Animal Lover Bill Harrah: Wild Kingdom [elan magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Pictured here by Bill Harrah: “Whitetail Fawn,” black Prismacolor pencil on Coquille board, 9” x 12”
Working from his Wolf Run Studio in Clifton, artist Bill Harrah draws on the beauty and wonder of the animal kingdom. Inspiration can be as close as his window-a tufted titmouse scurries by, an eastern chipmunk finds a home under his deck, and on occasion a white-tailed fawn presses its nose right up to the glass.
Each summer, a couple of Canadian geese take up residence in the pond behind his house.
Most days, Bill can be found studying these fabulous creatures and sketching them in pencil. His detailed drawings eventually find their way into his extensive catalog of prints and note cards.
“I love drawing animals and birds,” says the West Virginia native. “I grew up admiring the perfection of nature and now feel lucky to bring what I see to life.”
Animal lovers across the country concur, for they snap up his cards by the dozen from the more than 400 stores that carry them-including Hallmark and National Park Service gift shops, museum gift shops and the National Zoo.
Bill also sells his wares at area craft shows where he has a steady following. On a recent Sunday, patrons flocked to his booth at the Fairfax High School Craft Show in Fairfax City.
“I always make it a point to come to Ns craft show so I can stock up on Bill’s cards,” exclaims customer and feline lover Rosette Risell, who traveled all the way from Southern Maryland to buy some of Bill’s cat cards. “His drawings are incredible, and the cats are just so pretty. I buy sets of them each fall to use year-round. It always makes me happy to send his cards to friends.”
Fairfax resident Beverly Myers had never seen Bill’s work before this event, but says his rendering of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia caught her eye: “My friend is just about to graduate from UVA, and I know shell love this print. I also bought the note cards of the same image for her mom and got a pack of cards featuring golden retrievers for myself.”
One of Bill’s customers created quite the ruckus when she stopped by his booth earlier to
pick up the commissioned portrait of her beloved dogs.
“When I handed her the artwork, she started screaming and hollering,” Bill says with a grin. “It was so sweet that she got all excited like that. People started coming over to my booth to see what all the commotion was.”
Bill didn’t start his career as the Dr. Doolittle of note cards. After attending Florida’s Ringling School of Art and Design, he says he was “anxious to set the art world on fire.”
Until his big break came, he took a job in the art department of The Hecht Company. The Washington Daily News soon hired him away, as did five ad agencies in the six years that followed.
“I had 10 jobs in 11 years,” Bill says. “My resume sure was a mess, but the job offers kept coming and each time the pay got better.”
Although the additional money was welcome, Bill says the thing that really kept him job-hopping was the education he received.
“Every time I changed companies, I learned something new about my craft from the art director,” he explains. “I felt like I was getting paid to get a master’s in fine arts. I loved it.”
Sometimes, in fact, he’d work two jobs at once—such as the time he moonlighted for a firm that was designing exhibits for the 1964 Worlds Fair.
After creating artwork about emerging countries in Africa, Bill spotted a lovely artist named Dianne. They married three months later. When she got pregnant with their son Andy in 1969, the couple decided the best way to care for their family and manage their careers was to start their own design firm. That year, they founded Providence Graphics.
“It wasn’t hard to get clients at that time because we both had so many connections,” notes Bill. “We worked for ad agencies, government agencies, trade associations and big businesses like Marriott. It was perfect because when Andy was a baby, wed put him in a playpen between our drafting desks so we could watch him while we worked.”
As their boy grew, so did the business. Eventually, the couple employed a staff of artists and designers. But in the late ’80s when computer graphics became the industry standard, the Harrahs knew they needed to adapt.
“Dianne was able to pick up the new technology pretty quickly, but it just didn’t take with me,” admits Bill. “After a while, I realized that I was wasting my time and the computers time, so I packed it in.”
Rather than admit defeat, Bill returned to his passion: realistic illustration. He started sketching birds and animals by the hundreds. In 1992, he decided it was time to create a new company. Named for the stream that flows behind his studio, Wolf Run Studio was born.
When he isn’t creating “Distinctive Pet Portraits” for clients, Bill can be found in the woods, by a nearby stream or at the National Zoo studying exotic breeds such as giant pandas.
In the late 1990s, Bill expanded his portfolio to include churches, historic buildings and national monuments in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston. His favorite is the Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park.
“What touches me most is that at the base of the bronze and granite carved Celtic cross is a life-sized Irish wolfhound. It was erected for all the Irish that were killed in the battle there, and the dog is so poignant because he seems to be mourning his lost master. That dog is just so lovable and loyal that almost every day, people leave real dog biscuits for him right in front of his nose. I’ll tell you what, that chokes me up every time I think about it.”
Bill’s own loyal canines, Ralph and Millie, often can be found at his feet when he isn’t traveling, hanging out at the zoo or watching nature’s parade outside his studio window.
When he can’t find a way to take photos of his own, Bill says he works from photographs of birds and animals that friends and fans give him. And almost always, when he is hired to draw a new pet portrait, he asks the owner if he can create note cards from the drawing: “They usually say yes, for not only do they think their pet is the most fantastic looking creature-they know that dog or cat will live on and be admired by other animal lovers.”
For more visit: www.wolfrunstudio.com.