There is no mistaking Billy Hassell’s art.
Even when dealing in Earth tones, his brush captures a certain vibrancy and verve. Each painting is full of bold colors that bring to life a unique perspective, be it his depictions of various birds and animals in wetlands, forests or deserts. Walking through the new gallery exhibit, “Illuminating Nature” at the Tyler Museum of Art, it’s obvious that Hassell has a love and reverence for the natural world. Each of his works is highly stylized, but always in service of crafting a portrait that communicates the vibrancy of nature.
Hassell, a Texas resident, said there was always an impulse to veer toward realism in his work, but his style ended up being influenced from a source that most wouldn’t typically associate with depictions of nature.
“When I was a kid and learning to draw, there is a drive to draw things realistically. But a lot of what I was exposed to, churches and stained glass windows, tapestries, rug patterns, things that were inherently flat,” he said. “With stained glass windows there is a saturation of color to them, that’s fascinated me my whole life. (With stained glass you take) something that is naturalistic, like a figure in scene, but through these transparent pieces of color. I’ve tried to take that idea and turn it into an oil painting.”
Stained glass windows are often found in churches with depictions of sacred figures or scenery. In the same way, Hassell, who also is an active environmentalist, aims to communicate a similar sense of reverence.
“I’ve never thought of it in quite those terms, but the way (my work) is depicted is sort of honoring (nature) and recognizing the spiritual quality and power that nature has,” he said. “I guess in that respect, I was very inspired by Native American writings and the way they saw the Great Spirit or God, just that spirit of reverence that exists in all things from stones to birds and animals. I forget that that’s even there, but it’s definitely an undercurrent of my work.”
Repetition and patterns are one of the defining aesthetic characteristics of Hassell’s work, and its one he finds energizes him as he puts paint to canvas.
“I’ve always been interested in outsider art or folk art that is very frequently characterized by very intense, sometimes obsessive, patterning,” he said. “Repetition of certain shapes, it’s kind of obsessive, but to me it creates a rhythm and it activates the overall composition in a way, or in addition to, the main subject. I’m always looking for ways to energize what I’m painting.”
He may not have grown up near a wetlands or forest (Hassell is a city boy by birth), but Hassell was always drawn to nature and said he uses his art to live vicariously through them.
“The drawings that I do in nature help me connect in a way, and then turning those into paintings helps me to stretch and expand on that,” he said.
His use of color remains the most immediately arresting aspect of Hassell’s work, though he considers it a tool, a means to make a statement as well as immediately draw the viewer in to a piece.
“On one level, I consciously use complimentary colors or colors that are opposite to get people’s attention. I want to make a dramatic visual statement with the color. Color is very seductive and people are attracted to color before they even see what the subject matter is,” he said. “But I definitely exaggerate color to emphasize things. Like with the birds and flowers I use, I feel like I’m painting a representation of a thing, rather than the actual thing. Like a symbol. That’s why a lot of the birds are flat silhouettes or placed directly center in a painting. My objective is to draw people in so that they see the other elements of the work.”
There are times when Hassell is motivated by a specific emotion or message he wants to communicate, but just as often he’s inspired by simple beauty.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as the pattern of a bird,” he said. “I think a lot of it is just intuitive. I’ll get an idea just from seeing a bird flying.”
“Illuminating Nature: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper by Billy Hassell” is on display now through March 23 at the Tyler Museum of Art. For more information, call 903-595-1001 or visitwww.tylermuseum.org .