For Hazel Caldwell—renowned studio artist, professor, and certified art therapist--painting is a study in the art of relationships.
A master with oils, Hazel prefers the medium because the longer drying time allows her to truly engage with the canvas, and she frequently works with three or four paintings at a time.
Her extended process may be one of the things that gives Hazel’s work its distinctiveness. “It [painting] really is like a relationship,” she explains, “I can’t say I’ve ever truly been completely happy with a painting; when I think I am at a place of peace with one, something always changes.” With her typical sly humor, she extends the metaphor, “But some are like exes where you just get to a point where you leave them. You don’t mourn them, sometimes you just reuse the canvas.”
All joking aside, Hazel’s professional career began one day in the Charleston market, where the young College of Charleston student sat painting and drew the attention of a local business owner. Impressed by her talent, he commissioned a series on the spot. She recalls fondly, “I lived in a tiny dorm room with a roommate and had nowhere to put this huge canvas. I ended up propping it on the bed and sleeping on the floor.” The commissions kept coming, and throughout her twenties, Hazel was able to support her young family doing what she loved.
Hazel’s unparalleled personal relationship with her work manifests itself appropriately in her favorite subject to paint, the human body. “There is so much bull shit and judgement in this world, but the human body is such a raw, real thing to paint,” she explains. Her love of human figure painting was inspired years ago in one of her visits to Italy. One day after looking at the works of the Old Masters, she was on the train to Tuscany and became enamored by the beautifully imperfect human figures around her. She found herself looking from passenger to passenger, envisioning their forms on a canvas.
Her travels not only inspired a love of figure painting but a passion for landscapes as well. “I love open air, water, and skies,” she says. “I’m feeling a little landlocked right now, so I’ve become a bit obsessed with water in my paintings.” Hanging on one wall of Hazel’s home is a breathtaking 24x36 self-portrait. Though painted freehand from a mirror in her downtown Macon studio, the stunning seminude (the perfect blend of landscape and the human body that defines so much of her subject matter) depicts its subject staring out a large window overlooking the Mediterranean.
Her propensity to paint the human figure is no surprise to anyone who knows Hazel. A deeply passionate mother and friend, Hazel married her love of painting with her love of human psychology as an art therapist, where she served in a Juvenile Detention facility, public school system, private practice, children’s hospital, as well as a Veterans hospital.
Remembering her work with teenagers, Hazel laments, “How helpless that population is. They are becoming adults but they have no control over anything. They can be so raw in their art, but they’re teenagers. They don’t want to talk to you, so art is the perfect modality for conversation. It is non threatening.” Hazel encountered similar resistance at the VA hospital, where one patient had experienced the horrors of Hamburger Hill: “He never talked to anyone, but after four weeks of working with him he finally started to paint. He did a scribble painting, then another, then a massive one on a canvas. Then he did a large one on a canvas that looked like an explosion. It was abstract, amazing. It was a great work of talent.” Art therapy, she explains, gives voice to the patients who resist the traditional talk therapy experience.
Hazel hopes to blend her love of people and painting to highlight more controversial subjects. “With the recent political climate I feel that the art profession has been a little diminished, if not disrespected,” she posits, “and some of my pieces are a middle finger to that.” She refers to her upcoming series of homeless people (sketched from people in cities throughout the Southeast) as well as some paintings of two naked women in bed: “We are taking so many steps back I want to put in everyone’s face the things that are being frowned upon. We have to put it out there, but it’s hard to be as brave as I’d like to be.”
But Hazel is not one to allow fear to temper her art, and she has been pleasantly surprised that locally some of her more controversial, if not subversive, pieces have been selling before she even has time to hang them. Having painted over a thousand commissions, Hazel is encouraged to see her more brazen non-commissions drawing positive attention.
Though no longer working in the clinical setting as an art therapist, Hazel finds her talents invigorated by her interaction with the students of Mercer University. In the classroom, she blends her love of people and paint as she boldly inspires a young generation of artists and art enthusiasts. “Art is important,” she asserts, “and it’s going to be my life’s struggle to explain why.”
Interview conducted and written by Rachael Pigg-Wisner