Just above the bustle of Lindsborg’s Main Street, there’s Mike Hartung.
And for the past 42 years, there’s been Mike Hartung, though few know him, even in this town of 3,300.
“That was deliberate on my part,” he said. “I made no effort (to be known). It’s just never been my priority.”
So Hartung, 72, has spent the last four decades painting away in his second-floor Lindsborg studio.
Until recently, he was perfectly content being the only one to see his finished works. But next month – coaxed partially by friends and partially by declining health – Hartung is mounting 62 of his works in a simultaneous three-show blitz.
His works will be shown at Lindsborg’s Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, the Salina Art Center and Fort Hays State’s Moss-Thorns Gallery.
“This is weird – it’s almost like going to your own funeral,” Hartung said of the sudden attention to his works. “I really thought this was something that was going to happen after I was long gone.”
‘I got to do what I wanted’
Hartung’s studio is cluttered with boxes upon boxes of CDs, DVDs, vinyl records and books.
He sleeps every night on a tattered mattress tucked away in a corner. His studio has no kitchen – he’d rather eat out anyway, he said.
“I always figured (cooking) was just another way to kill time,” Hartung said.
So instead he spends his free time painting – generally on masonite slates at least 4 feet tall. Since his retirement from Salina’s Arrow Printing last year, that time has only increased.
“That’s basically what I do – music, paint and read – and this (studio) provides that,” Hartung said. “Everything just worked. I’m the American dream – I got to do what I wanted.”
Hartung, a Fredonia native, has a bachelor’s degree in art education from Emporia State University.
When a friend showed him a vacant second-floor studio in downtown Lindsborg, Hartung signed a lease on the place before he had a house or a job.
“I just knew this was going to work,” he said. “I’ve been here 42 years since then. I got a job ... that paid well, so I never had to worry about selling the art. I could just sit here and crank them out.”
His earlier works include a lot of scenescapes and figure work, though his new works have taken a political turn.
He said he has license to create political art, as a veteran of the Vietnam War.
“I knew even then that if I’m going to draw, say, political cartoons and I’m not a veteran, that’s going to really undermine what I was saying,” Hartung said. “That’s why I feel like I can say whatever I ... want, because I did it. They had their chance to kill me and they failed.”
One of his newest pieces, “Tailgating With the Grand Old Party (Bring the Kiddies)” is graphic and disturbing, a stark contrast from his early-career art of figures in parks, diners and other locales.
Hartung admits he goes “some pretty dark places” in his paintings. Painting in seclusion – and his desire to remain unknown – freed his mind creatively, he said.
Help from friends
These upcoming exhibitions were largely spearheaded by Richard Klocke, exhibition designer for the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas, and his wife Laura.
The Klockes had met Hartung when they were students at Lindsborg’s Bethany College.
Laura Klocke visited Lindsborg in 2013 and decided to visit Hartung in his downtown studio, he said. Things were dire – he only had one functioning light fixture, boxes of junk hoarded over the decades were accumulating, and Hartung’s health was rapidly declining.
The Klockes and a friend, Randy Just, staged an “intervention,” Hartung said, repairing his loft, cleaning it up and photographing his work.
Hartung, who had been in “a creative dry spell” for about a decade, began painting again.
To coincide with the summer exhibitions, a book of Hartung’s work is being published, he said. As a book worm, he said he’s “really tickled” about its publication. He estimates he’s painted more than 700 pieces in his four-decade career.
For the immediate future, Hartung will continue to paint in his tiny Lindsborg studio, though he said he’s working on leaving.
“I’m realizing the inevitable – I still climb the stairs, but at a certain point,” he may not be able to, he said. “I would love to find a place for all the stuff, to get it under one roof.
“I really wanted to do something like that, and I’m running out of time.”
Mike Hartung exhibitions