Images of the King: New exhibit opens at Birthplace today

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When Elvis Presley hit it big in the 1950s, Betty Harper was discovering her artistic talent.
“Elvis and I hung together over the years,” Harper said.
The Nashville-based artist has been rendering the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s visage for 55 years. She’s captured his iconic look with pencil, watercolors, oils, pastels, charcoal and more.
Sketches from her early days will hang alongside paintings and drawings from throughout her career at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum. The free exhibit will open during a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. today.
“You can watch how it changes,” Harper, 66, said. “It’s a message for young artists: No matter how it looks when you start, if you keep practicing, it progresses as you go along.”
The collection was displayed at Graceland from Aug. 1 to Oct. 19. It’ll be in Tupelo until Jan. 12, followed by a stop at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville.
One of her pieces has three images of Elvis. She’d finished the first two images on the morning of Aug. 16, 1977, then put it aside. Later that day, a newscaster interrupted regular programming.
“I knew what it was when he said, ‘Breaking news from Memphis …,’” Harper said.
She turned off the TV the day Elvis died, and went to work with a third image clearly in mind. Exactly one year later, the finished drawing was installed on a billboard sponsored by the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Memphis.
Harper is the official artist for Elvis Presley Enterprises. Her creations have appeared on guitar straps, cups, clocks, dog collars and other memorabilia.
Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation in Tupelo, said one painting at www.bettyharper.com seemed perfect for the birthplace.
The “Dream” painting features the words “Never forget your dreams” over Elvis’ image.
“She allowed us to put it on a T-shirt,” he said, “and it’s been very popular for us. Her, too.”
Some of Harper’s originals will be for sale during the exhibit, and many of the prints are on sale in the gift shop.
Harper said she’s hoping to meet with Elvis fans today and get their impressions.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I love meeting people and talking with them.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com