An Artist in Demand
Steve Hannock '74, the most accomplished and well-connected artist you've never heard of.
One day, in 1970 or 1971, Stephen Hannock was in the basement of the Psi Upsilon fraternity house. He was painting.
"I used to paint in the dark with a black light. These huge phosphorescent canvasses," he says. "I was doing these paintings, these big animated paintings, with these Disney-esque Fantasia scenes going on, just raging day-glo, under the black light, these scenes of satyrs chasing wood nymphs. It was amazing."
When considering the medium, or the subject matter, or the viewer response that you're about to hear, consider that this was the tail end of the sixties. One of Hannock's Psi U brethren gazed at the painting with saucer eyes and proclaimed with sublime awe: "Maaaaan, you're a geeeeenius!"
Flash forward 35 years to a cavernous studio, suffused with the acrid but pleasing scent of oil paints and thinner, on the third floor of an old mill, tucked in a leafy valley of North Adams, Massachusetts. Hannock, 55, is still painting. He's still enamored with color and light, but he's toned it down just a little bit. And if he's not a genius, he's certainly amazingly talented.
Tacked up on a wall is a study for a sweeping, nocturnal vista of Newcastle-on-Tyne. The sky is a dark cerulean, and Hannock points out the lavender starbursts marking illuminated coal mines, the ghostly river shipyards glowing blue-green. Newcastle is the hometown of a musician you may have heard of named Sting. The painting was commissioned by the man himself, a commemoration of how the city has been "dug out from under feet of coal dust and closed shipyards by an amazing activity of culture," says Hannock. When completed, Sting would like the painting to be donated to the prestigious Tate Modern museum in London.
Sting is one of Hannock's good pals. ("We've been getting in trouble for about twenty years," he chuckles.) New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is another close friend. So is Tom Brokaw. And Robert Redford. A diverse and impressive group, but they're all drawn to the artist as much for his good-guy exuberance and the sheer force of his personality as his stunning landscape canvasses - huge paintings so luminous that they sometimes seem to actually emit light. Katie Couric, John McEnroe, and Candice Bergen all have his paintings on their walls. Many more wish they could.
As Hannock has honed his craft over the last 25 years, he's also cultivated a group of high profile collectors who treasure his expressive, emotionally resonant works. He's a hugely in-demand painter - there's a two-year waiting list - and his larger canvasses can fetch as much as $500,000 each. Yet despite that, despite the well-known patrons and friends, despite an Oscar, he still somehow manages to fly under the radar. According to a Fortune magazine profile (written by editor-at-large Andy Serwer '81), he's "the most accomplished and well-connected painter you've never heard of."
His journey started at Bowdoin. And while the art program - or relative lack thereof - back in 1970 necessitated a sort of self-imposed exile to Smith and Hampshire colleges after his freshman year, he's remained close to Bowdoin, and his affinity for the College has only been enhanced in recent decades as the studio art program and museum have blossomed.
"I knew, even when we were still in college, that he was going to be a famous artist," says Jed Lyons, President and CEO of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group in Washington D.C., one of Hannock's good friends from the Class of '74. "Not only was he talented, but he was extremely ambitious and savvy about the ways of the art world. There was never any doubt that he would become one of the best."
Trading Blades for Brushes
Steve Hannock played hockey. A goalie. Ever since fifth or sixth grade, growing up near Albany, he was at home on the ice, standing stolidly in front of the net, deflecting black discs of vulcanized rubber flung at him in excess of 100 miles an hour.
He played through high school, and during a post-graduate year at Deerfield Academy. And once it was time to start thinking about college, Bowdoin, with its powerhouse puck program, seemed like it might make sense. "Bowdoin really clicked with me."
And he got in - just in time. "I was getting ready to take the team photograph, at Deerfield, when I got nailed for my preinduction physical. I was getting ready to go to the Army. They wouldn't give me a deferment for being in high school because I had already graduated from high school, and I wasn't in college yet." Naturally, this lent a certain urgency to his desire for a quick matriculation. "I didn't get in early decision. Didn't get in regular decision. They put me on the waiting list. Then I got on the final waiting list. Some kid ended up going to Harvard instead of Bowdoin, and they called me up. That year I was the last guy accepted to the class."
