LITTLE ROCK Although Gene Hatfield has often said he began his career in art at the "Normal School," he probably would be the first to say his life has been anything but normal.
Hatfield became intrigued with art at age 5. He served his country during World War II, traveled abroad as he developed his artistic career, married and became the father of three and pursued his love of art. He retired from the University of Central Arkansas after more than 30 years of teaching art. Not only is he a well-known painter and sculptor, he's also a published author of three novels.
Barbara Satterfield, director of UCA's Baum Gallery of Fine Art, said "Gene has tirelessly promoted visual art and historic preservation in Conway for decades. I met him when we were trying to save the old Depot Park in downtown Conway in the early 1970s, and he was present at the public meeting in the fall of 2007 for the Aurora Rising mural for City Hall. I admire his energy and resolve to advance visual art in Conway."
Born Nov. 23, 1925, in Conway, he was the youngest of five children born to the late Lester and Gertrude Hatfield.
Gone are his sisters Maurine and Mildred and his brother, Frank. His only living sibling, Myra Edmondson, now lives in Conway not far from his house.
"I was born about five blocks from where I live today,"Hatfield said. "On the corner of Simms and Center streets, near Central College for Girls (now known as Central Baptist College).
"Memories of living there are buried deep in my psyche," he said. "I remember my sister Mildred being in program at Central College."
Hatfield said his art career "began at the Normal School."
The Arkansas State Normal School was the precursorof Arkansas State Teachers College, now known as the University of Central Arkansas. The purpose of the Normal School was to train students to become teachers.
Hatfield said he could recall "the little green building right in the middle of campus.
"It was used as an example of what a 12-year (grade) school should be like," he said.
His oldest sister, Maurine, who was 18 years older than he was, was a student at the Normal School and he spent his first two years of school there. He said his first real art experience was at the Normal School. "I remember seeing Ms. Bernard, a college art teacher, who came to our first-grade class and painted a pastel of an autumn tree.
"I remember it vividly," he said. "I thought, 'Oh, I want to do that someday. I know I can,' and sure enough, I have."
The family moved to Mount Vernon in 1932 when he was 7 and in the second grade.
"The Roaring '20s were gone and the Great Depression had hit," Hatfield said. "Momma and Daddy moved to Mount Vernon where we could farm. They were both originally from Mount Vernon. We lived off the vegetables we grew."
Hatfield's father was a building contractor and had built many homes in Conway during the 1920s. His business suffered, however, a result of the stock marketcrash in 1929, forcing the move to Mount Vernon.
The Hatfields moved back to Conway four or five years later, when Gene started junior high school. "I finished Conway High School in 1942, a year early," he said. He went to summer school and entered Arkansas State Teachers College.
"I went for two years, and then went into the Army in 1944," he said. "We trained and in September of 1944 we waded ashore near Marseilles (France).
"That was my introduction to France," he said with a smile, noting the irony in the fact that he would later marry a woman from France. "We marched on up toward the front line, passing through Aix-en-Provence, the home of (Paul) Cezanne (the artist). In September and October, we were in Northern France in the Battle of the Bulge. We crossed the Rhine River, working our way to Berlin, looking for Hitler."
It was during this time that Hatfield, walking near a tank, was hit by shrapnel from an anti-tank grenade that "hit a village up to the left of us," he said. "I thought I was blinded. Shrapnel cut the muscle under my left eye."
He was taken to a field hospital where a surgeon removed the shrapnel and saved his eye. He was then sent to a hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he recovered. He was discharged in 1945 when the war ended, having been awarded the Purple Heart medal.
"I got back home (to Arkansas) in time for school and used the GI Bill to re-enter State Teachers College," he said. He graduated in 1947 with a bachelor of science in education degree in speech and English. "There was no art major here at that time," he said, noting, however, that he did minor in art.
It was after college graduation that Hatfield experimented with another art form - acting. "I toured with a Shakespeare Company doing Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet across the state of Arkansas," he said. "We made money with it."
Hatfield said he always want to be an actor. "Paul Newman was same age as I am," Hatfield said. "People would tell me I looked like him.
"I could have been his understudy in Hollywood," he said and laughed. "That was my first ambition when I was young, to be a star in Hollywood."
When the Shakespeare Company broke up, Hatfield entered Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, where he graduated in 1948 with a master's degree in art.
He began his career at ASTC in the fall of 1948, one that he would continue for 37 years. He retired as art professor emeritus from UCA in 1985. "When I first started teaching, Miss (Mildred) Schichtl and I were the art department," he said.
