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Grant Haffner
"Route 114" by Grant Haffner
"Route 114" by Grant Haffner
Grant Haffner sees every passing mile of country road as a potential painting, often pulling his 1986 Ford F150 onto the shoulder to record the more beautiful scenes with a Polaroid picture. Raised in East Hampton, Mr. Haffner is no stranger to the twisting roads and hidden scenic gems of the South Fork that now dominate his landscapes. But his everyday interaction with the area around him in no way lessens his enthusiasm for his subject: The more he learns about an area or the more he travels a road, the easier it is for him to track the subtle changes in landscape, the proliferation or dearth of vegetation, the difference between the light in spring or autumn.

The creative continuum between his interaction with the local landscape and his efforts to capture its beauty in his art recently earned Mr. Haffner new recognition, as his “Fowler Lane” was awarded the Catherine and Theo Hios Landscape Award for the first half of the 69th annual Guild Hall Members’ Exhibition in East Hampton.

At 28, Mr. Haffner is still boyish, and his “aw shucks” manner belies the serious artist underneath, a man with a future sketched out like the many layers of one of his paintings. “I like landscaping,” Mr. Haffner said of his current day job for Peter DiGate Property Management, “but I would like to take up art as a full-time career.” “I get more satisfaction out of coming home and painting ’til 12 at night than anything else,” he said while driving to some of his favorite East End painting sites during a recent interview. Staying true to his nature, Mr. Haffner admitted that even though he would eventually like to leave the landscaping profession, he would still work on his own yard. That is, when he gets one.

Like so many 20-somethings who return to the area to build lives, Mr. Haffner lives in his parents’ house—his studio is in the basement—while he saves money for a house of his own. Asked if that’s a realistic goal given current prices in the area, Mr. Haffner said, “I’m totally optimistic. I’ve got a level head, but I really believe anything is possible.” “There is no doubt in my mind that if I want to live here,” he said. “I’ve just got to work toward it.”

Although he is young, Mr. Haffner sees neither his age nor the fact that he is relatively new to the art scene as barriers. “I’m on a crazy crunch to get somewhere,” he said of his tendency to overwork himself. “I’d rather work as hard as I can right now and then take a break.”

His hectic work schedule doesn’t bother Mr. Haffner, but he has found that others tend to worry about him burning the candle at both ends. “My mother finds it frustrating; she’s like ‘you should take a break,’ but I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s like I’m really in the moment right now: This is what I want. I am really happy.”

Mr. Haffner is as affable as they come. His personality, shaded by an infectious positivity, immediately puts strangers at ease and never seems anything but genuine. He is the embodiment of art without attitude. And as an emerging contender in the East End art scene, his likability can only be an asset, setting him apart in a world that can often seem forbidding.

Even though it’s only one of several recent successes, Mr. Haffner said that winning the Hios Landscape Prize in the Guild Hall show was a “huge surprise.” Faye Harsch, senior arts editor of Art in America, was the judge for the competition. “I grew up in this town and as a kid you go to the art shows and see these local artists ... it’s an honor to finally place in something like that,” he said while driving to Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton, one of his favorite spots.

Christina Strassfield, curator at Guild Hall, said she was very impressed with Mr. Haffner’s work, which she saw for the first time last year. “It caught my eye right away,” she said. “I think the work is very directed; he has a vision and he follows it through, yet it’s not repetitive and they have an emotional depth to them.”

Mr. Haffner is relatively new to his life as a working artist, a career he said he “leaped into” three years ago. From a young age, Mr. Haffner’s parents encouraged their children’s artistic inclinations. “My whole life, I’ve drawn,” he said, “As a kid that is what we used to do. But it was something I took for granted, I didn’t really care that I was good at it.” Despite his obvious talents, Mr. Haffner never saw working as a full-time artist as an actual possibility. “Growing up in public school ... no one ever said you could make money making art. It’s a blessing that my family is so into the arts and really supports it.”

After high school, the artist found himself studying horticulture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, earning a degree that satisfied his interest in plants and gave him a basis for working in a “practical” profession.

He left UMass after three years and began to work as a certified arborist in Southampton. But art continued to call him, so he eventually left his job and spent the summer drawing. With a renewed vigor for his art, he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 2004. There he spent a year learning skills that would inform the unique perspective elements he continues to use today. “The experience was really good because it made me realize what scale I needed to be in and what fine art was,” he said. “It really gave me a basic understanding of all of those things. “Then I dropped out and I thought I am just going to go home and paint and I did. That’s when I did the Ashawagh Hall show.” There is a moment in every artist’s life when he must decide whether to make his passion a full-time career or allow it to fade away. For Mr. Haffner that day was July 29, 2005, when he, his twin sister, Carly Haffner, and her boyfriend, Don Porcella, rented Ashawagh Hall in Springs and showed their work in an exhibition they called Bonac Tonic.

