By Gina Malone
Alec Hall discovered two important loves—art and animals—in childhood, and both have woven themselves throughout his days since and informed who he is as a person. “There was never any question that animals would somehow dictate what I did with my life and how I would live in the world,” he says. “And while art got temporarily pushed into the background for many years, it, too, has surfaced into prominence and has made my life complete.”
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Hall’s “menagerie” included dogs, cats, a rabbit, guinea pigs, hamsters, tropical fish and small birds. “I spent many hours after school drawing animals and filling up coloring books as fast as I could get them,” he says. “My request every Christmas was for the largest box of Crayola crayons that was available.” It was the 1950s and television offered westerns, Wild Kingdom and Sea Hunt. “I got my first set of oil paints when I was 12 and painted portraits of our pets and all the different animals that I saw on TV,” he says.
By the time he was in eighth grade he had developed an interest in science as well and knew that a career as a veterinarian was the route for him. “My parents always supported my creative initiatives and proudly displayed my art projects,” he says. “However, they were equally supportive of my choice to go to veterinary school and made many financial sacrifices to make sure that I could follow that dream.”
After obtaining his DVM degree and working as a veterinarian in a small animal practice for five years, he realized that the job left little time for his wife and his own animals, let alone for art. More education was the answer, he decided, and he left practice to teach in the veterinary school at Michigan State University while earning a Master’s and then a Ph.D. in veterinary pathology. He took a job in research with The Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, MI and purchased an 80-acre farm. “I had most of my weekends free and that meant more time at the farm and time once again for exploring art,” Hall says. “Over the course of our 33 years on the farm, we raised horses, burros, sheep, dairy goats, angora goats, rex rabbits and llamas. We had several loyal farm dogs and took in many stray and homeless cats.”
In 1996, Hall took his first adult evening oil painting class. “This piecemeal approach to studying art and painting went on for three years until one of my art instructors, Ken Freed, who was a full-time portrait artist, asked me if I would be interested in becoming one of his apprentices,” he says. “I said yes, on the condition that I could continue using animals as my main subject. Thus, in 1999, while still working full-time and running our farm, I spent five hours a night for two nights every week learning about many different fine art mediums and discussing color, painting styles, artists and painting techniques. It was a wonderful, in-depth and practical art education,” he says. “My wife has always been a major supporter of my art and it was because of her willingness to take on extra chores around the farm, while also working full-time, that I had the freedom to pursue my art in this way.”
Hall never received an art degree, but does not consider himself self-taught after the many workshops with various artists he has taken through the years. He retired from his veterinary career in 2003 and, a year later, began teaching pastel classes at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, where he had taken his first art class. He taught for eight years and calls it a highlight of his life. He and his wife moved to Hendersonville in 2014, and Hall now paints full-time in his home studio.
“Because of the level of detail that I strive for in each painting and the fact that my subjects will not sit still for hours while I paint them, I work exclusively from photographs,” says Hall. “But this does not mean that I don’t spend hours and days studying my subjects for nuances of how they hold their head or place their feet or react to stimuli in their environment.
And, of course, I draw upon my 72 years of living and working with animals to make sure I have their anatomy and coat texture correct. I am a tactile person; thus as I paint I try to feel my subject and recreate that feeling on the paper,” he says. “Every time I touch an animal, I communicate with them, and they with me. It is those moments of exchange that I wish to convey in my work, as well as the beauty, strength and character of each animal as an individual. Animals are my inspiration and my connection to the earth,” Hall adds. “Art is my joy and my link to the past and my legacy for the future.”