Featured Artist: Mike Hanlon, A Hyde Park treasureWritten and Photographed by Charley Greacen,Hyde Park resident and artist
Hanlon Close Up 2014
Standing in Mike Hanlon's tiny apartment above Hugo's Restaurant on South Howard, I felt as though I had entered a cross between King Tut's tomb and the Algonquin Club. Seeing photos of Mike's work on the website his brother George built for him (mikehanlon.info) did little to prepare me for witnessing this gathering of his literary and artistic heroes, enshrined in oil paint. Here was George Orwell, richly textured and rendered with near clairvoyant insight. On another wall columnist Mike Royko and raconteur Studs Turkel share a couple of beers and a laugh. On other canvasses Henry Miller and Patricia Highsmith eavesdrop. Sprinkled among them are smaller self-portraits and some of his 178 Bayshore/Hillsborough Bay stud-es, representative of his 40 years of work.
Although I've known Mike since shortly after we both arrived in Hyde Park in the early 1970's, the visit I made to write this article was my first glimpse into his treasure trove of art. As it turns out, I was equally unaware of many aspects of his colorful past. Back in 1962 Hanlon, who grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, earned an amateur featherweight Golden Gloves boxing championship. After a stint in the Marines he spent 1967 and 1968 in San Francisco, an experience that reawakened his artistic itch. "I always knew," he had said at the outset of our interview, "that I could draw." A job as a roustabout with the King Brothers Circus brought Mike to Florida. "It was a terrible job, working with illiterate hillbillies and people hiding from the law," he laughed. He fled the circus' East Coast winter camp and came to Tampa because, "It looked good on the map."
Here in 1971 Mike took the first in a succession of restaurant jobs that would allow him to walk around in the daytime, sketching in his sketchbooks, and to paint by natural light. He recently retired from restaurant work but continues to fill his sketchbooks. His sketching caught the attention of Christopher Clark, a semi-retired painter who taught in his home studio across the street from Tampa University. Hanlon acknowledged it was this kindred spirit who forever changed his life. "He taught me everything, and he taught me nothing. He just taught me to see things." Clark's tutelage was brief (he died in 1973) but Mike says, "I feel my life began in 1971." Mike began paint- ing in oils the year Clark died. Originally he painted from his sketchbook studies. He filled pages in places like bus stations, because he could always find subjects that had time on their hands. When he moved on to painting images of his cultural icons, he needed to resort to working from photographs, a method he originally looked down on. "I didn't want to be just another picture-maker." He works from black and white photos that, he feels, require more of the work to come from within him. Mike readily admits he has always been intimidated by modern art, and the same probably holds true for the business end of art. His balance between artistic talent and self-promotional skills has to be the perfect inverse to those of the late Thomas Kinkade, the commercially successful "Painter of Light."
Mike has gained admirers, and they are starting to draw this modest painter's work out into public view. Nine of his works were recently on display at the Charles Fendig Library on Neptune Avenue. Stefani Beddingfield, owner of independent book store Inkwood Books, has been rotating his paintings of writers as an Author of the Month feature. As we sat under the gaze of his canvas luminaries, listening to the music of R. Crumb and the Cheap Serenaders, we reminisced about a different Hyde Park that existed in the 1970's. Broad porches, peeling paint and inexpensive rents were a natural draw for creative folks. Jerry Bickle and Holly Rubin, who still travel around the country with their Bits and Pieces Puppet Theatre mingled here. Phil Lee who still shares his music insights on WMNF radio, had his photo studio here back in the day. Jackson Walker who now paints his historic venues in his Stewart, Florida, studio and Rick Melby, a glass worker of renown, who is now based in Peoria, Illinois, were regulars in the neighborhood. That community vanished as real estate prices rose. Even if you aren't aware of his work, you may have seen Mike, with his ever-present sketchbook, stalking the sidewalks of Hyde Park. Sometimes, to unwind, he'll pedal down the streets on his unicycle, juggling a few clubs, maybe in homage to the circus that brought him here. If you do recognize him, savor the moment, because you are observing a true Hyde Park treasure.