LITTLE ROCK — By any definition, Gene Hatfield of Conway is a Renaissance man.
Approaching his 90th birthday, Hatfield is a painter, sculptor, author, actor, educator and a decorated World War II veteran. He is a father and grandfather and was a devoted husband for 47 years to Nicole, who died in 2004.
A sampling of Hatfield’s artwork is now on display in an exhibit titled Outside the Lines in the Underground Gallery of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. The exhibit will remain on display through Dec. 26. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Hatfield attended the opening reception Sept. 11. He warmly greeted family, friends and fellow artists as they streamed through the doors to see him.
One visitor asked: “How long have you been painting?”
Without hesitation, Hatfield answered with a smile, “Forever and a day, or two.”
And he proceeded to tell the story that some may have heard before but did not mind hearing again.
“As a child, I grew up at the training school at UCA,” Hatfield said, referring to the Arkansas State Normal School, which was a precursor of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The purpose of the Normal School was to train students to become teachers. Hatfield’s oldest sister,
Maurine, was a student there, and he attended his first two years of school there.
“I remember seeing my first painting there,” Hatfield told the visitor. “Ms. Bernard was a teacher — she and Marie Schichtl.
“Ms. Bernard came to our class and painted a beautiful autumn tree. I remember how it looked. I wanted to do that, to paint a tree like she did.
“Lord, I did it, but it took me 40 times or more to get it,” he said with a laugh.
Hatfield’s daughter, Mathilda, said her father’s early interest in the arts was also evidenced by his “painting and putting on puppet shows in elementary school, singing lessons and impromptu theater shows in the garage of the family house.”
Hatfield, who was born Nov. 23, 1925, in Conway, parlayed that early interest in the arts into a long career as an artist and art educator. He has college degrees in education and art education and taught all forms of art at UCA for 37 years, all the while making his own art.
He primarily worked in collage, painting and sculpture, giving each medium his own interpretation, as is suggested by the title of this latest exhibit, Outside the Lines.
Mathilda Hatfield said she and her brothers, Hadrian and Marc, who all refer to their father as “Gene,” titled the exhibit Outside the Lines “because that describes Gene’s philosophy, perspective, talents and interest— outside the lines, as well as thinking outside the box,” she said. “Gene reacts best when allowed to think freely, paint freely, create freely, without having to stay in the constraints of borders, rules and expectations … at least, in
Mathilda Hatfield showed visitors five versions of her father’s interpretation of a mountain in southern France — Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The same mountain was painted often, and in various techniques, by one of Hatfield’s favorite artists, Paul Cezanne. Hatfield also used different techniques to create his versions, which are mostly titled Mont Ste Victoire.
“One is in Cezanne’s style of Impressionism, one in the Cubistic style, and one is an early watercolor done while Gene was a student at the Marchutz school (in France),” Mathilda said. “He did a large oil painting in 2001 for the fun of it, and the last one in the show was done in 2012 as a commission piece by Georg Andersen (of Conway) as a surprise birthday gift for his wife, Annabelle.
“Georg told me Friday night (at the opening reception) that after seeing it in the show, he had ‘fallen in love with it all over again.’”
The exhibit features examples of work done in various decades of Hatfield’s career. One of the oldest pieces in the show is a mixed-media creation done in 1959 and titled Ghost of Segregation.
“He did that after he and Mom landed in Little Rock in 1957,” Mathilda Hatfield said. “That was the year of the integration crisis when the National Guard was at Little Rock Central High School.
“Can you imagine? That was one of the first things my mother saw as a married woman in Arkansas.”
Hatfield’s wife, Nicole Wable Hatfield, was born in Douai, France. They met while she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. They married in 1957, and she became a professor of foreign language at UCA.
The Hatfields traveled to Europe frequently in the summer during his teaching career. He studied with artists in both France and England. Nicole Hatfield inherited a house in France, and they returned there often over the years. Much of Hatfield’s work in the current show reflects the time, and memories of the time, he spent abroad.
Outside the Lines also features a wall of masks Hatfield created using found objects, two pastel portraits — Scarlett and Rhett — painted in 1947 from photographs he had seen in a magazine, and about a half-dozen of his sculptures that once stood in his Conway home on Donaghey Avenue.
Hatfield’s yard, which was filled with a variety of things made from recycled materials, was once subject to legal action by city officials in Conway. But a legal ruling established the works’ legitimacy as art. He always welcomed visitors to his yard, and students from nearby UCA often visited the site.
Hatfield’s history has been well documented, both in print and on television by the Arkansas Educational Television Network’s production of a documentary on him that aired on Arkansas Men and Women of Distinction. That documentary is shown on a small TV screen as part of the Butler Center exhibit.
Hatfield has won accolades along the way, including being named Professor Emeritus by UCA in 1995 and being named a recipient of the Arkansas Arts Council’s 2010 Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Hatfield, who was born as the youngest child of Lester Hatfield and Gertrude Powers Hatfield, had three sisters and one brother. Hatfield grew up in Conway and Mount Vernon.
He graduated from Conway High School and started college at what was then Arkansas State Teachers College, another former title of UCA. He was drafted into the Army in 1944, and in September of that year, he and his fellow soldiers landed in France during World War II. He served in northern France during the Battle of the Bulge and in battles along the Rhine River in Germany. He was wounded when shrapnel hit his left eye. A field surgeon removed the shrapnel and saved Hatfield’s eye. He was sent stateside to recover and was discharged in 1945 when the war ended, having been awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Medal of Meritorious Conduct.
Following his retirement from UCA in 1985, Hatfield continued to work as an artist and to support other Arkansas artists. He also wrote three books, which can be found at the Faulkner County Library.
Hatfield continues to paint.
“I’m still able and ready to go. My materials are always ready. I hope I haven’t lost my touch,” he said, smiling.
“I am so glad to be able to be in the middle of things here in downtown Little Rock,” he said in reference to the exhibit in the Butler Center, which is part of the Central Arkansas Library System. “I think they have done a fabulous job
exhibiting my work.
“I’m trying to write my autobiography now. I hope to have it done before too long.”
In addition to his daughter, Hatfield was joined at the opening reception by his sons and Hadrian’s oldest son, Cedric, 22.
Hadrian Hatfield and his wife, Helene, live in Rockville, Maryland, where he is a lawyer; they have another son, Loic, 19.
Marc Hatfield and his wife, Leigh, live in Loveland, Colorado. Their children are Harrison, 26, Caroline, 22, and Heath, 14. Also an artist, Marc works for isiWEST Inc., a subsidiary of the Hot Springs company Instrument and Supply Inc.; isiWest Inc. is a manufacturer’s- representative firm that serves municipal and industrial water and wastewater markets.
Mathilda Hatfield lives in Conway and works in student services at UCA.
Hadrian and Marc circulated throughout the gallery during the opening reception, visiting with those who had come to greet their father.
“I think it’s great,” Hadrian said of the exhibit.
“That’s always been one of my favorites,” he said, pointing to an oil on canvas titled Place du Theatre. “That was the town square where my mother lived (in France).
“The thing about Gene is he used all different styles,” Hadrian Hatfield said. “It surprises me to see all these sculptures here. They used to stand in his yard, where they kind of disappeared in the yard environment. But here, they really stand out … wow.”
Marc Hatfield agreed with his brother: “This is a fantastic show … beautiful … everything is perfectly hung.
“I’m amazed at how refined all of the sculptures look when they are not in the yard,” Marc said with a laugh. “They really look good standing alone.”