Carol Hagan portrays horses and other animals in a vibrant new light
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the June 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
The miraculous equines first came to her at night, Carol Hagan recalls. “Four years ago, I started dreaming about painting horses with light,” she says. “They would appear to me not just in the bright colors I usually use, but actually illuminated. When I woke up, I didn’t know how I would go about pursuing this vision.”
Eventually Hagan did discover a way to create images of horses radiant with light in a new art form for her that brings her more joy, more passion, and greater fulfillment than she’s ever experienced through art. The path to this latest career stage, however, has not always been a smooth one. It’s a story she relates with a resolute mix of candor, warmth, and good humor.
Hagan was born 53 years ago in Central City, NE. During her early years, her father, a schoolteacher, moved the family first to Canada, then Wyoming. They finally settled in Billings, MT, in time for young Carol to start third grade.
Hagan remembers always being “captivated by color,” she relates. “Most of my books were about color. I wasn’t fond of drawing as much as I was of expressing myself with color at every opportunity. I always reached for the most vivid colors.”
That’s how she happily continued until one moment during eighth-grade art class at Lewis and Clark Junior High literally stopped her cold. “My teacher had us drawing and painting horses. Mine was in the [bright] palette I’ve always been drawn to. And she chose my horse as an example for the class of how not to paint a horse.” Not yet sufficiently mature or self-assured to stand by her convictions, the budding artist was squelched. “I remember feeling embarrassed and sad that I obviously didn’t understand enough to paint my horse correctly. It confirmed to me that I didn’t know what I was doing. Through the rest of my school years, I was not interested in making art.”
For a while, other passions filled the void, particularly long-distance running. “I had hopes of competing in the Olympics,” says Hagan. Unfortunately, serious knee injuries forced her to give up that dream during her freshman year at Eastern Montana College.
She’d enrolled as an accounting major, she says, laughing now at how “that was the complete opposite side of my brain from art.” In quick succession over three years, she fell in love, got married, had a child, divorced, and left college. “I was a single mom working two jobs to make ends meet, waitressing at night and, during the daytime, doing bookkeeping for the restaurant and making their desserts and sauces.”
In circumstances that undoubtedly seemed dire, Hagan reopened her spirit to a source of proven joy. “I started allowing creativity to come back into my life,” she says. “I seized every opportunity to look at art and surrounded myself with books on art and color.”
In 1988, yearning to spend more time with her young son, she started designing and producing a line of children’s play clothes screenprinted with cheery, colorful animal images she drew herself. “I took them to resorts and to the Denver Merchandise Mart, and I sold the heck out of them,” she says. About three years later, she sold the business to a local sportswear company and began steady work from home as their freelance graphic artist.
Summing up the experience, she says, “It was just perfect.” At least it was at first. But eventually, Hagan continues, “I felt a void. With graphic arts, you’re creating pieces of art for someone else’s vision. I needed to do something I could create just for me.”
In her spare time, she began painting images of colorful horses and other animals in acrylics on watercolor paper. “I loved it,” she remembers. “I never had the intent of showing the paintings, but some friends of mine saw them and asked if I would sell them.” Gradually, she spent more and more time painting than drawing clothing illustrations. Her works sold well at art fairs across Montana and Colorado, and some galleries began showing them. “Around 1996, I felt comfortable enough to leave the cushion of that paycheck for graphic art and make the commitment to painting full time,” she says.
During that transitional time, another major change came into her life. She met Pat Hagan, a good man and a business and accounting expert. They married 23 years ago, and he eventually began running the business side of Carol’s career. “Pat has afforded me the opportunity to focus on creating,” she says with quiet gratitude. “He continues to be my partner and my best friend.”
Thus emotionally supported and creatively fulfilled, Hagan began quietly enjoying artistic success. In 1997, the Coconut Grove Arts Festival in Miami accepted a piece of hers as its official logo design of the year, and she sold most of the 40 or so paintings she exhibited there. The following year, while attending an arts festival in Jackson Hole, she walked into a prestigious gallery—which represented artists she admired such as John Nieto, Rocky Hawkins, Billy Schenck, and Donna Howell-Sickles—with her portfolio in hand but without an appointment. A couple of days later, the gallery offered to represent her. “That felt like a gentle nudge to me that I was on the right track,” she says.
Perhaps the most influential “nudge” came in 2002, when she first met famed plein-air painter Joseph Abbrescia at the C.M. Russell Art Auction in Great Falls, MT. “I wanted more vivid color in my paintings than acrylics could give me, and Joe took me under his wing,” Hagan says. Abbrescia invited her to take an oil-painting workshop he was giving that summer. “I was captivated by the color and the layering I was able to achieve with oils. Joe was instrumental in opening that door for me,” she says of her mentor, who passed away in 2005. “I will be eternally grateful.”
That, adds the otherwise self-taught painter, “has been the extent of my training. I have read books about color. But it doesn’t make much sense to me without experimenting on my own. I just immerse myself in the studio and explore and learn from the process.”
The result of that approach, over the past decade and a half, have been oil paintings that seem to reimagine the way we view the natural world and its creatures, with the vibrancy of their unconventional colors and the lively spontaneity of their brushwork. As an example, take an eloquent little 6-by-8-inch work entitled SQUEAK, in which a fox kit she observed in a den not far from her home regards a patch of grass with innocent wonder. Though faithful in its depiction of the animal, the image radiates life in its verdant background and its almost electric highlights of purple, blue, and yellow. The overall effect adds up to a style Hagan chooses to describe as “contemporary and expressionistic.” The unconventional hues become, she explains, a sort of emotional vocabulary for her. “Greens remind me of springtime. Yellow is happiness, warmth, or joy. Red, to me, is passionate. Purple is quiet, thoughtful. Blue is peaceful.”
Such a joyful palette and exuberant yet deliberate brush strokes might indicate that Hagan had reached a level of mastery in her highly personal style. But then, around 2012, those dreams about wondrous horses of light began to tantalize her. “I didn’t understand it at first,” she says. “How could I take these inspirations and translate them into an artistic form?”
Eventually she realized what the perfect canvas would be: glass. And, rather than paint on just one thick piece of glass, she realized that the best way to achieve the effects she’d seen in her dreams would be to paint two perfectly aligned and complementary images on two separate sheets that she would then sandwich together and seal, “so both sides would work together and interact.”
Along the way, she developed a novel process. She combines her oils with cold wax, which has a consistency akin to that of vegetable shortening, and which helps provide “more texture, like the tooth of a canvas” on the smooth glass. With a brush or palette knife, she applies the colored substances, along with thinner washes of oil paint alone. Then she places two matching panes precisely together and seals them with clear epoxy. Finally, the work is fitted into a custom display stand made of welded steel. “There was a lot of experimenting to make sure the result is solid,” Hagan sums up.
Hagan’s “Glass Horses,” as she refers to her new and growing body of work, are nothing short of transcendent. When she exhibited the first ones in March at both the Yellowstone Art Museum and The Russell exhibition and sale—where two years ago she was one of 22 artists tapped for the Russell Skull Society of top western artists—she was delighted that “they were overwhelmingly well received. I’m so glad I took that risk.”
In a life full of career risks bravely and successfully taken, it shouldn’t be surprising that her latest one brings her so much satisfaction and happiness. “The course I have plotted in these works has been so pivotal for me,” Hagan concludes. “This direction has changed—and I believe it will be instrumental in defining—my personal journey as an artist.”
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