Columbus, Ohio USA
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Small Town Meets Big City
It's Countrypolitan at David's on High
By Jennifer Hambrick
December 2009 Issue

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Folk art sensation David Harden in his Short North shop where urban and rural meet.
© Gus Brunsman III

Madonna. Cher. Sting.


Self-taught artist David Harden, the owner of the new gift and home décor boutique David’s on High at 848 N. High St., always wanted to make his living doing art but never dreamed he’d be the single-name folk art sensation he is today.

“In the industry that I’m in, I’m only known as David.” Harden said. “When I was little I was fascinated by Cher. If you say ‘Bette’ you usually know people are talking about Bette Midler. It’s funny that in what I do, when they say ‘David,’ it’s a name that’s known, and people know who they’re talking about.”

Harden, 42, is the Ohio-born creator of “David”-brand primitive folk art that, thanks to a decade-long licensing career, now appears in stores nationwide in any number of forms, including mass-produced prints, resin and wood home décor items, holiday decorations, tableware and greeting cards.

Harden’s Short North store is the younger sister of David’s on High in Chillicothe, which Harden has operated since 1990. Both stores sell Americana gift and home décor items, but when he opened the Columbus store last September, Harden launched a new aesthetic concept that blends rural and urban styles.

“This store carries more of the funkier, city look. We don’t call it cosmopolitan, we call it countrypolitan,” Harden said.

Imagine folk paintings of open green fields surrounding red farmhouses, or black-faced sheep in a meadow. Now imagine those artworks displayed next to a sleek black bookcase, or hanging on a wall above an assortment of glass heirloom lamps or bowls weighted with mod-looking glass “pebbles.”

“I am trying to show that you can blend what I’ve done since I was 10 years old with some of the more contemporary glassware,” Harden said.”

David’s on High also offers a range of women’s wardrobe accessories, from rhinestone jewelry to chic-looking silk and wool scarves created by the fair trade textile company Open Hand Designs.

“I want to appeal to a larger audience,” Harden said. “Even though I have to stick to what I’ve been known for, I can branch out and do different things in Columbus. I want a store that appeals to everybody: the younger crowd, the older crowd, the homebodies, the not-so-homebodies. I want everything.”

Some might say Harden already has everything. The Columbus-based creator of thousands of country-style artworks licensed for thousands of nationally distributed products enjoys a big career with financial success many artists only dream of. That career began in Vinton County, Ohio, whose rolling green hills, picket fences and contented livestock Harden’s artwork has made famous.

David’s grandparents' farm in Vinton County instilled in him the imagery of the American countryside that now populates his artwork.

Geese and Grandparents
Harden came to know the Vinton County way of life on his grandparents’ farm. Every summer of his tender years he would leave the small-town hubbub of Waverly, Ohio, and move back in time to Ruby Ethel and Justice P. Harden’s eighteenth-century white clapboard farmhouse. They had had plumbing installed in 1967, the same year Harden was born, but Harden remembers his grandmother still trekking across her yard to the outhouse.

“She was set in her ways,” Harden said.

Ruby and Justice’s farm and the open fields, picket fences and painted barns of the Vinton County land around it gave Harden the images of the American countryside that now populate his artwork. His grandparents’ farm also became Harden’s first source of art supplies, where he found scrap material – old wooden boards, remnants of worn-out antique furniture, wagon wheels – to paint on.

“My grandmother (said) wholeheartedly, ‘sure, take this. Do what you want with it.’”

Still in the single-digit years and not yet of legal age to work, Harden took any odd job he could find to earn money to buy paints and paintbrushes. His first job was delivering newspapers on a paper route. He also washed cars, shoveled snow, cleaned people’s houses and mowed lawns. When Harden finally turned 16, he got his first real payroll job: mowing the grass at Waverly’s Evergreen Cemetery. With the wages from the cemetery job, Harden could trade up from the cheap nylon-bristled paintbrushes he bought at the sundry store to the sable-haired tools of professional artists.

