By Gretchen Reynolds
Stylized paintings of nature command our attention and awe
Reprinted with permission from Southwest Art magazine
Billy Hassell found a world of wonder and the early inklings of his art career in a small creek near his childhood home in Dallas, TX.
This was some 40 years ago. His old neighborhood, not far from the city’s White Rock Lake, is heavily developed now. But back then, Hassell recalls, “there were still open spaces, with lots of fields and cedars.”
It was a quiet area, safe enough that a small boy could wander down to the creek and wade all the way to the lake, collecting rocks and lizards along the way. There he’d watch sunlight strike sparks off the scales of darting perches or observe snatches of vivid color on birds in the trees.
Hassell’s paintings demand that we look —— really look —— at the individual elements of nature.
He was entranced by the play of shadows from the tree limbs, and he’d stand immobile for long minutes staring into the creek’s shallow waters until, slowly, the outline of a turtle shell or a pebble would disentangle itself from the gray-brown mud of the bottom.
“I was astounded by the different patterns,” he says. “It was endlessly fascinating to see how these different things were juxtaposed, how something could emerge from the background or blend with it how foreground and background were always intertwined. I could wander that creek for hours.”
In the process, he was teaching himself to be an artist. Today Hassell, 50, has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Massachusetts and has established a name for himself as a contemporary interpreter of the natural world. His works are included in the Menil Collection in Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Dallas Museum of Art, as well as other museums and many corporate and private collections.
Hassell works in oils to capture the beauty of birds, his primary subjects, as well as other fauna and flora he observes in nature. He often sets his subjects in stark isolation against patterned backgrounds, and the resulting juxtapositions are startling, provocative, and gorgeous. They strip the animal of its natural environment, in the process heightening its dignity and beauty.
The paintings demand that we look —— really look —— at the individual elements of nature. In that way, they not only show the compositional skill of the artist but also, at a deeper level, the eye of the boy who would wade a creek all day, dazzled every time he found a turtle shell. “Those moments,” he says, “were the beginning of everything.”
Billy Hassell wasn’t born into an overly artistic family. His father was an accountant, his mother a school secretary. The youngest of four children, Hassell had a sister who practiced music, hoping to become a concert pianist. But the family’s collection of visual art consisted of calendars and, as he recalls, one framed print, a Nativity scene, notable principally for its background.
“It had a long perspective,” Hassell remembers, “so that the viewer was drawn along a road and into the hills and woods. I wasn’t all that interested, frankly, in its religious significance. But I loved the background, and it became a kind of window into the natural world, right there in our kitchen.”
By the time Hassell was old enough to understand terms like “background” and “foreground,” he was already an accomplished draftsman.
“I was always drawing,” he says. He’d bring a sketchbook along on his nature hikes, doing quick, skillful renderings of the various birds, snakes, fish, and turtles he saw along the way. And he’d often scoop up some of his models afterward and carry them home, where his mother —- a saint, it seems -— allowed him to keep them in terrariums and bowls in his bedroom.
“Back then, I was sure I’d grow up to be a biologist or herpetologist or something like that,” he says.
Instead his drawing skills soon outstripped even his abiding love of amphibians and such, and he began to concentrate more and more on creating art.
“I was in love with the process of drawing,” he says. “Drawing is just a way of learning to see. It’s learning to pay attention to how we process our surroundings. It’s all about observation. Drawing enlarges your sensibilities. It enlarges your life.”
All through his school years, Hassell sketched, mostly from nature, with a few interiors now and then. People rarely figured into these early drawings, but the workings of man were hardly absent.
“I was already starting to think about how nature fits into our world,” says Hassell, a self-proclaimed conservationist, “about how we need it and desire it and yet separate ourselves from it so much of the time.” He pauses.
“It’s interesting now to think back on that early work.” Even then, in an admittedly nascent, questing way, he was developing the themes and the style that would remain his for life.
Stand in front of one of Hassell’s iconic bird paintings, and often what you first notice is not, in fact, the bird. What you’ll see is an overall abstract patterning, an entwining of color and shape that owes as much to Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns as it does to John James Audubon.
In one painting the background might be inspired by the stylized patterns of M.C. Escher, in another by old-fashioned floral wallpaper. But always, slowly separating itself from the background, is the bird or other precisely rendered image from nature.
“I think of my birds as signs,” says the artist. “They’re strong signifiers. When you remove something from its usual context, you get people to see it differently.” Birds are especially vivid signifiers for Hassell. As he points out, they bridge the nature world and modern, urban life.
“Most wildlife is very separate from us nowadays,” he says. “But we share our world with birds. They share space with us in a different way than other wildlife. You can never tell what will turn up at your birdfeeder. I think that’s why people are drawn to birds. They’re wild and accessible all at once.”
Hassell’s paintings celebrate this special status by juxtaposing birds against backgrounds that often echo, quietly, our longing for nature.
“I found a book once that was a history of wall coverings,” he says. “It had this marvelous title—The Landscape of the Interior.” The book made it clear that, ever since prehistoric times, man has decorated his shelters with objects from nature (flowers, plants, animal hides). But as human life became more removed from the natural world, the objects themselves were replaced by imagery.
“What is floral wallpaper, but a desire for flowers, several generations removed from the flowers themselves?” he asks. “I find our innate need for connection with the natural world very moving. It’s an idea I am always exploring in my work. It provides me with a central, unifying theme.”
As does color. There are always vivid splashes of color in a Hassell oil: vermilions, oranges, blues, emeralds, plums. “People tell me sometimes that I use colors that don’t occur in nature,” he says and laughs.
“Those are usually people who don’t spend much time outdoors.” Look at the underthroat of a warbler, he suggests, or the scales of a fish. “I may exaggerate the colors sometimes,” he says, “but I don’t invent them. They’re out there.” They are, in fact, central to the wildness and vitality of nature.
“When I was a boy and would keep fish in an aquarium,” he says, “I’d notice that they usually turned gray. Take a rainbow trout out of the wild, and it doesn’t stay rainbow-colored for long.” Something vital fades.
So to this day, Hassell prefers to do his preliminary studies in the natural world—no cages, fish bowls, photos, or other type of distancing. From his storefront studio on a leafy, residential street in Fort Worth, TX, he’ll take his sketchpad or watercolor set outside, find a likely spot—one with trees and water, perhaps a creek or pond—and wait until nature and inspiration approach.
“I don’t like to work from photos,” he says. “I don’t see a scene the same way when I’m taking photos. The camera does the visual processing for me. I prefer to see, really see, for myself.”
And so he does, observing the hues and lines of each feather on a woodpecker or the infinitely protean shapes of leaves. These he composes into the foregrounds and backgrounds that have become his métier.
“A curator told me once that he considered my work ‘imagist.’ It’s not a term I’d heard before or since,” says Hassell, “but I think it’s apt.” Imagism, for him, implies work that falls between abstraction and realism, that’s both representational and dreamlike, that contains both pattern and object.
“I love abstraction,” he says, “but I’ve never been quite able to make my animals completely abstract.” They remain stubbornly recognizable, stubbornly themselves—inviolable, self-possessed, and wild.
“It’s what I love about them most, I think,” he concludes. “They defy our every attempt at assimilation.” The natural world, in his work and in fact, is not quite ours anymore, but it is there always, at the edge of vision, if you just stand quietly for awhile and look.
Santa Fe-based Gretchen Reynolds contributes frequently to The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; and National Geographic Adventure.