V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Hannell's watercolor presents well the modernist approach
or sensibility characteristic of her art.  That is,
the loose and expressive way the pigment was applied,
as well as the subtle distortions of the forms, gives a view
as much of the artist as of the selected still life subjects. 

Hazel Hannell (1895-2002) was a legendary figure in Porter County, a prolific artist who lived to be 106 years old.  Originally from Chicago, Hannell and her husband, noted artist Vaino (AKA Vin) Hannell (1896-1964), moved to the Furnessville area of Chesterton in the 1930s where they became admirers of the Indiana Dunes and active supporters of efforts to preserve that landscape.  In 1988, the widowed Hannell moved to Oregon to live and work with her good friend, artist Harriet Rex Smith (b. 1921), and spent the rest of her life there.
    The Brauer Museum of Art has in its permanent collection thirteen pieces by Hannell which collectively provide an overview of the artist's styles and various media in which she worked.  During the course of her long career, Hannell created oil paintings, watercolor paintings, woodcut
prints, and ceramic vessels and sculptures.  Her watercolors, particularly of floral subjects, constitute the body of work for which she is best known.  Frank and Carol Sturdevant, valued donors to the Brauer Museum and dedicated collectors of regional art, generously gave to the museum in 2002 several pictures by the Hannells, including this lovely untitled still life watercolor by Hazel from 1946.
    Hannell's watercolor presents well the modernist approach or sensibility characteristic of her art.  That is, the loose and expressive way the pigment was applied, as well as the subtle distortions of the forms, gives a view as much of the artist as of the selected still life subjects.  Hannell as a modernist chose not to disguise the visual qualities of the watercolor medium as passages of color dried upon the smooth surface of the paper or interacted with other moist color areas.  Every inch of this small painting bears tracks and traces of the artist's hand and mind at work, allowing viewers the opportunity to relive her creative process.  The Brauer Museum displays this piece over-matted, with the irregular edges of the image covered to focus viewers on the still life composition.  Underneath the mat, however, the edges of the slightly larger sheet bear traces of brown paper tape.  The presence of these tape traces indicates that the artist secured the paper on all four sides to a board in order for it to remain flat while the artist applied the watercolor; papers generally buckle in a rather aesthetically unpleasant manner when wetted.  Thinking about this detail of the tape on the edges further enables one to imagine Hannell setting up this modest grouping of objects, preparing a watercolor sheet, and letting her liquid medium capture through its unique vocabulary the spirit of this tableau that fascinated her or engaged her insightful eye.
    A close inspection of the picture's surface reveals very faint graphite lines that the artist used to lay out her placement of the various forms.  Hannell did not merely use the watercolor to color in the delineated objects, however; her skill as a painter shows itself through her volumetric modeling of the objects sheerly through color.  Adding hues onto the still-moist areas of the paper enabled her to achieve softly-blurred edges on the shadows which are lovely to view. 
The still life items are separated from one another by thin white lines, the white of which is actually the white of the paper; highlights on the items also come from the unpainted paper surface.  Instead of treating the sheet simply as an arena where pigments are arranged, Hannell painted with the paper so that the white becomes a participating color rather than a neutral ground.
    Hannell's limited palette of green, orange, yellow, brown, and gray visually connects the elements in the picture to the point that viewers can see the painting abstractly with ease.  Objects do not proclaim their individual natures or identities but instead relate to one another in a harmonious way, as if they were destined to come together in this painterly, coloristic treatment.  The green mug is every bit as organic in its appearance as the fruits, leaves, and flower that surround it; perhaps this mug was a hand-built and glazed piece that the artist herself created as an unconscious reaction to the uniformity and impersonal perfection of so many manufactured functional vessels.  Like the other still life items, it seems to beckon one's hand to hold it and
appreciate its tactile rewards, brought to the viewer's attention by the visual textures that arise from Hannell's method of applying the paint and letting it speak on its own terms, in its own raw language.
    I would like to share a personal experience at this point to close my essay.  When I learned of Hannell's passing, I gave voice to some thoughts going through my mind.  No one heard me, but I suppose I was moved to speak aloud by the strength of my feelings.  "Hazel," I said, "I never had the privilege of meeting you, but I thank you for your example.  Until nearly the end of your long life, you stayed with it.  You kept working, you kept Seeing, and you inspire me to do the same." I intentionally capitalized the word "Seeing" here because I mean for this word to encompass both the eyes and the heart.  A heart-seeing enables an artist, after all, to reach across time and share observations about a mug, a flower, and three pieces of fruit that will stay as forever fresh as the lively surface of this small watercolor in the Brauer Museum's collection.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with latest browser versions, font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]