Thoughts on the Art of Michael Hardesty

It is said that Michelangelo saw in the veins of a freshly cut block of marble the prophets, saints and angels who would be set free by the sculptor's tools. Irving Stone, in his novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, describes the inspiration of the artist's Sistine Chapel ceiling in the cloud formations that he experienced in the mountains of Carrara. Great art through time so very often has at its core the artist's response to natural phenomena.

The art of Michael Hardesty explores and exploits the wonder and the mystery of the natural world but does so through a purely poetic filter. In utilizing technology to recreate a particular kind of light, sound or structure, Hardesty reaches for that sense of awe nature offers up to those of us patient enough to discover it. To that end much of what Hardesty creates has at its base an experience recalled. Once we enter Hardesty's world, we can never quite respond to nature, or in fact to art, in quite the same way. His art amplifies the unexplainable and pushes our response to it.

I will never forget the sense-boggling thrill of experiencing Hardesty's "Polar Event," an early and remarkable installation employing controlled light, sound and atmospheric effects. One never quite understood its theme (at least its title hinted at a narrative). But once in the space, Hardesty quietly and methodically worked the senses and indeed the mind as well. The dominant element of the installation was a large, circular, translucent form with inner and outer illumination. The form appeared to float within the foggy environment. The work literally toyed with our imagination, as most of his pieces seem to do, while we carry into the work our own notions as to its significance.

One has to marvel at Hardesty's ability to grab and hold his audience for optimal effect using any technology.within his grasp. In 1916, the "Futurist Manifesto" described a world in which new approaches would break down barriers and build a bridge over the gap between art and life. In this postmodern world of endless diversions, Hardesty's accomplishment is that his art is formed by melding his own imagination with that of his public. Hardesty's art is always the "What if...," an open-ended invitation into a universe where anything seems possible.

Louis Zona, Director
The Butler Institute of American Art



Early years to 1980

Michael Hardesty was born in 1952 in Louisville, Kentucky, the middle of eight siblings. His early years were full of activity. But he escaped this communal upbringing in part; finding time to be alone, drawing dinosaurs, carving soap animals, building tree forts, fashioning medieval shields, swords, and lances for play, customizing his bicycle, even designing a motorized go-cart. Right out of the box, he was clearly a creator.

Oddly, he had little formal training in fine art until going to college, in 1970. Once there, he took to it immediately. His early study was in the academic forms of drawing and painting, rendering still lifes, figuration. "It taught me the to 'see.' For that, I'm eternally grateful," he says.

Hardesty distinguished himself in his first and second years by winning interstate awards in painting, and proved himself equally talented in sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking. Says a former colleague, "He couldn't be tied down to any single medium, he absorbed it all like a sponge." After 6 years, Hardesty graduated Eastern Kentucky University with that school's very first Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Hardesty jokes about that time, "The school couldn't get rid of me. Everything interested me. It took 128 credits to graduate, but I had amassed over 200 credits, taking sociology, psychology, geography, geology, creative writing."

"Finally, I got a letter from the President's office basically saying, 'Dear Mr. Hardesty, Please graduate,' a request I honored the following semester."

Hardesty furthered his studies in 1974 - 1975 at London's Central School of Art and Design, receiving a diploma in printmaking. In summer, he hitchhiked alone around Europe for a few months, seeing firsthand all the art he'd studied in art history classes.

Back in the US, and concurrent with his undergraduate work, Hardesty took a job as a set builder and on-air graphics designer at the campus public television and radio station. It was here he met the station's art director, Sandra Cundiff, a gifted fine artist in her own right. They worked together for years, becoming close friends. Eventually, this friendship grew into a lifelong partnership.

His job at the TV studio afforded Hardesty an opportunity to work earnestly on his art. He was granted use the studio's cavernous set-building spaces to complete some very large, very graphic paintings. As everyone seemed to like them, the paintings were hung on the hall walls of the TV studio. When he departed to attend graduate school, he was asked if he could just leave them up until he returned.

"It was a lot longer than 3 years before I saw those works again." says Hardesty. "I recall going back to the TV studio 10 years later to take my works off the walls and move them up to New York. As the station employees saw me taking them down, there was a bit of a fuss. The works had become a fixture. New employees had never seen the building without the artworks. Some even questioned if I had the right to claim them."

After his undergraduate matriculation, Hardesty took a job as art director at CBS affiliate station WKYT-TV in Lexington, Kentucky. The job was a demanding one, not only designing and building sets but creating on-air graphics and print ads. Hardesty made good money, but found corporate television to be less creative than public television. Also, the heavy workload kept him from what he most enjoyed, making fine art. Further, it kept him 30 miles from his close friend, Cundiff. After 2 years, he left commercial television. Nevertheless, that time spent at WKYT provided him valuble corporate experience for his resume´.