Sometimes you come upon an artist whose work is infinitely linked to the soul of a place. This you'll find in its truest form in the work of Ladislav Hanka.
"Spawned by the Great Lakes; etchings from the watersheds of Michigan," is the fourth art gallery exhibition presented by The Inn at Harbor Shores, featuring selected works by Ladislav Hanka, along with ceramic sculptures by his wife, Jana Hanka.
Hanka, now 62, was raised in Kalamazoo, and from early boyhood, his artistic inclination towards discovery in nature began to reveal itself. First fascinations with toads and trees led to daydreams of becoming a sort of ecological super-hero, one with special powers, the ability to uncover the mysteries of his earthly terrain—a truth seeker in search of the intersection of biology, nature and art. His connection to Michigan's natural landscape and habitat would become numinous, leading Hanka to earn an M.F.A. in printmaking from Western Michigan University, and a M.S. in Zoology from Colorado State University.
While dedicating his artist's eye to the study of Michigan's flora and fauna—visiting trees, for example, and befriending them, before attempting to draw them from life—Hanka honors the diversity of the Michigan wilderness by taking on rich long-term projects such as The Land of the Crooked Trees, (etchings of Native American marker trees, inspired by the Greensky Council Trees of Northern Michigan), or The Kalamazoo River Songline, which Hanka describes as a map of home.
"My songline," he says, "is constructed on the armature of a loosely drawn Kalamazoo River—arising near Jackson, dipping down to Kalamazoo and flowing into Lake Michigan near Saugatuck."
When Hanka speaks of spirit streams and ghost-rivers, his voice rings with the authority of a lover of the flora, fauna, and wildlife, of this watercourse and surrounding land. His passion for subject seems to encompass all living creatures, from the endangered red-shouldered hawks, osprey, spawned salmon and mayfly wigglers. But whether he is working on an artist residency at Isle Royale, or circumnavigating Lake Superior, angling for Trout and Pike, he is always in search of inspiration for his etchings.
His creative process is also rooted in place, as in the Crooked Trees series, where Hanka describes that "my fascination with crooked, twisted, curved and bent trees goes back to childhood fishing trips with my father. The great white cedars shading the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers left an indelible imprint on my maturing mind.
"The cutover pineries, the eroded sandy plains dotted with the massive charred stumps of once gargantuan white pines, haunted and inspired me. I've kept coming back for more and more of these sensory booster shots to immunize myself from cynicism and hopelessness. I run to this well of inspiration to let the forest stream flow over my skin and the scented air of the cedars enter my lungs."
Curator Susan Wilczak was first introduced to Hanka's work in the mid 1990s when he had an exhibition in the Benton Harbor Arts District's New Moon Gallery.
"He is an artist with a prolific range of interests," she says. "He is a steel head fisherman, mushroom hunter and most recently has evolved his beekeeping into an inspired collaboration with honeybees, placing his works into living hives."
For this exhibition, Hanka's theme was The Great Lakes, so he collected works that relate to the lakes—the fish and other creatures we encounter there. Working to create his etchings, he gathered inspiration during walks and outings, and while canoeing, sailing or fishing—his artistic passion essentially merging into the details of his daily life. The etching, or the intaglio process of printing, is a method using a metal plate that dates back to the Italian Renaissance.
Hanka, recalling this process, says, "Bowfin (or dogfish) appear to me, so I draw them. Luna moths and maidenhair ferns share the space with other creatures, whose tenure in the plate is but a memory, a wisp of plate tone or bypassed intent. Every molecule of the zinc plate has felt the caress of my hands—for months—as the drawings went down and were often again sanded away, leaving stray marks and partial images, until the whole summed to a chorus."
Wilczak says, "This exhibition fits into the vision of the Inn at Harbor Shores, in that the Inn is committed to being a focal point—an environmentally friendly world class resort, devoted to the Great Lakes, its unique ecosystem, fauna and flora. To this end, we are committed to showcasing the talents of actively working artists throughout the State of Michigan."
Hanka does not teach art, but devotes his days fully to his craft, reaping both the trials and rewards of life as a full-time artist. Married for 25 years, his wife, Jana, also an artist, received her M.F.A from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 1980, and has been living in the U.S. since 1987. The two met in Michigan while Jana was "touristing" on a trip from Prague.
According to Jana, the secret of the successful cohabitation of two artists is "We meet each morning in the kitchen for coffee, before each moving on to pursue our own creative mess." Starting out first as a painter, Jana Hanka has evolved into a successful sculptor, employing clay and bronze.
For this exhibition at The Inn at Harbor Shores, she has created a series of representational, horse-themed works that explore ideas of freedom. The viewer may find clues to Hanka's Czech heritage in his enchanted aesthetic, which brings the varied species and cultural landscape of the Michigan terrain to life as in legend or mythic tale.
His animated illustrations contain the spirit of tree, fish, or bird—interpretations that go beyond technical mastery—to offer the depth and density of a visual folk tale.
As an artist, he is influenced by Czech history and a people who for centuries relied upon and honored their land, became caretakers of its soul, dedicating themselves to a place they intended to inhabit for a lifetime.
Ladislav Hanka's work has been internationally exhibited and widely acclaimed, and can be found in noteworthy collections that include the Detroit Institute of Art, The Newberry Library in Chicago, The Grand Rapids Museum of Art, The National Museum, Prague, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Tokyo, The British Library in London, with an extensive collection of his works, books, proofs and correspondence housed in the Special Collections at Western Michigan University.
Hanka is ever aware that his presence and interaction with the Michigan landscape is only a recent layer of human interaction.
"Perched on a windy cliff with a sketchbook on my knees and contemplating the graphic conundrums posed by a rocky archipelago, I find myself resolving the receding and overlapping lines of more complex and meaningful perspectives..."
I picture him there, artist and place conspiring together.