Mr. Haffner quickly created eight drawings, made with prismacolor pencil, marker and oil pastels, and three paintings to put on view. He sold four drawings and all of his paintings. After witnessing the positive reaction to his paintings, Mr, Haffner shifted away from drawing, picked up a brush and began to define his painting style. This move led to the creation of a series of instantly recognizable works. Picked up by the Silas Marder Gallery in Bridgehampton in August of 2005, he has been selling paintings steadily ever since.

Silas Marder, who has been showing the artist’s work for almost two years, said he had heard about Mr. Haffner through word of mouth. “His name always came up in conversation,” Mr. Marder said. “I saw the drawings a few months before the Ashawagh Hall show and his work was an exciting new way of looking at the Hamptons landscape. I was really impressed with his use of color and perspective. ”With a mix of permanent marker and acrylics, Mr. Haffner paints views of the roads and vast fields of the East End. The most notable fixture of his pieces is an element so ubiquitous it melds into the landscape.

“It was a complete fascination with the power lines,” he said. “I was just interested in how they look at first, but now my landscapes are about everything. “They became a tool to pull you in.” While many of the roads he chooses to paint are well-known, it is the emphasis of the lines that brings attention to an otherwise ignored part of the East End landscape. In addition, many local residents remember when power lines were the only mark of mankind on the landscape, dominated by empty fields and dunes. Mr. Haffner’s work brings back these childhood memories and with them a wave of nostalgia for vistas that are quickly disappearing, or already vanished.

The power line paintings, as they are known in local art circles, are making a deep impression in the burgeoning next-generation art scene on the East End. “He is making a statement about the environment and our landscape today,” Ms. Strassfield said. “It’s not just the lyrical landscape anymore; it has been altered.”

Mr. Haffner’s paintings, universal in their elements, yet uniquely East End all the same, hark back to the days when farm fields were filled with crops instead of freshly poured foundations. “There is a chance to paint a lot of these scenes before they get built on,” Mr. Haffner said. “Half my time is driving around on really beautiful days and finding these moments.”

As for his process, Mr. Haffner begins with something as ordinary as his ride home from work. If he sees a scene where the angle of the light paints the landscape in a certain way, he’ll pull his truck to the side and jump out, Polaroid camera in hand. From there he works in his studio on plywood and gesso covered surfaces that he constructs himself.

“As a painter, I do like six or seven paintings at a time. I bounce from one to another and I don’t necessarily stay engaged for too long,” he explained. “The on-site stuff is to understand what the landscape looks like and to get a feeling for it,” he said. “I’ll take that home with me and work in my studio.”

Currently, Mr. Haffner is experimenting with his work by breaking free of the expected. His beginning palette of muted browns and greens has given way to bright and bold secondary colors, shades that modernize traditional landscape painting. He is also making strides in his technique, using his fingers to paint more “authentic looking” clouds and using stripes to play with movement in his otherwise static landscapes.

“I have this obsession with lines,” he said. “I’ve been looking at advertising lately and everything has stripes. So I went with that.” Characteristically humble, Mr. Haffner sees the inspiration for his work as simply paying attention to the world in front of him. “It’s just taking everything that you experience, like my drive home, all these beautiful stripes,” and putting it into painting, he said.

Mr. Marder noted that there has been a marked change in the art, but not the artist, since he started working with Mr. Haffner. “He is really down to earth and he has long-term goals,” Mr. Marder said, “which is important for an emerging artist. He’s really focused on his work and he’s not just in it for the moment. He’s gotten stronger and stronger and I’ve seen more confidence in his work and a real progression of his technique.”

In addition to working his day job and painting at night and on the weekends, and promoting his own career, Mr. Haffner is helping to give other artists a voice. He is currently working on putting together the third Bonac Tonic show at Ashawagh Hall, scheduled for September 21 through 23. Now more than just the name of a show, Bonac Tonic has become the name of a collective of artists in East Hampton and Springs.

“It is an organization created in response to the art collective movement going on around the country,” Mr. Haffner explained. The group of six artists will not only show together, but Mr. Haffner has plans to sell works produced by members of the group. He sees the collective as another step toward refreshing the artist communities that once thrived here. “I’d really like to see a rebirth in the art community,” he said. “We’re struggling out here.” “It’s been two hard years of really pushing and experimenting with painting and drawing ... to be steadily successful,” Mr. Haffner said. “You don’t give up anymore, you just keep going and going.”
“Eventually I am going to capture a lot of landscapes I want to out here, and I should probably go somewhere else” for a time, he said. Looking out at the wide expanse of the Napeague stretch before him, he mused about his future: “My dream is to paint my way cross-country and have a show on the other side.”

 

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