His paintings have been called “exuberantly cheerless.”
Artist Mike Hartung loves that description.
The 73-year-old painter, who lives in Lindsborg, Kansas, has made around 700 paintings over his career.
His first exhibit, “Gas Stations, Laundromats and the Spaces Between,” opens this month in three venues across Kansas.
Hartung has also been described as a recluse, which he disputes, pointing to his recent exhibit openings in Salina and Lindsborg.
“For a recluse, there were sure a lot of people there, and I knew most of them,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “It was great, it really was.”
This exhibit features just 62 of his paintings, many of which are multi-paneled and mural-sized.
“When you go into his studio, there are hundreds, hundreds, of paintings leaning against the wall and they’re stacked up,” said Richard Klocke, an exhibition designer at the Spencer Museum of Art who organized Hartung’s exhibit.
“In a couple of places, they’ve stuck together because of the elements and time,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”
One picture, painted in 2015, depicts payday lenders as ghoulish characters. The painting features fiery red and yellow colors, skeletal figures, text and actual dollar bills.
Hartung grew up in Fredonia, Kansas. His mother encouraged him to draw. After waiting tables, she’d read bedtime stories to him and his sister, which stimulated his imagination.
She also encouraged him to do something with his life that meant something, he said.
For Hartung, that meant art. He and his then-wife moved to Lindsborg and rented a studio.
“My whole intent was that the fact that you could make art in middle of Kansas, away from the hubbub,” he said. “The people that live lives here are just as interesting as the people on the coasts. I figured I could do it; I wanted to try it.”
He lives in that same studio, 42 years later, and he has arranged his life around his art. He supported himself by working at a printing company and since his studio doesn’t have a kitchen, he goes out for fast food.
Maximizing his time for painting — and focusing less on the business of daily life — cost him his marriage, he said.
“But once I got a hold of it, I realized how lucky I was, how precious it was,” he said. “I just was not going to be deterred.”
According to Klocke, the exhibit organizer, it was important to tell Hartung’s story.
“I’m assuming that there are many instances where these things don’t have a happy ending, and where these types collections of work just end up in dumpster fire or a landfill somewhere,” he said.
Especially for artists who toil in relative obscurity, whose families don’t know what to do with the collection after the artist dies, he added.
“That’s very likely what could have happened in this case,” he said.
However, thanks to this new exposure of Hartung and the sheer quantity of his work, Klocke said that the community of Lindsborg is interested in preserving his paintings and keeping them in town.
Hartung is living the American dream, which, to him, means setting your sight on something and getting to do it.
“I’m pretty simple. All I ever really wanted to do was paint,” he said. “I didn’t want to sell it, and really wasn’t interested in showing it.”
“Art doesn’t have to do anything for me but be there,” he added. “I don’t require it; doesn’t need to feed me, doesn’t need to entertain me, but I have to be able to do it. And it’s worked out that way.”
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at email@example.com.