LINDSBORG — Painting for nearly 42 years in relative obscurity, Mike Hartung has created hundreds of canvases in a small loft above a storefront on Lindsborg’s Main Street.
For decades, the 73-year-old artist never sought the limelight nor cared if his work was exhibited or if he sold a painting. For Hartung, the pleasure came from doing the work itself, not indulging in self-glorification.
“Exhibiting was never my thing,” he said. “I never cared about any of that. All I wanted to do was paint. I already had a good job, so I didn’t care if I made a living as an artist.”
That’s all about to change. In August, Hartung not only will be exhibiting his work for the first time, he’ll be displaying more than 60 works in three gallery locations.
Hartung admitted he’s still reeling at the thought of his work being exhibited in three prestigious galleries nearly simultaneously.
“Many of these paintings don’t have names and most of them I hadn’t even dated,” he said.
“Gas Stations, Laundromats, and the Spaces In Between: Paintings by Mike Hartung” will open Friday at the Salina Art Center, 242 S. Santa Fe. The next day, another collection of paintings under the same name will open at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg. On Aug. 25, a third collection will be unveiled at the Moss-Thorns Gallery at Fort Hays State University.
Additionally, a book of Hartung’s paintings has been assembled by Bill North, executive director of the Salina Art Center. North also provided an introduction to the book, and Hartung has written a biographical preface.
Hartung’s paintings were described by North as “exuberantly cheerless, composing a veritable catalog of human predicament. The artist’s subjects are not poster children for the American dream; they are denizens of a certain darker American and human reality.”
The places and spaces Hartung depicts in his representational paintings — which include gas stations, Laundromats, fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, cafes and midnight streets — are peopled with solitary figures, usually women, who are weary from life’s daily toll and “occupy a world of drenching ennui,” North writes. Many of Hartung’s psychological landscapes are inspired by actual sites in Lindsborg, Salina and central Kansas.
Hartung said his purposeful anonymity as an artist has allowed him to explore noncommercial, sometimes controversial subjects in his work.
“I go to a lot of strange places in my paintings,” he said. “Not caring about showing anybody my work meant I could paint anything I wanted to, and I did.”
Hartung was raised in the small Kansas town of Fredonia, where he said his greatest childhood ambition was to be a “boy cartoonist.”
He got that opportunity after enrolling at Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, where he majored in art education and contributed cartoons to the school newspaper.
“It helped me develop discipline because I had to turn in a new cartoon every week,” Hartung said.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in art education, Hartung was drafted into the Vietnam War. After being discharged, Hartung decided he didn’t want to be a teacher anymore, so he went back to Emporia State and began taking painting classes.
At school, he befriended artist Don Osborn, who immediately recognized Hartung’s individualistic talent.
“We showed up at Emporia at the same time — he was just out of Vietnam, and I was starting a graduate program,” said Osborn, now a metal sculptor based near Gypsum. “Early on, I thought he was doing special work, and I could see how dedicated he was. It’s not like he wasn’t interested in listening to commentary about his work, but he just wanted to be his own person. He’s definitely one-of-a-kind.”
Visit from friend
In 1975, Hartung relocated to Lindsborg where, at Osborn’s suggestion, he rented a studio above a now defunct bank on Main Street.
“I came to Lindsborg without a job or place to live, but I was determined to make it work,” Hartung said. “I’ve been in that studio for 42 years, and I feel lucky I ended up here.”
It wasn’t long before Hartung got a job at Arrow Printing in Salina, where he worked for 41 years. He retired last year as production manager.
“It was a great job and paid well, which gave me the freedom to paint,” he said.
Hartung said his three-exhibit retrospective never would have happened without the assistance of friends Laura and Richard Klocke and Randy Just. In 2013, Laura Klocke, who first met Hartung during the 1970s, went to Lindsborg for a funeral and looked up Hartung, whom she hadn’t seen for years. By that time, Hartung was ill and unproductive, having been affected by heart disease and a series of operations that included bypass surgery.
There was only one canvas set up in Hartung’s studio, the only painting he had been working on for the past 10 years.
“I was in a productive drought,” he said. “Then Laura came to visit and saw I had stuff stacked everywhere, so she and Richard decided to archive my stuff. I guess they wanted to do it before I expired. I felt guilty people gave up their vacation time to (screw) with an ailing artist.”
With the help of Richard Klocke and Just, Laura Klocke photographed more than 350 of Hartung’s paintings and then arranged for curators to view his work. The next thing Hartung knew, he had offers from three Kansas galleries to exhibit his paintings.
Richard Klocke, who is exhibitions manager at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, said that after he saw the quality of Hartung’s work, he was determined to get them out in the world.
“Mike’s work has every bit of legitimacy as anything we exhibit at the Spencer,” he said. “I totally understand why he didn’t want to show before, but I wanted to see this work get airplay and not be overlooked. It’s such a joy to see these things come to life.”
Hartung said he’s in a “recuperative mode” now and is beginning to get his strength back. More importantly, he finally feels like painting again.
In the meantime, seeing part of his life’s work professionally mounted on the white walls of three prestigious art galleries for the first time has been an unexpected pleasure for Hartung.
“I’m seeing them in a whole new light,” he said. “I’m happy with them.”