“I’ve always heard that an artist in whatever form – a hairstylist, whatever – is only as good as the tools they use, and that’s very true,” Harden said.

But even before the good paintbrushes came along, some of the scenes and designs Harden painted on objects he found on his grandparents’ farm appeared first as pencil drawings on the homework he turned in at North Elementary School, in Waverly. Harden’s third grade teacher, Carol Burriss, may have been among the first to view a David Harden original.

“His papers were always a lark to grade because there were always pictures on them,” Burriss said. “At eight and nine years old, they draw a house with a chimney, if you’re lucky. (Harden) had shingles on the roof, he had bricks on the house, or he had the siding. It wasn’t just the average third-grader’s house drawing.”

Summer Picnic © David Harden

Sometimes, Burriss said, a gaggle of geese, two-dimensional premonitions of the concrete ones that would become popular front porch ornaments a decade later, would adorn his papers. Other times, Harden would illustrate his homework with scenes from stories he had read with the class.

“The academics David did, but he went to the beat of a different drummer,” Burriss said. “And I said, ‘David, we don’t all have to go to college and become accountants.’ I did say to him ‘maybe you should follow your artistic side.’”

That’s just what Harden did, with the help of his aunt Shirley and uncle Michael “Pappy” Murray and their daughter, Michelle Murray Fabro, who were all folk artists. Pappy Murray established a following after years of work as a self-taught woodcarver and furniture maker, and between 1984 and 1986 he ran Pappy’s Folk Art in Chillicothe. Shirley and Michelle painted in the primitive folk style. Early on Harden found in them an artistic family that understood the need to create.

“I didn’t want to work on cars in the garage with my dad. It wasn’t me,” Harden said. “And I felt like I was misplaced in the family, like I should be in that family. They were always creating.”

Harden spent long hours at the Murray household, learning how Pappy cut wooden figurines on his band saw and how Aunt Shirley mixed her paints into a distinctive color palette. He was 10 years old when he cut his first wooden figurines – children’s pull toys and tiny statues of cats – on his uncle’s saw.

“He had a lot of influence on my career,” Harden said of his uncle, “more than he knows.”

Harden sold his first artwork that same year. His mother had organized a yard sale and granted Harden permission to set up a table to sell some of his creations. Harden says his first customer was Joy Shoemaker, who as a secretary in the Waverly schools has for decades watched Waverly’s children grow up.

Nantucket Silhouette © David Harden

“When I saw David’s artwork at the beginning, I thought, well, that reminds me of Pappy,” Shoemaker said.

Harden had managed to sell all of his creations at that sale, unwittingly gathering a following of his own. A couple years later, Pappy Murray encouraged him to create a distinctive way of signing his creations so as to protect his artwork in an industry that was then becoming competitive.

The 12-year-old Harden had mastered many tasks with the paintbrush, but cursive was not among them. So Harden painted his first name the only way he knew how: in straight lines of unequal lengths overlapping each other at odd angles. This stylized signature is the trademarked “David” brand that now appears on Harden’s original artwork and on the front door of both David’s on High shops.

Turning 16 and getting a driver’s license meant Harden could transport himself to and from his uncle’s workshop in Chillicothe almost whenever he liked. His apprenticeship was brief: when Murray opened Pappy’s Folk Art in Chillicothe in 1984 after being laid off from his job as a locomotive engineer, Harden made figurines, tiny block houses, checkerboards, weathervanes, cabinets and other wood décor items as inventory for the store. Often he’d paint the little houses in seasonal themes and decorate the edges of the checkerboards with beautifully brushed designs. Pappy was impressed.

“He was so good that I told him I thought he should have a wood shop of his own,” Murray said. “I suggested he begin producing (pieces) on his own and selling them on his own.”

Fried Chicken and Mystery
By the time his uncle urged him to start selling his artwork, Harden already knew he wanted to make a living doing art. He attended Ohio University and considered studying art there, but found the instruction at odds with the style he had cultivated on his own and wanted to preserve.

“Being self-taught, it’s difficult when others want to change the way you express your art, and I wasn’t so much into that,” Harden said.

