m going to do the time,” she remembers. “I don’t care how long it takes. I’m not in a hurry.”
Then she and her husband, Matt, adopted a yellow lab puppy she named Buttercup.
“She was sent to me,” Harper believes, “to change my art career.”
Harper painted Buttercup “again and again. And that’s what the galleries saw, and that’s what they wanted. And I remember saying at the time, ‘Nobody’s going to buy a painting of a dog.’ I never in a million years thought that that would get me into a gallery.”
“I,” she said with a laugh, “have been proven wrong.”
When Harper paints dogs, their character comes through. The paintings are joyful and energetic because the painter loves her subjects.
“I am good at finding that spark in the animal that I’m painting. That joie de vivre,” she said. “And I am very good at putting that in paint and on canvas. That’s what people emotionally respond to when they like my work.”
These days, a 6-by-6 inch painting by Harper will run you $450. A 54-by-36 inch painting runs upward of $10,000 — a jaw-dropping change.
“I think back to those days of, like, ‘Matt! Matt! My eBay auction closed and it’s $30!’” Harper said. “‘I made $30!’”
‘I’m going to catch that’
Harper, 40, was born in Texas, grew up in Missouri and came to Utah in 1997 to attend BYU. She knew an art career would be tough. But she was inspired, rather than discouraged, by the warning she heard from Robert Marshall, the longtime chair of the BYU Department of Visual Arts.
“His opening sentence to us freshman year — first class — was, ‘If you are an artist, you have to be willing to chase a phantom you will never catch.’”
She wrote that down and pinned it to the bulletin board in her dorm room, where she “looked at it every day. And I was, like, ‘I’m going to catch that. I’m going to catch that phantom.’”
She does admit to feeling some ambivalence about the program. “How do you teach art?” she asked.
And she was taken aback when, after four years, she failed her senior show and stayed on another year to create another one. Seventeen years later, she’s not sure what the problem was.
UTAH MASTERS FINE ART STUDIO TOUR
What • Master artists across Utah County will open their studios to visitors. Many of the artists will have paintings and/or prints for sale.
When • Saturday, Nov. 23, from 1-8 p.m.
Where • The studios are spread across Utah County. The list includes:
Joseph Brickey • 1106 E. 930 South, Provo
Ryan Brown • 43 E. 200 South, Springville
Blair Buswell • 318 S. 671 West, Pleasant Grove
Casey Childs • 1275 S. 550 West, Salem
Michael Coleman • 2822 Rolling Knolls Drive, Provo
David Dibble • 863 E. 620 South, Orem
Ben and Kerri Hammond • 145 W. 640 North, American Fork
Cristall Harper • 359 N. 200 East, American Fork
Howard and Shari Lyon • 1084 E. 50 South, American Fork
J. Kirk Richards • 1130 Eagle Nest Drive, Woodland Hills
Bryan Mark Taylor • 182 W. Canyon Crest Road, Alpine
Jane Anne Woodhead • 583 N. Star Mill Lane, American Fork
For a complete list and maps, go to utahmastersfineart.com or the group’s Facebook page.
“I don’t know that they know what they wanted from me,” she said, adding that the setback didn’t change her style or deter her from her chosen career path.
“I don’t think any external factor could change who I am as an artist,” Harper said. “I think experiences that I have in my life bring out facets of who I am as an artist.
“And if 1997 Cristall, who was just embarking on the art program at BYU, as well as 2002 Cristall, who had walked and gotten her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, could look at 2019 Cristall, she would be overjoyed. She would be immensely proud of herself for succeeding, despite the nebulous program she had just completed.”
‘She opened every door’
In 2005, she and Matt bought an older house in American Fork because it had enough land for them to have animals.
“Three days later, we got a puppy, thinking we were so smart. And, wow, puppies are hard,” Harper said. “But she became our child.”
Her first studio on the property was in the home’s cramped attic, which was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. She began to paint Buttercup and, later, other dogs, developing her own style.
Unbeknownst to her, the owner of the Astoria Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyo., bought one of her dog paintings, kept an eye on her website for two years, and then invited her to join his gallery.
“It was a painting of Buttercup,” Harper said. “She opened every door that has given me the feet I stand on today. It’s all her.”