Jed Lyons says the Class of 1974 was meant to be different. "We arrived in 1970," he says. "The first class recruited by [then admissions director] Dick Moll. Bowdoin then was an all-male, fairly traditional school, with fewer than 900 men. And Dick Moll nicknamed our class 'The Class with Pizzazz.' It was his way of signaling that there would be a change to the composition of the student body. He came through big time with significant changes, making the College much less traditional and attracting kids with more diverse backgrounds, more interest in the arts. But Hannock, ironically, was not an example of that pizzazz. He was pretty much a traditional preppy jock from Deerfield. He was a hockey player."
Sports were Hannock's driving passion. And, he thought, they were a big reason he was on campus at all: "Athletics can get you some places where you wouldn't go normally," he says. "[Hockey] opened up a lot of opportunities."
But, he'd also begun developing other interests. At Deerfield, he'd taken an art class with a professor, Dan Hodermarsky, who'd piqued his interest with a low-pressure approach to appreciating the visual world. "He'd say, 'Don't mess around in class, just go out and draw,'" says Hannock.
So, while he wasn't manning goal for the Polar Bears, he was in art class or drawing cartoons for the Orient.
Or engaging in, er, other artistic endeavors as a Psi U pledge. "He organized the freshman pledges, and all of us got together in the middle of the night on Winters Weekend to participate in the annual snow sculpture contest," Lyons remembers. "We built a 15-foot-high snow sculpture of two polar bears mating on the front lawn of the Psi U house. This creation, which was Steve's inspiration, lasted until about eight o'clock the following morning when the Dean called and demanded that it be dismantled. But I still have a picture of it. To me, that was the beginning of his artistic career."
To Hannock's concern, however, he soon realized that the Bowdoin art program, in those days, was a good deal more circumscribed than he would have liked.
When asked what the Bowdoin art department was like when he was there, Hannock says, "It was almost nonexistent." There were intelligent and talented professors, sure. In particular, Hannock mentions Thomas Cornell, whom he'd heard great things about, but wasn't on campus his freshman year. But more often than not, the instruction seemed hidebound to him. His professor at Deerfield had offered him "a little more freedom than I was used to. At Bowdoin, I wanted to do more of that."
So, after freshman year, Hannock decided to take advantage of the 12 College Exchange. Smith College was an all-women's college, but it had a terrific art program, headed by the late Leonard Baskin, the renowned sculptor, illustrator, printmaker, and graphic artist. Hannock, at that time, was still a neophyte and didn't know much about his future mentor. "I decided to go to Smith. But I didn't know who Leonard Baskin was. Turns out he's one of the half-dozen great artists in the world at that time."
Baskin's primary concentrations were sculpting and printmaking, but he took the young painter under his wing as an apprentice, and over the next several years became an enormous life influence on Hannock, who considers his time at Smith to coincide with the first efflorescence of his art. "I was supposed to go just for a semester, but I just kept re-upping every semester," he says. (Because of his Ychromosome, he couldn't get a degree from Smith. He solved that dilemma by taking classes at nearby Hampshire College.)
Hannock's friend Jed Lyons has another theory about why Hannock headed south instead of staying at Bowdoin. "I would argue that he left for the girls down at Smith, rather than the art," he says with a laugh.
At the very least, it was an interesting place for a good-looking athletic man to be a student in those days. "On the weekends, Smith was invaded by all these guys," Hannock says. "But during the week, it was crazy. They were climbing through windows in the middle of the night ... it was terrifying, I tell ya!" He vividly remembers one late night visit. "It's two in the morning. Crash! On the floor. This stunning woman. She says, 'I really have to talk to you.' I'm like, 'OK, I'll be right back.' So I grab my toothbrush and toothpaste, grab a towel, and I go into the bathroom, in this raging fluorescent light. I'm just trying to compose myself, brushing my teeth....and I realize that [instead of toothpaste] I'd grabbed a tube of dioxin purple oil paint."
Oil paint is not water soluble. It isn't easily rinsed out of one's mouth. So he tried to wipe it off with a paper towel, which only succeeded in smearing it into the cracks between his teeth. Eventually he realized that it was a lost cause. So he returned to his dorm room, where the only light was from a bare bulb lamp on the floor. One can only imagine how hideous he must have looked. "I don't know what she had in mind, but what she saw clearly wasn't it."