Hatfield met his wife, the former Nicole Wable of Douai France, through a mutual friend. She had come to Arkansas in 1953 as a Fulbright International Scholar at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he was taking summer courses in painting and sculpture. They were married in 1957 in Montreuil Sue-Mer, France. She died in 2004.
The Hatfields had three children. Son Hadrian Hatfield, who is a lawyer, and his wife Helene live in Rockville, Md., and have two children, Cedric and Loic. Son Marc Hatfield, who is an artist, and his wife Leigh live in Loveland, Colo.; their children are Harrison, Caroline and Heath Hatfield. Daughter Mathilda, who is director of annual giving at UCA, and her husband, Jeff Hulett, live of Conway
Upon retirement fromUCA, Hatfield tried yet another art form - writing. He is the author of three books - Enola Victrola: An Arkansas Adventure, published in 1987 under the pseudonym, Lester Retsel (Lester is Hatfield's first name); The Devil's Toupee: An Arkansas Misadventure, published in 1989; and Chocolate Chicanery, published in 1993. The books follow the escapades of Madame Mimi Zingaro, a fortuneteller.
Hatfield based his novels on the real life of Faye McCormick George of Conway. It was George who asked Hatfield to write a book with her. During one of their discussions, Hatfield said, "We did the Ouija board. We were trying to find a publisherfor the book, and it told us we would find one in Alabama.
"Lo and behold, a man from Alabama came and took the book to publish it," he said with a laugh. That book was Enola Victrola.
"The second book, I felt like it was 'automatic writing,'" Hatfield said "It came so easy to me. I'd write from 10 o'clock at night until 2 in the morning. Edgar Casey introduced that style of writing and I thought I would try it."
Hatfield said the name of his second book, The Devil's Toupee, came to him after visiting his son Hadrian in Maryland and seeing a productions of The Fantasticks in which there is mention of "the devil's toupee." "It just struck me that would make a good title," he said with a laugh "We had better success with the second book. I think it's better. It might even make a good movie."
The third book, Chocolate Chicanery, came a little later and was not finished until after his co-author, George, had died.
Hatfield also published a book of poetry, A Chance to Enchant, in 1998. (His books can be found at the Faulkner County Library.)
The artist continues to work daily, painting at home or creating sculpture for his yard, which is well known to those who live in Conway as it sits prominently in Donaghey Avenue not far from his college alma mater. His yard came under scrutiny from the city of Conway a few years ago. Hatfield was fined and ordered to clean it up, which he did after some protest. He received support from the community, as "letters to the editor" appeared frequently in the Conway daily newspaper.
Hatfield said he has donated 200 or more paintings to UCA, where they are displayed at various locations including the Torreyson Library. "I still have that many more," he said. "One day the kids will have to decide what to do with all of them."
He's done a portrait of his "good buddy," Dee Brown, the Arkansas author best known for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. That portrait hangs in Torreyson Library.
Hatfield describes his style of painting as "eclectic. I'm very experimental now in both my painting and sculpture. I will try just about any kind of new idea. I want to stay busy. I enjoy it. It's a fun way to live."
He said his favorite medium "varies from day to day.
"Some people like my watercolors best," he said. "I likeoils, too, but I also like acrylics. It (what medium he uses) just goes to suit my mood."
One of his most important works of sculpture can be found at the cemetery in Mount Vernon where his wife and other family members are buried. "I'm almost finished with Nicole's monument," he said.
When asked what he would want to be remembered for, he said. "That I was eclectic. That I tried everything.
"My main philosophy is that artists may be more in sync with the spiritual world," he said quietly. "We are creative and open. As I get older, I realize that the physical world is transient, but the spiritual world, everlasting. The spirits are here. We are like dolls orpuppets doing their will.
"I have Nicole's presence with me always," he said. "Every time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up, thinking of her. She leaves me coins all the time. I've found them in (Washington) D.C., in Colorado, even on an Indian reservation. Every bright and shiny penny is from her. I once found four in a row. I pick them up and put them in my shoe.
"I've told Mathilda about this," he continued. "One day we were walking across a parking lot, and I saw a penny and stopped and picked it up. I said to her, 'Mathilda, your momma is with us.' We walked a little further and she stooped down to pick up something. It was a shiny charm of the Eiffel Tower."
River Valley Ozark, Pages 124, 125 on 12/14/2008