Harper said she “always expected to make it. But the surprise was the subject matter that took off. I never set out thinking, ‘I’m going to paint dogs because people love them.’”
Her high school art teacher recently commented on her Facebook page that her paintings “have an abstraction that is rooted in reality.” If you look closely at an area of one of her works, it looks abstract. But as you pull back to take in the entire painting, you see a vibrant reality.
That’s particularly true when she paints water — often with dogs splashing around in it. “I don’t even have to think how to paint water. It just happens,” Harper said. “My artist friends call me a water witch. They’re like, ‘How do you do it?’”
Harper has a pointed theory.
“It’s an accumulation of me resisting the temptation to take every damn workshop offered and saying, ‘No, I’m going to figure this out in the isolation and safety of my studio without having another artist teach me how he paints, and then I copy him,’” she said. “Authenticity is critical.”
Harper marvels at the demand for her canine paintings, but suspects the loving bond between dogs and humans gets some of the credit.
“How am I able to do 20 paintings for a gallery in Jackson Hole and most of them sell — but it’s not their dog in the painting?” she asks. “I don’t have an answer for that, but I know that the heart of it is that it reminds them of something that they have a close relationship with that they love. That brings them joy.”
Harper creates 150 to 200 paintings in a year. “A lot of times, she’s in the middle of 15 [paintings] or more,” Matt Harper said. “That’s very typical. And she’s always happy when she’s painting.”
She estimates that about 70 paintings a year are commissions from dog owners. “Short-haired animals are the easiest,” Harper said. “You can see their form. When it’s really shaggy — that’s hard!”
By the way, if you want a Cristall Harper painting, you’ll be buying an original. While there’s a “huge market” for prints, she said, “I’m not willing to invest my time and finances and energy in the print market. I am choosing to be an original-only artist.”
‘This is your dog’
As part of the Utah Masters Fine Art Studio Tour, Utahns are invited next weekend to see Harper’s current studio — an outbuilding that was a “hazmat hazard” and a “hoarder’s paradise” until the Harpers cleaned it out, refurbished it and added water, electricity, heating and cooling. Sometimes the couple’s four chickens wander in and out.
Refurbishing the studio was a prelude; two years ago, the Harpers demolished their house and built a new one in its place, while living in a camper out back for a year.
Half the outbuilding is her studio; the other half is her husband’s workshop where, among other things, he builds panels for her paintings. Harper said she has always had the support of her husband and her parents, who are “thrilled that I made it as an artist.”
“They don’t care what I’m painting,” she said. “They’re like, ‘You did it! You’re a painter!’”
The odds are against all artists. A 2017 survey commissioned by Artfinder found that 75% of them make less than $10,000 a year from their art — and 83.6% of female artists fall into that category.
Harper is still painting florals, as well as landscapes and seascapes. But as dog paintings sell, she added, “I need to give them more inventory.... The dogs have forced their way to the front of the pack, pardon the pun.”
Not that she minds. “My love of dogs is going nowhere, and I paint what I love,” she said.
Three years after her beloved Buttercup died in 2016, Harper chokes up when she talks about losing her. “I never thought I’d get a dog again, ever,” she adds.
INSTAGRAM ART SALE
Cristall Harper and five of her friends recently went to England for inspiration. They’re offering their paintings for sale on Instagram.
When • Thursday, Nov. 21
Instagram account • @paintingsfromengland
More info • To see all the paintings, send a friend request to the Instagram account. All requests will be accepted.
But recently, one of her husband’s employees shared photos of a puppy he was adopting — and the rest of the litter.
“I saw her picture, and I was like, ‘That’s my dog!’ Harper said. ”And I was like, ‘S---, s---, s---. I don’t want to get another dog. I’m not doing this.’ But my heart was like, ‘This is your dog.’”
When Harper and her husband met the puppy, there was an “instant connection.” Last Monday, they brought her home, where she’s “a handful and definitely a morning person, but she’s assimilating well and learning our pack rules.”
And the puppy’s name is … still undetermined. “We like Kiwi, Cricket, Luna, Makita.... We’ll settle on one before she turns 1,” Harper joked.
She plans to start painting the new dog immediately. She took a picture of the puppy and her brothers and sisters “that I know I’m going to paint. It’s going to be a puppy pile, and her face is looking right at you. And she’s darling.”