Winter 2008: Yes, that’s a painting
Lambertville resident Harley Copic’s oil painting of military aircraft adorn the walls at the Pentagon.
LAMBERTVILLE – Oil is pricey these days.
To some, Harley Copic’s oils are priceless.
Since 1971, the Lambertville resident has been doing large oil paintings of military aircraft.
These are highly detailed, impeccably accurate, almost photographic renditions of aircraft in action – everything from World War II fighter planes to F-4 Phantom jets to big C-17 medivac transports.
Harley, 71, is among a legion of select artists nationwide who regularly donate their works to the U.S. Air Force Art Collection. Many of his paintings hang in the offices of top Pentagon officials. They typically can take two to nine months or more to create.
In the art market, they’ve commanded prices ranging from $2,500 to well over $20,000.
Harley has about 40 paintings that he’s donated to the collection adorning air bases and Pentagon offices. His works are coveted by military aircraft enthusiasts around the world. Fultz Gallery in Monroe does the framing.
He’s been to Iraq twice to gather reference material, most recently last summer, flying on a big C-17 transport that shuttles wounded Americans from Iraq to a hospital at an air base in Ramstein, Germany, and then on to a hospital in Jackson, Miss.
Harley was able to hitch a ride on military aircraft because of his record of producing works for the Air Force Art Collection. Over the years, he’s flown on all kinds of military aircraft to get firsthand inspiration for his paintings.
His most recent trip gave him a rare vantage point that few civilians experience.
“It was kind of humbling, that’s the only thing I can tell you,” he says. He got a firsthand view at the hospital at Balad, an air base on the outskirts of Baghdad nicknamed “Mortaritaville” because of the frequent attacks by rebels. “It’s under attack just about every day,” he says.
The place has a hospital – a sprawling maze of tents, segregated between an American ward and an Iraqi ward. “The Iraqi ward is this huge wide long tent and they have a blue curtain hanging down the center of the tent. They have insurgents on one side and friendlies on the other side. They don’t want the insurgents to see who the friendlies are. Anything insurgents could see might enable them to take reprisals against the families of the good guys.”
Harley’s visit was special because two of his sons, Todd, 38, and Terry, 36, members of the Ohio Air National Guard, were deployed at Balad while he was visiting.
“That’s why I basically talked the Pentagon into letting me go over — so I could visit with my kids and see what they were doing in a war zone,” he says. “My wife wasn’t exactly overjoyed with the three of us being over there at the same time,” he admits.
In addition to his artist’s perspective, he gained a new appreciation for the difficult position the embattled country is in and the U.S. impact in the region. “There’s a lot of stuff going on over there that the public doesn’t see and, at least in my case, it keeps you from leaning too far to the right or too far to the left,” he says.
His trip back to the U.S. on a hospital plane full of wounded warriors also was sobering. “Some people had a very heroic attitude and a positive attitude and some cried all the way from Iraq to Germany,” he says. “You don’t want to intrude on their privacy and ask them exactly what happened though.”
Harley’s had a love of military aircraft since his youth, when classmates would tease him because all he did in school was draw pictures of airplanes.
During high school, he planned to become a fighter pilot, but his eyesight kept him grounded.
Yet his eye for detail remains keen.
Though he never had formal art education, he snared various art-related jobs – first at an ad agency and then as an architectural illustrator before eventually ending up as a graphic designer at The Blade in Toledo, retiring in 2003.
He began to paint military aircraft seriously in 1969. One of his first works was a P-47 Thunderbolt, a World War II fighter, which he hung over his fireplace.
Then he stumbled across an article by a writer who explained how he convinced the government that he could do a better story about an aircraft if he could fly in one. Borrowing on the idea, Harley wrote the Pentagon and convinced them that he could paint a much better portrait of an F-4 Phantom jet if he went up in one.
His hobby has taken him to new heights since. “I’ve ridden in about every fighter plane the Air Force has got that has two seats in it,” he says. “That’s the only way you really get a taste of what’s going on. Riding in a fighter plane, there’s no way you could ever put the feeling into a painting of what’s going on and impart that on the canvas without experiencing it.”
He’ll take photos to work from and produces the paintings in his in-home studio in Bedford Township’s Green Hills subdivision.
He turned nine paintings over to the Air Force Art Collection this year. One was of a jet sitting in a desert sandstorm. It hangs in the outer office of the chief of staff at the Pentagon. If you look closely, you might see a likeness in the portrait. “I happened to paint my son into the picture,” he says.
Harley says he’ll keep up his high-flying hobby as long as possible – “till my eyesight gives out or my hands quit working. Until I’m looking up at the grass instead of looking down at the grass.”
“It’s a lot of fun, and most people never even get a chance to do something like this,” he says.