Inside the Studio: Dara Harper

“Color is Essential”

by words and photos by C. Birch

Dara Harper’s painting studio takes up just a portion of a dark and cold basement. But this basement atmosphere has little time to make an impression as an incredible burst of color transforms the barely-windowed space. Her studio is so full of color that the impact isn’t necessarily one piece but the collective force of color that hits. The acrylic paint splashes around the studio. Abstract and figurative forms gleam from various surfaces.

“First of all, color is essential,” Harper describes as we survey her work, “Color… and history.” There is a young black boy looking at us stoically from one canvas. He could be a boy from the early 1900s or a well-dressed boy of today. There are men in hats, ready for work, passing by on another canvas. Two young figures, much more abstract, walk towards us on a smaller canvas.

Many of her paintings include men. She thinks this is because she is striving to understand the tension between being a strong, independent black woman and being a Christian woman who is married, supporting and working with her husband. Any figures that appear spring from a world of abstraction and are brought to life by Harper’s skill.

file_003Deep patches, drips, and strokes of purposeful color and collage all add to the atmosphere of her paintings. Behind Harper’s easel, an almost 8-foot vertical canvas is covered with swaths of color, each bursting from the canvas like musical beats and flashes of light —expressive but uncategorizable. This atmosphere is her signature style, whether there is a figurative element or not. Figures often show up when she “is trying to say something,” she explains. “You can talk about the paintings, but you’ll never know the whole story.” Figures give her a chance to develop that backstory. She feels that her paintings succeed when they evoke a conversation.

Harper is a West Akron native. Her family has lived here for generations, and to her, being in Akron means staying true to family. Being from Akron also means that she is influenced by the local industry, with all of its industrial fluctuations, men gaining and losing jobs and the affect on a family’s identity.

Her parents both worked full-time jobs but painted in their free time, which introduced her to the medium and skill. Harper attended art school, but it wasn’t a clean start and stop. Marriage and kids (including triplets) peppered the years, but she eventually finished and got her MA. School taught her the riches of art history and to maintain control over her materials.

One of Harper’s professors ultimately influenced her extensive use of color when he said, “Those that use every color win.” In addition to color, she fell in love with Abstract Expressionism, a movement that continues to influence her work. Harper enjoys the attention to material and has respect for all of the factors that go into a painting outside of the painter’s control.

When Harper isn’t painting in her studio, she is teaching art to infants – 8th graders at Emmanuel Christian Academy. You may find her exploring new work at the Zeber-Martell Studios in North Hill or enjoying all of the beauty that Mustard Seed Market has to offer. If you are interested in her artwork, you can search for her on or contact her through


Birch is not an Akron native but has fallen in line with the natives. While not on the search for Akron area artists, Birch is a lover of the outdoors (especially birch trees), people who make things, and ice cream. So, if you make ice cream outside, please contact C. Birch immediately.