Painter Mike Hartung doesn’t read much fiction, but many of his paintings start with a phrase he can’t get out of his head. He says we’re living through a very dark time, and “I’m not sure we’re not going to pull out of it.” Regardless, he keeps making paintings that critique the social and political moment.
He has produced more than 700 large panels in his lifetime, many of them made in a downtown Lindsborg upstairs studio since 1975. Nonetheless, he claims painting has never been pleasurable for him. Hartung paints people we often don’t want to see — distorted oxycontin addicts, victimized women, lonely souls in the night — but he does so with a vitality that draws us in even as we want to turn away.
“It’s work,” he said.
Despite the contradictions, Hartung is clear, focused, and purposeful. After working as a commercial printer for 45 years, he’s dedicated his retirement to painting and rallying Lindsborg volunteers to open what he calls “a pretty low-scale, human friendly, informal place for people to come in off the street and get involved with art.”
Hartung has purchased a building in downtown Lindsborg, where he’s lived and painted for many years, to provide an art venue that will promote, support, and develop local and regional arts and artists. The Smoky Valley Arts and Folklife Center opened Jan. 14 with an exhibition of 10 new Hartung paintings (plus three panels from the 1980s) in a show called Not for the Faint of Heart, on view through March 13.
On opening day, Hartung was tending the gallery along with Marsha Howe, a founding SVAFC committee member and director of the Red Barn Studio Museum, just down Main Street from the center’s 114½ S. Main building.
After an “Open” sign was unearthed from the back room, which serves as a space for art classes and workshops, the pair decided to hang it in the front window.
“Yellow and blue! Swedish colors!” Howe said the first time they powered it up. Hartung stepped outside to see how the electric “Open” looked in the window, and returned with this estimation: “Looks like a bar and grill. People will say, Hey! Another place I can start my tab!”
His pleasure in talking with others about his work began after his friends, artists Laura and Richard Klocke, photographed his paintings and encouraged him to exhibit, which he began in 2017.
“I love the figure,” Hartung said, referring to a painting titled “Intruder in the Sun” in which a sunbather is interrupted in her reading.
“I don’t use models. I want that separation. The upside is that I don’t have baggage. The downside is that I don’t want to convert to rote. If this feels familiar, I don’t want to do it,” he said.
A recently completed panel titled “A Simple Procedure. A Woman’s Right to Determine Her Reproductive Path Terminated by a Gaggle of Devout Zealots Clinging to Superstition Cloaked in Myth and Dogma. Abetted by Jihadist Judges” features a clerical figure wearing blue surgical gloves and a headdress sporting jester bells. The figure presides over a space that is simultaneously a church, a hospital delivery room and the Supreme Court. At the bottom, one of five black-clad, goat-headed creatures sticks pins into a female doll-like figure while another holds up a fanged yellow snake.
The painting is a strong statement in a state where we seem to generally agree on the wisdom of silence and politeness when we meet at the local coffee shop. Lindsborg, however, has always had artists to thank for disturbing the harmony in style and content.
An exhibition of Hartung’s paintings a couple of years ago required a quick shift to a venue less visibly Main Street and more open to artistic freedom (The Red Barn). That show, also sponsored by SVAFC, included one titled “The Golden Turd,” depicting former President Donald Trump, and a hilarious (and maybe prescient) painting of former Bethany College president William Jones, who was fired in November from Georgetown College after accusations of sexual assault.
The new gallery group started experimenting with exhibitions in a rented space in August 2020.
“We had no dedicated space for workshops, which is so exciting about this,” Howe said. “Every year, there will be a folklife exhibition – traditional work like Swedish sjold (handcrafts), ljuskrona (chandeliers), and folk costume.”
Howe said the idea for a gallery and art center has been on her mind for years, but when Hartung came to the Red Barn in 2017, “he told me he had 700 paintings and wanted a place to leave them.”
So, Howe joined the committee and wrote a Reimagined Spaces grant request to the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. When the project was funded, SVAFC received the financial and artistic boost it needed to get serious about finding a home.
Eventually, Hartung’s paintings and the building will be left in a legacy that assures SVAFC and the paintings are part of Lindsborg’s cultural life going forward.
Just before the inaugural exhibition closes, a short film by Patrick Troll will premiere March 5 called “Hartung: Not for Sale.” In the film, Hartung says, “I am disrupting my peaceful retirement by still painting. It’s all I ever wanted to do. In an odd way, I look on myself as a writer who only has a paintbrush as a vocabulary.”
Spending time with Hartung’s new paintings — a family eating Thanksgiving dinner in their car, a woman comforting a child on a sleeping porch, a dominatrix washing a man’s hands, a woman watching a burning cactus from inside her home — is like indulging in an afternoon reading one of those books you never want to end.
Information about the benefit film premiere “Hartung Unfiltered,” and the 2022 schedule of exhibitions, classes, and events is available at the center’s website. The center is open Friday to Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment by emailing [email protected].
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Story / Opinion by Lori Brack / Kansas Reflector