Run-ins like that aside, Hannock enjoyed his time at Smith. He ventured north for regular visits to Psi U, but the Berkshires was where he'd stay. Would he have remained at Bowdoin if there had been a stronger art program in those days? "Probably. I didn't want to leave."
He missed Psi U. "They're smart folks there. It makes a difference. Going to these communities where there are smart folks there, even if they're confused, it's creative confusion. They're trying figure out something. Getting loaded is one thing. Getting loaded and not thinking is another. After the parties you wanna learn something."
And he missed hockey. "We had a really good freshman team that year," he says. "One regret I have is that I never went back to play for Sid Watson."
Many people might think of art and athletics as almost opposite pursuits, but Hannock embraces them both. "Steve was not only a good hockey goalie, but also a championship Frisbee player," says Bill Belichick. "He is an amazing athlete, who can roller blade all day long." The Pats coach also says that, while he's "far from an art critic, I love Steve's paintings and he has done several for me. When I was in Cleveland, we had them hung outside the football meeting rooms. His work is pleasing to the eye."
For Hannock's part, he says that "art has a lot in common with athletics. You practice, honing skills, and then you respond spontaneously to events."
A Modern Twist
Looking at Hannock's sprawling canvasses, muscular but still studied and restrained, you can see what he means. He's deeply influenced by the great American landscape painters of the 19th century, especially the Hudson River School - George Inness, Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church - whose sweeping vistas of rugged Eastern terrain were imbued with a sense of the romantic and the sublime.
He also takes some cues from painters like the English proto-impressionist J.M.W. Turner, whose canvasses, bathed in golden glow, treat light almost as a sacrament. Hannock feels the same way. His subjects - the Connecticut River oxbow luxuriating in summer dusk, glinting waterfalls beneath glowing pink skies, flooded plains refracting and amplifying the light of setting sun, a train traversing the horizon at twilight, rockets piercing the dark night with deafening illumination - revel in the transportive aspect of luminosity. He said that when he paints, he's not painting mountains, water, and trees so much as he's painting light itself: they exist only to give it a place on which to play.
Early summer evenings are his favorite. "There's just something about the mood that's created during these short-lived times of day. Whether it makes the viewer or somebody who's witnessing the event more appreciative of what's going on. It just seems to be a time of day where people take pause. The motion of light, whether it's fireworks, or a car that's just gone by where you just see a streak of light, or light coming through a fog bank, it's an unlikely miracle moment that's a detonator for all sorts of stuff in people. It's something different for everybody. But I respect the power of what's going on there. I don't understand it, but I think the more I paint it, the more I'm beginning to understand it. It's the kind of thing where that search, that effort to learn what that's about, is an exciting trip. If anything, it's a reminder that it's the trip that's worthwhile."
His landscapes are unique. "I don't have any foreground," he says, pointing at a canvas in the corner that might as well be the view out a flat window. "You have to break that two-dimensional plane before you get the objects that are holding the light. Water or air. It's a neat way to bring you into the painting." Also, he doesn't tend to lug his canvas and paints out into the wilderness, as many of his 19th century forebears did. Nor does he work from photographs. "It's all imaginary. Sometimes I'll do ink drawings [as studies]. I tend to exaggerate things that are being interpreted. That exaggeration creates these rhythms that disappear with photography. Photography is flat."
Hannock, who's ambidextrous and paints with both hands, achieves his remarkable effects - canvasses that literally seem to glow - with a technique of his own invention: polishing the oil on the canvas with wet-dry sandpaper on a power sander. By painting, sanding, applying more paint and gloss, then sanding them again, it gives his works a texture and luminosity he couldn't achieve with a brush alone. "It creates accents and gives you a surface that really reflects a pure light and allows you to achieve a mood much better than the traditional way of applying paint."
