Nebraska Life — May/June 2010
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The Illustrated Life Ofmike Hagel
Molly Garriott

I’M A POOR MAN’S NORMAN ROCKWELL,” says artist Mike Hagel, referring to the iconic American artist whose Saturday Evening Post covers defined the illustrative art genre. In fact, Norman Rockwell’s work inspired Hagel, of Omaha, to become an artist and an illustrator himself.

Hagel believes an illustrator “builds a picture.” He recreates a particular moment in time and encapsulates a scene that strikes a common chord with those who view it. Norman Rockwell is perhaps the 20th century’s most notable illustrator. He successfully and poignantly captured the everyday occurrences, elevating life’s simple pleasures to art.

AND IT IS EASY to ascertain Rockwellian features in Hagel’s art. Rockwell’s work has always resonated with the artist.

He owns an original copy of a 1935 Saturday Evening Post illustration that Rockwell personally signed to him. It is an autumn hunt scene, a man with his cane walking through autumn’s rich colored leaves with his dog trailing close behind.

When certain companies enlisted Hagel to develop advertisement for their products, he returned to early Rockwell images for inspiration. Rockwell’s soda fountain scene served as the basis for a Walgreens menu cover. Nearly every pediatrician’s office has a Rockwell reproduction: the kindly ministrations of the white-haired doctor listening to a little girl’s doll’s heart; the nervous young boy on the receiving end of an immunization, dropping his drawers while verifying his doctor’s credentials by checking out the diploma hanging on the wall.

Hagel sought to capture the humor of Rockwell’s medical illustrations when he accepted a job from the School Health Supply Company. His work was featured on the cover of the company’s catalogue. The illustrations captured the fancy of school nurses across the country, and they began requesting the art to hang in their offices. So popular were Hagel’s renderings, he now creates installments that are turned into posters.

Hagel laughs when he says, “just about every school nurse office has one of these posters hanging in it.” Hagel spent the years immediately following his graduation from the Colorado Institute of Art in Chicago honing his skills in the fast-paced advertising business.

If you have patronized a local watering hole, you most likely have seen his Miller High Life advertisement featuring the lady sitting on a crescent moon.

A lover of romance novels? You’ve probably seen Hagel’s corset-busting handiwork on a Harlequin romance or two.

His career also has included designing postal stamps and cards, model kit box covers and coin engravings.

AFTER 24 YEARS in Chicago, Hagel returned home to Nebraska in 1994. Of his move back to his roots, Hagel simply says, “It’s home; I missed it.” Hagel’s Nebraska roots are deep seeded.

Born in 1949 in Ainsworth, he moved around the state . . . To Rushville, Scottsbluff, Terrytown and York before settling into Columbus in the sixth grade. His father was a lumberyard manager whose job precipitated the numerous moves around the state. This fluidity of addresses gave Hagel a feeling for all parts of the state, which would serve his art well as an adult. It also served his brother, former

U. S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, well. When campaigning for the U.S. Senate, his opposing candidate, Ben Nelson, lamented it was difficult to run against a man who had so many “hometowns.”

Hagel’s affinity for Nebraska extends beyond the interpersonal and into his professional life as an artist. The landscape of his home state has artistic appeal. “I like doing skies,” he said. “In Nebraska, we have big skies. One of the reasons I came back was to paint the state. I think it’s a beautiful state.” His admiration for Great Plains living is evident immediately upon entering his studio. A near life-size portrait of an overall-clad Henry Fonda as Tom Joad from the 1940 The Grapes of Wrath film takes center stage among his other works in progress. The Fonda portrait is not a commissioned piece. Hagel does not know what he will do with it. He simply felt drawn to the subject matter. Perhaps it is Fonda’s Nebraska roots with which Hagel feels a kinship. Or maybe the quiet strength and tenacious persistence of the struggling Joad is the allure. Regardless, Hagel has captured the weary but undaunted spirit of the Great Plains farmer in the lines and shadows of Fonda’s face.

When Hagel was a child, his mother would entertain her sons with stories of her life on the Nebraska family farm. One in particular so touched the artist that he painted the vivid scene. It is a painting of a young girl following closely behind her father as he drives a team of three horses during the spring plowing. His mother is the little girl snatching bits of precious time with his grandfather during the busy spring plowing and planting season. It’s a painting as much about bonding between parent and child as it is a telling of Nebraska’s agrarian roots.

