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He’s in touch with the landscape

Hank Hays looks over a landscape oil painting he’s working on for a Pegasus Coffee House show. A former forester, Hays once walked trails and valleys, but now he puts them on canvas. He will hang his paintings on Friday.  - JULIE BUSCH photo
Hank Hays looks over a landscape oil painting he’s working on for a Pegasus Coffee House show. A former forester, Hays once walked trails and valleys, but now he puts them on canvas. He will hang his paintings on Friday.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

Retired forester Hank Hays learned the lay of the land, then how to paint it.

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. Hank Hays sees both with a colorful, practiced eye.

After 30-plus years with the U.S. Forest Service as a district ranger and a planning officer for timber sales, Hays made what proved to be an easy transition to artist, transforming canvas and oil paints into bold landscape and wildlife scenes of the lands he knows best.

“I wanted to be an ornithologist. I was a nature kid,” he said. “I gravitated into forestry.”

Hays is the featured artist at Pegasus Coffee House for the month of April. He has strong ties to that establishment. He meets a group of friends there every morning, then returns home to paint for two or three hours.

Two of his paintings already hang at Pegasus: a caricature that’s on permanent display above the fireplace – “a group of male degenerates, friends of mine,” he said – and one above the bar the owners bought five years ago.

“Normally, I don’t put paintings in a cafe,” Hays said. “Hazel (Van Evera, owner) said how about a show and I had to say yes. It’s kind of a contribution to the community.”

Hays and his wife, Ellen, have lived on Bainbridge Island for 12 years. He enjoys a variety of activities. He sings with the German Men’s Chorus of Seattle, where he is the only non-immigrant of the 20-member bunch, and enjoys yearly bicycle trips in Germany. He has also bicycled in Austria, Switzerland and France, with groups or friends he met there.

Hays and his family first came to the Pacific Northwest from Indiana during World War II, and here he saw his first national forest. He ultimately earned a forestry degree from Purdue and headed back West as soon as he could.

After working for Weyerhaeuser in Oregon, he joined the forest service. For the next 30 years, he worked in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho, but the bulk of his time was spent in Alaska.

“I gravitated into art later on, after my 40s. I had minimal interest in art as such,” Hays said. “I had painted a little bit off and on… The more I learned about art, the more interesting it became.”

The twinkle in his eyes and his captivating smile belie Hays’ soft-spoken demeanor. It takes a couple of conversations and a visit to his home to learn he received awards for his forestry work as well as his art.

A framed certificate explains he is the recipient of the Golden Membership Award in appreciation for a half-century with the Society of American Foresters and his “contribution to the advancing of the science, technology, education and practice of professional forestry in America.”

Dressed in work clogs and a paint-splattered green apron, Hays stands at his easel, a sketch of his idea before him. He calls his studio “an extremely marginal situation,” yet it holds everything he needs: photos, sketches, personal memorabilia and a long table laden with brushes and paints.

Across the hall is another bedroom filled with stacks of finished paintings for the Pegasus show. Paintings hang throughout his home, partly as a means of storage and for decoration.

Although Hays favors forests, valleys, rivers and wildlife – a bear, a moose followed by a wolf pack – he draws inspiration from other scenarios, such as a new Bainbridge housing development, which, he said, no one would recognize. All his works reveal his preference for “lots of color and drama.”

A recent painting is dominated by shades of red simply because he hadn’t done that before. The result is stunning, in full and partial light.

All his paintings reach a higher dimension when bathed in light, which intensifies the colors and textures so much that they engulf the viewer with an emotional force second to being in the scene itself.

“A painting should be mounted under light if you’re proud of it,” Hays said.

He paints fast, working from photos and sketches. What hits the canvas is more what he envisions than what he sees. Although he seldom paints people, he tackled a lasso-spinning cowboy for fun – and discipline.

Two galleries offer Hays paintings: the Sitka Rose Gallery, to which he sends his Alaska scenes – aka his “money paintings” – and the Gaskill/Olson Gallery in Langley, Wash.

“I think his work is appealing to people because he isn’t afraid of color,” said Roxane Olson, who owns the gallery with her husband, Mel. “His use of yellow in depicting Eastern Washington, especially the Palouse, is amazing. The colors are bold and his emerging use of the palette knife, which adds more texture, make his work hard to ignore. Plus, he’s a nice guy and a very entertaining character.”

Hays’ paintings have been part of Sitka Rose Gallery since its opening in 1993. Owner Eugene Solovyov calls them “fresh and spontaneous, vivid and unpredictable.”

“In Alaska, where my gallery is located, so many of the painters paint primarily for the tourist market, and while many of those paintings are well-done and beautiful, they are often repetitious both in style and subject matter,” Solovyov said. “Hank remains a true original, willing to test new ideas and techniques, even to the occasional detriment in sales.”

Hays guesses he has sold about 150 paintings to date. Although he doesn’t paint for the money, he is thrilled when “someone parts with their loot for a painting. It shows they appreciate it.”

Pegasus is the only show Hays has planned for this year.

“I’m taking a pause after Pegasus. I’m going to make a change in direction. I’m going to try some different techniques,” he said. “I’m always changing anyway. I like to experiment.”

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Hays displays

See oil paintings by Hank Hays at Pegasus Coffee House during the month of April. For more of his works, see www.gaskillolson.com and www.sitkarosegallery.com.

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