Landscapes, to put it plainly, are not currently in vogue in this world of conceptual art and envelope-pushing provocateurs. Some have called Hannock an anachronism, with his candid affection for "old-fashioned" painters. He doesn't care. And anyway, his aren't exactly "traditional" landscapes. Back in 1990, quite by accident, he discovered what would become another hallmark of his style. "I used to take old envelopes and soak up excess paint," he says. "One day I soaked up the paint and threw it away and missed the wastebasket." He noticed that text on the front of the letter showed through the paint, just a little. Eureka.
Hannock now underlays many of his painting with documents or photographs or handwritten letters that are resonant to him. Sometimes he'll write, subtly, directly into the paint, giving his canvasses an added texture. These personal notes are hard to see - especially in reproduction - but once you get near enough to look closely, to really lean in and inspect them, the effect is profound, giving the sense of a multilayered excavation of history. "I'll just use anecdotes that strike me in certain ways," Hannock says. It makes his paintings exquisitely evocative of a particular space and time.
Not everyone liked the technique at first. Some thought it ruined a perfectly good landscape. "Even these abstract expressionist guys, these guys from the New York School, were saying, 'Oh, why are you writing on them?!' Of all people!"
But Franklin Kelly, senior curator of American and British painting National Gallery (which counts Hannock's "A Recent History of Art in Western Massachusetts: Flooded River for Lane Faison" among its collection), likes his twist on a traditional form. Kelly met Hannock through a common interest in Frederic Church, and says that while the two artists share similar hallmarks, "his paintings aren't like those 19th century landscapes." Rather, they offer a decidedly modern twist.
"You look at his Connecticut River"- a vista originally made famous in Thomas Cole's 1836 painting, "View from Mt. Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow)" - "and there are highways and highway bridges," Kelly says. Moreover, the buried text and painted-over photos lend the paintings an honesty and emotional integrity. "He isn't dependent on the irony that so many artists today use."
It's also true that Cole or Church never worked for Hollywood. In 1997, Hannock was enlisted by Eugenio Zanetti, production designer for the Robin Williams film "What Dreams May Come", a lushly visual exploration of the afterlife and the endurance of love. Hannock painted the huge triptych, supposedly painted by Williams's character's wife. After he dies suddenly, he finds himself in a heaven that's intensely reminiscent of her painting. Hannock worked with the film's computer animators, designing the special effects of walking through three-dimensional wet paint. It won him an Academy Award for visual effects. He was also amused by the experience. "In an afternoon, more people see you in a movie than saw your gallery show during its entire run."
Light & Dark
Leonard Baskin introduced Hannock to the work of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon when he was at Smith. One of his favorite quotes is from the artist:
Black is the most essential of all colors. It finds its glorification, its life, shall I say, in the direct and deeper springs in Nature. Black should be respected.... It does not please the eye nor awaken the sensuality. It is an agent of the mind far more than the beautiful colors of the palette or prism.
Stephen Hannock is a luminist painter. He has studied light for decades, and has made solving its nuances his life's work. And he knows that light cannot exist without darkness.
In 1998, he met Bridget Watkins, the beautiful, vivacious executive assistant to New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, in many of whose establishments (Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park) Hannock's paintings hang prominently. The two were married in 2000, and before long Bridget was pregnant with their daughter Georgia.
During those nine months, Bridget experienced bouts of double vision that doctors assumed were attributable to her pregnancy. But when the affliction persisted after Georgia's birth, they ordered up tests.
In Andy Serwer's Fortune profile, he writes, "On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the couple watched from their Greenwich Village apartment as the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center. 'I was about to run outside to get cash and water because I knew something was up,' recalls Hannock. Five minutes after the plane hit, the phone rang. Bridget answered it and became hysterical. She told Steve it was the lab calling with her test results - something was very wrong and they had to see a neurologist right away. 'You could say it was a very bad day,' sighs Hannock."
Bridget had a brain tumor. And over the next three years she fought valiantly through radiation, an apparent remission, surgery, a stroke on the operating table, and a recurrence of the cancer. In October 2004, Bridget Watkins-Hannock died at age 42.
In Hannock's studio, Georgia, a gorgeous, towheaded five-year-old, watches TV while Hannock talks about his mammoth painting, "American City with Restored Park," which hangs majestically on a window-side wall.
