In Barton Hatcher’s imagination, fish fly, hummingbirds guzzle nectar from impossible angles, and a margarita glass dances to music. In one of the artist’s more notable paintings, a singer wearing
In Barton Hatcher’s imagination, fish fly, hummingbirds guzzle nectar from impossible angles, and a margarita glass dances to music. In one of the artist’s more notable paintings, a singer wearing a bright red dress rises from a stream of musical notes. A trumpet player and a guitarist perform in silhouette on either side of her, the backdrop a psychedelic swirl of purples, yellows, oranges, and blues. In another piece, a saxophone and a bass seem to blend together into one instrument as a pitch-black hand, like a shadow come to life, presses the instrument’s keys.
“People ask me all the time, ‘You have a lot of stuff with music in your pieces, and you’ve got a great voice — do you sing?’ I’m like, ‘No, but I love jazz,’” Hatcher says in a deep and resonant voice that could’ve launched a career for him as a DJ on a jazz radio station had he not chosen to paint the music instead. “People ask me, ‘Do you paint to it?’ Yeah, I do,” he says, nodding to a boom box tucked beneath his easel in his cozy home studio in Monkey Junction, just south of Wilmington. “There’s an energy about jazz. There’s something about the creativity of jazz, the way it comes together. I think that’s what I really love.”
Hatcher’s passion for the musical genre that the late Wilmington jazz writer and radio announcer Larry Reni Thomas called “American Classical Music” impressed organizers of the North Carolina Jazz Festival, which has been held in the city’s historic downtown waterfront district every February since 1980. Last year, Hatcher created a painting specifically for the festival in which an artfully curved bugle affixed with what looks like a clarinet reed swims in a sea of dancing notes and clefs. A somber, silhouetted trumpet player lurks in the background.
Former NC Jazz Festival Director Sandy Evans recruited Hatcher in 2016, after attending an art show in his home garden on the advice of a friend. Evans says she was intrigued by the artist’s ability “to weave music into his paintings,” and she asked if he would donate a piece for the festival’s annual fundraising raffle. Hatcher agreed, and he’s been the official NC Jazz Festival artist for two years: His work appears on posters and programs, and his paintings are displayed in the lobby of Hotel Ballast during the festival’s performances. “He’s sold a lot,” Evans says. “Our audience loves his work.”
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The lobby of a tony hotel in downtown Wilmington is a long way from rural Bladen County, where Hatcher and his three brothers and two sisters grew up on a farm. Their maternal grandfather, he says, “would have been what they call a ‘folk artist.’ We used to watch him make stuff. We had no idea that what he was doing was creating art.” Hatcher and his siblings all built their own toys out of materials that they found on the farm. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make things and draw things,” he says.
Hatcher, youthful and fit at 66 years old, credits his high school art teacher, Ed Harris, with giving him the freedom to explore what kind of artist he wanted to be. But his father was more practical. Shortly after graduating at 18, Hatcher was lying in his bed one day when his dad walked into the room. “He says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get a job,’” the artist recalls with a chuckle. The first stop on his job hunt was Cape Craftsmen in Elizabethtown, a company that designs accent furniture and home decor. Hatcher wound up working there for 32 years, doing everything from running a printshop and painting duck decoys to designing furniture.
The job provided the budding artist with an education that he couldn’t have gotten at any university, he says. While working at Cape Craftsmen, Hatcher would still sketch and paint on the side, but it wasn’t until about 15 years ago — a decade after he moved to Wilmington — that he began to ramp up his artistic output.
These days, Hatcher works out of his studio in his suburban home, whose yard stands out as a Garden of Eden among the more minimally manicured lawns of his neighbors. Lining its front and sides are row upon row of well-tended plants in sections separated by small wooden bridges. When Hatcher’s not painting, he runs a landscaping and design business, Gardens by Barton, and his day job often collides with his artistic pursuits.
Nature plays a big role in Hatcher’s jazz paintings as well as in his nonmusical works, like The Gardener’s Dream: Viewed up close, it depicts a garden buzzing with activity. Step back a few feet, though, and a serene, humanlike face appears. “I leave home after I start a painting,” he says, “and I’m out working and I’m riding around on the mower, and all I can think about is getting back home to stand in front of the canvas.”
And listen to jazz. While painting, he draws inspiration from musicians like Miles Davis, whose classic 1960 album Sketches of Spain, with its seamless blending of jazz, classical, and Spanish styles, is among Hatcher’s favorites. “Jazz is one of the hardest [musical styles] to play,” he says. “You get one guy here, and then somebody else can come in at this time — what it’s doing is weaving and creating all these elements.”
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Twenty minutes north of Monkey Junction, in the ballroom of Hotel Ballast along the Cape Fear River, a jazz sextet weaves together a solo-filled version of Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty.” The NC Jazz Festival is in full swing, and Hatcher is in the lobby, holding court just outside the performance space. Here, he displays his own kind of music, its tones captured in vibrant acrylic paintings and multimedia pieces.
Festival patrons inspect the artist’s works and pepper him with questions. One woman compares Hatcher’s style to that of another regional artist, the late Pender County painter Ivey Hayes, who also used vivid hues and painted figures as silhouettes. “I hear that a lot,” Hatcher tells her. “Ivey’s work was real bright and colorful.”
Earlier, back in his home studio, Hatcher had riffled through stacks of his own paintings to find one that revealed a little something about himself. He fished out a piece bursting with color. “A lot of people say that my personality shows up in my work,” he said, examining the painting. “One of the things that people always tell me is, ‘Your work is so happy. It makes you feel good.’”
Looking at the paintings surrounding him in the hotel lobby, the words “colorful” and “happy” do come to mind, but so do others — like fearless, improvisatory, intricate, skilled. Words that also apply to the combination of music and nature that fuels Barton Hatcher’s imagination.
North Carolina Jazz Festival
Cornelius Jazz Festival
(704) 892-6031, ext. 192
Boonerang Music & Arts Festival
Ocean City Jazz Festival
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