He majored in advertising and marketing, and just as odd jobs enabled the younger Harden to buy art supplies, Harden the college student worked his way through school and paid his rent with the proceeds from his real-world job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Chillicothe. There he did mostly customer service work – waiting on diners at the counter, assembling their meals. He was never promoted to chicken fryer – a job he says he always wanted because, he said, “it’s the most important job; it’s all about the chicken” – but he did learn the nuts-and-bolts of running a business.

He also got to work with people who appreciated his creative side. When one of the restaurant’s assistant managers gave the general manager, Carol Chaney, a basket Harden had decorated with some of his painted designs, Chaney and the others on the restaurant’s staff saw Harden in a different light.

“I think everyone was always real impressed with his talent and knew he would go way farther than Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Chaney said.

Clover Leap © David Harden

Chaney helped him along that path. Ensconced in his digs in a basement apartment, Harden had no space for a workshop of his own. Chaney worked long hours, when her car would be out with her and her garage empty.

“He had saws and things like that, and he had nowhere to build his pieces, and I offered him to use my garage,” Chaney said.

Both say the arrangement was comfortable. Harden stayed on at Kentucky Fried Chicken after finishing up at OU and while planning how to market his artwork. He had work on hand to sell but no store in which to sell it. Reaching back to his youth and his mother’s yard sale, Harden held an open house, turning his tiny basement apartment into a store for a weekend art sale. Harden Xeroxed flyers announcing the sale and gave them to people he knew to distribute around town. He moved all the furniture out of his apartment and decorated the place with shelves and shelves of his folk art pieces in cozy, eye-catching displays.

“That was amazing, that was truly amazing,” Harden said of the public response to the open house. “People would literally line the sidewalk. Of course, more people would come because (they would wonder) ‘what’s going on?’”

The weekend sale was truncated when all the merchandise sold out after the first day.

“That’s when I really realized that there was the need to have a retail store, and I kind of opened the retail store knowing that there was somewhat of a need or a demand or a want or desire for what I did,” Harden said.

Starry-Eyed Snowman © David Harden

In 1990, David’s on High (Chillicothe) was born. Harden stocked his boutique with the same wood-and-paint Americana creations – all the things that had sold so well straight out of his basement apartment. But he needed more merchandise in order for the place to look like the overflowing gift basket he envisioned. That’s when Kendra Heinlen, owner of the Morgan House in Dublin, stepped in. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Heinlen had retailed some of Pappy Murray’s folk art after Pappy’s Folk Art closed, and later had met Harden and sold some of his work.

“I packed a van full of goodies from my own store and took them down and let him start from that and told him he could pay me when he could,” Heinlen said.

Harden’s marketing prowess was at its peak in the weeks before the store’s first Christmas, when he developed the idea that had helped make the apartment sale a success: display the artwork in a way that transforms the display space into a beautiful new world and transports the shopper to a different time and place. For two weeks, the store’s front windows were shrouded behind an intriguing veil of brown paper, while inside Harden revamped the merchandise displays. On the day Harden reopened the store, a line of customers extended down the street in anticipation. When they entered, they walked into a winter wonderland, where snowmen stood in icy painted scenes and one-of-a-kind Santa figures ho-ho-hoed around Christmas trees adorned with hand-painted ornaments.

Harden extended the seasonal merchandise display idea into other seasons, creating a witches’ den (complete with fortune tellers) for Halloween and rolling out the red, white and blue bunting for the Fourth of July. But the unveiling of each new seasonal display always came after a week or two when the store was closed and paper blocked the view through the front window.

“It was always built around mystery. You didn’t know what was happening behind those papered windows,” Harden said.

Making Gifts, Giving Gifts
Configuring merchandise displays around holiday themes remains Harden’s primary marketing tactic at David’s on High in Chillicothe. But the nationwide fame the David brand enjoys today was built well beyond the walls of his Chillicothe store.

In 2000, Emil Colucci, president of Westerville-based manufacturer ESC Trading Company, Inc., approached him with a business proposition: would Harden be interested in licensing his artwork for use as decoration on products, which ESC Trading Company could mass produce?