It shows New York's Flatiron Building, accentuated with powerful light that emanates from the street behind it, towering over Madison Square Park - which Bridget fought passionately to restore, and now features a plot of land called Bridget's Garden, where 3,000 pink tulips bloom each spring. Initially, the painting was meant to be "a capsule of the 25 years I spent living full-time in New York," Hannock says. But "it eventually turned into the story of my wife's trials and tribulations." Layered under the paint are a nude photograph of a pregnant Bridget, and a letter Hannock wrote to Georgia the day Bridget awoke in the hospital after suffering the stroke. It's a hugely affecting work.
"Even in the last days, when Bridget was so sick, he was just so upbeat," says Williams College president Morton Schapiro, who's one of Hannock's good friends, and whose daughter is best friends with Georgia. "It sometimes seems like he never has a bad day. Most of us, in that situation, would be all over the place. He's just always optimistic. Always outgoing and engaging."
Bill Belichick shares that appraisal, and is struck too by the artist's humility. "Steve is a great friend ... you'd never know he is a star. He's down to earth, and really hasn't changed too much since he was in college. He is smart, personable, and funny, and he gets along well with everybody - from my dad, who was in his mid-eighties, to my kids, who he's been close to since they were born."
The fact that so many of Hannock's paintings are dedicated to friends and mentors should tell you something. The feeling is reciprocated. "How can you not love Steve Hannock? Not only is he amazingly talented, but he's just so much fun to be with, says Schapiro. "And he's one heck of an artist, God knows. The diversity of the kind of stuff he does, from representational to abstract. He's just really an innovative artist. We have three or four of his paintings up in the president's house. We love to go to restaurants where his stuff is hanging, like Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Bistro."
Of course, Hannock's work is hanging in more than just restaurants. His "Flooded River for Lane Faison (Mass MoCA #12)" is in the National Gallery. ("[O]ne of America's foremost contemporary landscape painters," they call him.) His most famous painting, "The Oxbow: After Church, after Cole, Flooded (Flooded River for the Matriarchs E. & A. Mongan), Green Light," is hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He has a piece in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Smith College Museum of Art, the Williams College Museum of Art, and many others.
And soon one will be hanging at Bowdoin. Hannock is just about to donate another in his series of Connecticut River oxbow paintings - "The Oxbow for Leonard Baskin and David Becker (Mass MoCA #49)" - a six foot by nine foot canvas of polished oil over acrylic and collage to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. A tribute to curator and scholar David P. Becker '72, whose "astounding patronage" has been invaluable to the school, it will be a fine addition to the museum once its extensive renovations are completed in 2007.
Hannock is especially excited about the new Walker Art Building. "You can't believe what a successful college art museum does in a community. Here [in the Massachusetts Berkshires] they have three, all within a few miles radius. It could be the only place in the country like that. Wait till you see the people coming from all over the country to Bowdoin. Just to see the art museum." And he's effusive in his praise of museum director Katy Kline, who "has exhibited the patience of Job as she has escorted and prodded the famed McKim Mead and White landmark into the third millennium."
Just as gratifying for Hannock is seeing how far the Bowdoin art program has come during the thirty years since he was there. Today there are nine professors in the visual art department, teaching everything from painting and drawing to sculpture and printmaking to architecture and 3-D computer animation. There are fifteen courses on offer for this fall semester. Spacious studio space in the McLellan Building. An exchange program with the Maine College of Art. "The atmosphere up there has changed dramatically," he says.
Advice to undergrads who might like a career as a successful painter? "You don't do this because you want to be a famous artist. You do it because you're just not happy if you're not attacking a given idea," he says. Also, there's this little reminder: carpe diem.
"College is where you really get your last shot at bringing to life ideas with no editing. That's the thing about the art that's so cool. You're thinking about something that you have to do for a class or whatever, but then you get excited about something and you go about doing it - whether it's an essay, or music, or whatever, and you get to bring that idea to life. By yourself. No committees, no boss that's gonna fire you. What a cool way to discover that creative process."
And if they're like him, Bowdoin art students should aspire to elicit something simple in the viewer, a slight motion that all painters live for: quick stopping in one's tracks, followed by a bend at the waist - and a closer look. "When people go by, you want to get 'the lean,'" Hannock says. Painters talk about trying to get a 'lean.' That moment. That's the thing that keeps you going."