While art galleries are shut down, residents don’t need a ticket to see local artist Gus Harper’s latest installation—merely playful curiosity, a keen eye, and a little bit of luck.
Across Los Angeles, Harper and his friends have scattered over 70 painted wood cutout ‘gems’, each containing an envelope with money and instructions.
The lucky finders acquire a one-of-a-kind iridescent art piece and are told to either keep the cash or pay it forward to someone who needs it more. They are also encouraged to make a donation to the Pilot Light Foundation, which builds economic opportunities for people living in extreme poverty in Africa.
“I realized things were going pretty well for me and I thought ‘well I really like sharing enthusiasm and happiness with others, how can I make this something that’s more inclusive for all people, not just the people who can afford to buy art?’,” said Harper. “I realized this was a great idea to give back a little, so I decided to also partner with Pilot Light.”
Anyone who’s not feeling up to street sleuthing is welcome to purchase a gem directly from Harper’s studio where 50 percent of the profits will go to Pilot Light. Harper is also selling artwork to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica.
The money hidden on the ‘street’ gems ranges from $2 to $100, with a goal of bringing whimsy and excitement into people’s day-to-day lives.
“It’s great to see people having a lot of fun in a day that might have otherwise been dreary,” said Harper. “Often people find these gems and then post and tag me on social media saying ‘the luckiest thing happened to me today: I was walking down the street, I found this gem and feel so lucky I get to take it home’.”
While the Gemscape installation strives to spread light in a dark time, Harper said this is the sort of project he would do regardless of the pandemic.
“I do projects all the time and people ask what are you doing this for and I say for fun!” said Harper. “Why does a street artist paint a mural and walk away? Sometimes just for the joy of life and self expression.”
This philosophy is central to Harper’s artwork. He is known for using rich reds and blues to depict primal and naturalistic imagery that expresses themes of spiritual uplift and the childlike cheer that comes from imagination and creativity.
“I heard this theory that we’re all artists when we’re little kids and we just stop when we grow up. If you ask any six-year-old they’ll confidently say ‘yeah I’m a great artist’,” said Harper. “My art career started with me doing coloring books with my best friend Justin. We both thought we were going to be artists when we grew up, but unlike most people that never faded away for me.”
Harper’s playful gems come in many different shapes and forms. Some of the most common are his captivating blue and green eyes as well as his original diamond design. While diamonds are molecularly symmetrical, Harper finds perfection boring and loves stretching dimensions.
“I started making diamonds that were wonky, uneven, and misshapen, and I found it so much more interesting,” said Harper. “We’re all asymmetrical, so I thought this was a good chance to show off the idea of finding beauty in irregularities.”
Other gem designs include chess pieces and paper airplanes. One of Harper’s favorites is his knight, which represents getting to your destination via an indirect path and overcoming hurdles with ease, because the knight moves in an ‘L’ shape and can jump over other chess pieces.
The paper airplanes symbolize daydreams and are actually capable of flying. Harper recently launched an eight foot airplane that successfully soared over a mountain range.