Harden said yes. First his paintings were mass-produced and sold as framed prints. Then, he says, other companies started knocking on his door wanting to make other products based on his artwork.

“Then the next company would approach me and (say), ‘we do resin products and we’d like to transfer this into resin.’ And then it went from there to fabrics to wallpaper to dinnerware,” Harden said.

Now Harden’s artwork appears on anything from jar candles to greeting cards to Christmas tree ornaments to tableware. ESC Trading Company alone has manufactured at least 100 products based on Harden’s designs, including a three-dimensional resin pineapple and 3-D renderings of farm animals and buildings that appear in his paintings. When the primitive folk art style was at the height of its popularity about ten years ago, ESC also manufactured a line of three-dimensional resin snowmen based on Harden’s designs.

“David makes a tremendous collection of snowmen. We were able to turn them into a three-dimensional piece, and it took off like gangbusters,” Colucci said. “They had that country primitive look, but they had that touch of whimsy that made people smile.”

David Harden was asked to design and lend his art for the very first of two folk-art themed
McDonald's restaurants in the United States, located in Chillicothe, Ohio.

The whimsy of Harden’s work is why Jana Detty, a regional supervisor for McDonald’s, approached Harden two years ago to decorate one of her Chillicothe-area restaurants. A longtime customer of David’s on High in Chillicothe, Detty commissioned him to redecorate her restaurant when it was slated for remodeling. Today the restaurant boasts four original David Harden murals depicting Chillicothe buildings and the town’s surrounding rural landscape, scenes with his famous black-faced sheep and a three-foot tall pineapple to welcome diners.

“They just love it,” Detty said. “We have visitors that walk in and look and say, ‘Wow, who did this? Where can I get those paintings?”

The answer to that question is, almost anywhere. Nearly a decade after first licensing his artwork for mass production, Harden enjoys tremendous name recognition among primitive folk art aficionados. He remembers the day back in 2003 when, while scouring the Atlanta Merchandise Mart for hot new home décor trends and new ways to market his own creations, he realized how much of each wholesaler’s merchandise was based on his own designs.

“When I started going from showroom to showroom (and saw) just how much stuff had been created from what I had done, I literally was overwhelmed. I happy-cried,” Harden said.

The success of his Chillicothe store and his licensing career has enabled Harden not only to expand his business to the Short North, but also to give to charity, including those that help people living with HIV/AIDS, homeless people and, in deference to his store cats, Merlin (Chilocothe, now deceased) and Annie (Columbus), homeless animals. Harden says he sees a connection between his years in the gift industry and giving back to his community.

“I don’t think it’s about gifts and home décor anymore, which is what I based my business around, and I don’t think it should be that anymore so much as, ‘I can help here,’” Harden said. “I think that’s why I’m so influenced by the fair trade idea. I just believe in that. I’ve been very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had, and if I can give back in that way, then I guess I’m kind of fair trade, too, in a way.”

Harden, who now lives in Columbus, knows he has his work cut out for him to make countrypolitan catch on in the Short North.

“In an art community, folk art is sort of the unseen art,” Harden said, “and I think it’s just going to take a moment for people to realize what it is exactly that I do and to see that you can mix it and it can be very contemporary if you like, it can be very country if you like.”

Harden has been decorating his Columbus store with displays and merchandise intended to appeal to the unique tastes of Columbusites. Recently, he outfitted David’s on High in silver merchandise in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Gallery Hop. On Black Friday, Harden unveiled limited-edition buckeye Christmas tree ornaments as Columbus-store exclusives – just in time for Christmas shopping season.

But at he end of the day, Harden says he’s just trying to express himself, and how small town meets big city, with the new David’s on High.

“It’s so odd to be placed from Vinton County on a farm to living and working in the Short North,” Harden said. “I’m learning the differences between the two. That’s why I wanted to make this store especially a blend.”


Editors Note: The Columbus location featured in this story closed in 2010.


© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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