When you’re young and uncertain, who knows when that day will come that suddenly shapes the rest of your life? And who knows, years later, when you will want your freedom back?
Begin in the summer of 1970 in the small city of Vallauris in southeastern France. Having locked the door to their small, working-class apartment in Paris’ 19th arrondissement—where they have been living during a year abroad, with money saved up from their jobs back in the U.S.—young André and Bobbie Harvey have escaped to the countryside for a few days. They now stand in front of a shop window filled with the glazed pottery for which this mountainous region northeast of Cannes is known.
André, a flaxen-haired, strongly built young man of medium height, is transfixed not by the pottery, but by the welded metal sculptures that share the window. It is a time and a place when shopkeepers take weekends off, but the sign in the window promises the proprietors will be back on Monday.
“Going to France was a soul-searching trip for me,” André says today in his studio on the banks of the Brandywine River. “It was a time to embark on a career, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be, even after working as a writer for Scholastic magazines in New York and as a teacher.
“When I was in college at Virginia,” he continues, “all my buddies were going to job interviews on campus to be bankers or lawyers. I skipped them.”
He admits he was a free spirit then, drawn to excitement as much as the classroom. But, at this moment in this obscure French ville, he turns away from the window and says to Bobbie, “This is what I want to do.”
The couple hangs around Vallauris until the Provencal couple who own the shop—she glazes pottery, he is the sculptor—return. The sculptor has no money to pay an assistant, so André agrees to work in exchange for a midday meal. “I knew the French ate big lunches,” Harvey says with a grin.
The road from assistant in Vallauris to recognized master sculptor was not an easy one. Back in the U.S., André volunteered as an intern for an older Brandywine bronze sculptor, Charles Parks, this time without the free lunch. And Bobbie, a petite, dark-haired woman who can be relaxed and intense in almost the same moment, returned to her work at Penn’s New Bolton veterinary center to support them. André’s first sculptures were in Fiberglas because he couldn’t afford bronze.
But then, in 1975, a chance meeting resulted in Harvey’s being commissioned to do sculptures for all five of Tiffany’s fabled windows—perhaps New York’s most famous street-level showplace at the time—and his career was suddenly underway.
In the years since, Harvey has become best known for his stunning, pioneering animal work, large, extremely realistic bronzes of snapping turtles, Nubian goats, shadowy manatees, wallowing pigs, and all sorts of other animals, in all sizes. They are in private collections and public venues from San Francisco to Switzerland, South Africa to South Carolina. But the largest collection is in his native Brandywine Valley.
Harvey’s local menagerie includes a huge bronze pig hunkering beside the creek bed outside the Brandywine River Museum, a frog and two turtles amusing children in Winterthur’s Enchanted Woods, and goats prancing on a retaining wall outside a wooded private residence. Two turtles were adopted by the late Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie, whose studios are a few miles upriver.
Harvey was a restless country kid, equally fascinated by animals and automobiles. He shared a “snake farm” with his brother and tinkered with junked cars, two activities that gave him the observational and mechanical skills necessary to create his sculptural masterpieces.
But neither André nor Bobbie Harvey want the words “animal sculptor” to be his epitaph. Indeed, Harvey has created oil paintings, portrait statues, and delicate jewelry, all for sale in his gallery at Breck’s Mill, a short jaunt away from his studio.
As with many creative couples who marry young, the Harveys are a team, like a chef who reigns in the kitchen and the maitre d’ who runs the front of the house. Andre is the artist, and Bobbie is the business manager and publicist.
Late last summer, on a beautiful September afternoon, 40 years after they stared into the future through the window in Vallauris, André and Bobbie Harvey are in Mt. Cuba’s hilltop garden celebrating the unveiling of Andre’s most recent major creation, Samara Turning with the Wind.
It is a large depiction of the maple tree fruit of the same name, those magical wings that spiral down into our lawns. Harvey’s single samara is 10 feet tall and stands atop a three-foot pedestal. Yet, it miraculously turns with each breath of wind or touch of the hand. Like many of his works, Samara can be appreciated by art lovers and engineers alike.
Bobbie is at home among the patrons and other guests, the ever-charming hostess. André, looking urbane in a jacket and bowtie, is charming and friendly, a witty man with an infectious dry humor. But he can also be quite shy, his somewhat short, callused fingers looking for refuge, intertwined behind him or clasped in front.
As he is asked to pose beside Samara for the many digital cameras and cell phones, André’s broad smile painfully sags at the corners, and one can guess he wishes he were that kid again going off into the woods in search of snakes.
I have been at the Harvey studio once before, when André had been working on a large sculpture of a turtle, and he abandoned his welding torch to show me how the work was put together, then took me on a tour of the other buildings, excitedly pointing out his restored 1955 Citroen onze chevaux that once transported him and Bobbie across France and Morocco.
The Harveys are veteran antiquers and acquirers, their house filled with collections of all sorts—André is partial to automobile and garage paraphernalia—blended in with his art work. Even the architecture in some instances is a door from this old building, a window from somewhere else. But it works—a home that can double as a great place for a party or a cozy refuge to read a book on a rainy fall afternoon.
It is such a gloomy day when I again visit the Harveys. It has been a grueling few weeks for André since the Samara opening, Bobbie says. He’s been working almost non-stop casting pieces in the foundry he uses in nearby Chester.
“Once I’m focused, I’m laser-guided,”
André says. “I don’t even want to answer the phone.”
But now we are below the house on a wooded path enclosed by stone walls Harvey himself built by hand. Every few feet we find one of Harvey’s new works, which have no genetic ties to his smooth-skinned animals. Rather they are megaliths of single stones piled high, one atop another, defying gravity, reaching upward. They are at once modern and lean and primitive like Easter Island icons. “We don’t know what to call them,” André says, searching for a name or phrase to encapsulate the dozen or so statues before abandoning the effort. They are different from what he has done before, but only in form and not in approach. “When I start a sculpture, it takes on a life of its own,” he says. “It’s like an animal; it almost comes alive.”
But Harvey is still in the early throes of this new stage, and even Bobbie is trying to get her thoughts around what it all means. Perhaps she is wondering how to explain it, as she has so well explained her husband’s work all these years.
But maybe it’s simply that André, the young teacher who rode to class on a motorcycle, the adventurer who hitched his way across Europe with a buddy and who ran with the bulls at Pamplona, has now decided to escape the narrow sculptor’s mold in which he finds himself. Perhaps he once again wants to break free.