Just a quick, cursory glance around Hagel’s family room and adjoining studio gives an insight into his tastes and pursuits.

An avid motorcycle enthusiast, one corner is dedicated to showcasing various models and art. Hagel has created advertisement for Harley Davidson.

One such piece, Harleys parked outside a roadside diner, hangs on his wall. But while a Harley may be king of the American road, Hagel owns a British Norton. “British bikes were faster than Harleys,” he said, adding with a grin, “They’re of my generation.” ANOTHER EVIDENT PASSION is history, in particular, aviation art. Hagel is a history detective, a reporter wielding a paintbrush rather than a pen. The research required in depicting historical events and people intrigues him. The results are not romanticized renditions of the glorious past but carefully, faithfully reproduced statements of what actually transpired. “I love historical stuff because of the research,” Hagel said. “It’s capturing a moment in time.” The accuracy of his work is such that museums across the country commission His work. An original acrylic on canvas of Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War hangs in the Military Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Taken with the authenticity and precision of Hagel’s work, Charlie Wilson (of Charlie Wilson’s War fame) gave reproductions of Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill to two of his friends.

Hagel created a stirring rendition of the November 2, 1943, raid on Simpson Harbor for the Air Force, which hires artists to document its history. Considered the equivalent of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Air Force mounted an attack of the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. When the smoke cleared, more than 100,000 tons of Japanese ships had been destroyed.

The late Maj. Gen. John P. Henebry was the pilot who led the successful mission over Simpson Harbor. The primary aircraft responsible for the carnage was the B-25 and Henebry’s plane was named “Notre Dame de Victoire” or “Our Lady of Victory.” While the history of the key battle drew Hagel’s interest, the subject has personal significance. Hagel’s father also was a crew member of a B-25 during World War II. In delving into the details of the bomber, Hagel discovered a facet of his own parent’s life that predated his birth. The original work permanently hangs in the Hap Arnold corridor of the Pentagon since its completion in 1989. A reproduction, signed by crew members present during the mission, adorns the wall of Hagel’s family room.

The World War II Wildcat F4F fighter, which currently hangs in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, also has connections to Hagel. The aircraft was salvaged in 2001 from Lake Michigan where it had crashed during World War II training exercises. Hagel contributed his extensive knowledge of the fighter in authenticating its reconstruction. The plane honors the extraordinary contributions that Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the airport’s namesake, made in the Pacific front.

World War II’s first Naval flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient, O’Hare was instrumental in saving the USS Lexington aircraft carrier from being destroyed by the Japanese, and thus maintaining the Allied presence in the Pacific. Hagel com- Memorated O’Hare’s perilous Medal of Honor flight with a painting depicting O’Hare flying over the besieged Lexington, fending off Japanese bombers.

Examples of his aviation art can be found closer to home.

The Strategic Air Command Society commissioned Hagel to create a commemorative painting marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Hagel focused on the heartland’s contributions to the war effort. In his work, he depicts three emblematic war figures: a Rosie the Riveter factory worker, a farmer carrying a basket of food and a boy pulling a wagon of scrap metal.

Omaha was the site of a Martin B-29 plant. Many of the workers in the plant were women who filled the factory jobs vacated by men who had enlisted with the armed forces.

The farmer carrying the food basket represents Nebraska’s integral role in feeding the troops. The state was third in the nation in food production during the war. Lastly, scrap metal drives, essential to the war effort, started in Nebraska (see “The 1942 Scrap Drive and the ‘Nebraska Plan,’” November/December 2009). Children often played an integral role in the drives as they were simple yet effective ways to contribute to the war effort. Hagel felt all three scenes were fitting of the anniversary painting, especially given their Nebraska connections.

Throughout the 1980s, Hagel created series of commemorative plates. He designed a comedian plate series including Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and George Burns. Hagel said that Hope’s portrait on the plate was one of the comedian’s favorites. When he was turning 99, Hope’s daughter contacted Hagel for permission to use the image on the birthday invitations.

He also designed the 1981 inaugural plate of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, which Reagan signed. And once Bush Sr. Left the White House after his tenure as president, he enlisted Hagel’s talent in creating murals for his presidential library and museum in College Station, Texas.

Hagel describes himself as a “dinosaur.” He does everything by hand in his north-lighted home studio, competing with graphic artists and advertisers who rely on high-tech, computer- based tools of the trade. Yet the demand for his work has not abated. He may like to paint history, but he is in no danger of becoming a thing of the past himself.