Aaron Hazel’s body of work is creating a whole new catalog of the faces of the Old West.
Three of his recent paintings, one of which is still hanging at Horizon Fine Art, have focused on key figures in Jackson history. He was fascinated with the role women played in the development of the town.
Hazel interpreted the iconic black-and-white photograph of the all-women “Petticoat Government” — Mae Deloney, Rose Crabtree, Grace Miller, Faustina Haight and Genevieve Van Vleck — and made it come to life through vibrant blues, oranges and greens.
“The Town Council piece engrossed me right away,” Hazel said. “I was thinking, ‘This is so inspiring.’ For my work I like to unearth the lesser-known stories of the Old West, and this was perfect for that.”
He also painted Edna C. Huff, a traveling nurse who was appointed Jackson’s health officer in 1920. Instead of depicting the detached impression of her likeness in an archival photo, Hazel’s painting shows Huff in full color, wearing a bright magenta dress and riding a horse tinged with purple.
The third Jackson historical figure he’s brought to life so far is Jim Bridger, the fur trapper, mountain man, and Western frontiersman who led the 1859 Raynolds Expedition which explored the Teton Mountain Range and Jackson Hole.
Hazel has come a long way for someone who got his professional start painting portrait commissions for professional athletes. As a former college basketball player at Whitman College, he knew a lot of people in athletic circles. But as his career has progressed he has had the chance to pursue topics he is more personally passionate about, like human rights, civil rights and equality.
Hazel has built his artistic career around painting lesser-known figures of the American West. Growing up in an African American family in the predominantly white community of Boise, Idaho, he wasn’t surrounded by a whole lot of people who looked like him.
He has painted hundreds of portraits of historical figures, focusing on those who weren’t typically represented in positions of power: African Americans, indigenous people and women. He has always been drawn to painting faces, but he prefers doing so when they have a story behind them, especially one that has been confined to the footnotes of history.
“When you paint a person in isolation it gives you a chance to really peer into them and peer into their soul and try to delve into their life and their history without really spelling it out,” Hazel said. “It’s you and the person and the painting. There’s an almost ominous feeling sometimes.
Essentially, he veers toward paintings figures of the history of the West who aren’t the stoic, white, male cowboy.
“Minorities existed and women existed. Really tough women were vital to Western expansion,” Hazel said. “I really hope people understand that it’s not just the typical Marlboro Man.”
Hazel has plenty of frustrations with the way people think of the Old West, like the way people talk about indigenous people as if they are a relic of the distant past.
“There are still tribes, there are still tribal leaders,” he said. “They’re still fighting for rights to this day.”
Hazel hopes his work leads more people to realize that people of all walks of life contributed to the Old West.
But he also recognizes that even when minorities have been represented in Western art, they have frequently been misrepresented. Because of this, he is hyper-conscious of conducting thorough research on each of his portrait subjects before painting them.
“If you’re painting a Native American you have to do research, you have to get the name right,” he said. “You have to really pay homage to that face. You can’t just paint it for the fact of its beauty. You have to give it the full-blown research and make you sure you get an accurate portrayal of who they are.”
The stories behind his paintings are fascinating in their own right, but his technique is captivating, too. Hazel uses thick paint textures and bold colors and frequently employs a palette knife. For his painting of Jim Bridger, for example, he brought the mountain man to life by using a palate knife to create a weathered look to his skin and clothes.
Even though a lot of the colors Hazel paints portraits with aren’t quite true to their subject’s coloring, he makes it work by playing with contrasts and working within an impressionist tradition.
Thought he has painted hundreds of portraits — he said he’s lost track of the exact number — he still approaches each one with a sense of nervous excitement. Each time, he starts anew, doing his best to bring the stories of his subjects to life. He likened what he feels before approaching a painting to the nerves he used to experience before a basketball game.
For Hazel it’s all part of the process.
“It keeps you sharp.”
Hazel’s paintings of the “Petticoat Government” and Edna C. Huff have sold. His painting of Jim Bridger is still on display at Horizon Fine Art. ￼