Featured artist brings international flair to SEWE, Lowcountry

“Answering the Call” by Grant Hacking

New Hampshire-based painter Grant Hacking has long nurtured a love and appreciation for nature, natural landscapes and wild animals in their natural habitats.

Born and raised in South Africa, with parents who were originally from England, Hacking started painting as a youngster, using his parents’ tools, supplies and guidance.

As a young adult, he traveled extensively, honing his craft as a self-taught painter and focusing on portraits and wildlife compositions. His professional career intensified in the late 1980s and early ’90s when he relocated to the U.S. and toured every nearly region of North America — from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to the Rockies and the Appalachians.

“Strictly speaking, I do not want to be categorized as either a wildlife painter or a landscapist because what I really paint is nature,” Hacking says in a recent SEWE press release. “I try to give equal time to both genres.”

Last fall, Hacking was named as the Featured Painter for the 2015 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. His painting of a western bobcat titled “Scouting the Territory” was selected as the featured painting and subject of the official SEWE 2015 poster.

“Grant is a great artist, and collectors and art lovers have known this for a long time,” SEWE Executive Director John Powell said after Hacking was announced as the featured artist. “The featured painting is just one of his many pieces that will really captivate attendees. With Grant’s range, we’re all looking forward to watching him put together his full body of work for February.”

Hacking’s original “Scouting the Territory” piece will be on display at Halls Chophouse throughout SEWE weekend, and it will be available for auction during the Preview Gala VIP event Thursday.

Q. We understand you’ve been visiting Charleston regularly for more than 25 years. Tell us about your first experiences with Charleston and the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.

A. I had no idea where Charleston was the first year I did the show (1990), and I barely knew anything about the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. I was just young and foolish and decided to sign on and head down there. Getting into town at night, it was kind of weird because so many buildings were boarded up and there was damage all over the place, and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. It didn’t occur to me that Hurricane Hugo had just hit a few months before. I absolutely fell in love with Charleston during that first show. It was during my second trip there that I discovered the Isle of Palms and ended up buying one of the last houses that was still listed for under $200,000.

I knew that Charleston was going to boom in the’ 90s and 2000s, but in the last few years coming back, I’ve been very glad to see that Charleston has boomed for the best and preserved much of the look and charm that it’s had for years.

Q. How did you first start working as an artist, and what initially drew you into painting?

A. My whole family paints. My mom and dad met in art school, and they both painted for years. My dad worked as a full-time artist until he passed away. Dad used to paint South African landscapes and Mom used to paint still-lifes. I used to grab his paints and paint all sorts of things — matchboxes, tiles or whatever. When I had to go into the Army in South Africa, they found out I could paint well and ended up assigning me to paint portraits and buildings and such. When I tried to go into normal work, the companies would figure out that I could paint and have me paint certain things. Eventually, I figured, “I might as well just paint.”

I first came over to the United States on a trip that was supposed to be a bit of a vacation with a show at the National Wildlife Federation; I loved it and made plans to head over for a year, but I stayed for nine years, much to my mother’s chagrin.

Q. How did the wild animals, wildlife scenes and natural themes of South Africa and the surrounding regions make an impact on you as a budding artist?

A. When you live in Africa, you can’t help looking at the game and the landscapes, and I loved all of that, as you can see in this week’s show. I’ll have quite a few Lowcountry scenes in this year’s show, as well. I get bored quickly and move to certain things, but I always come back to painting animals and landscapes. That hits the spot with me. I think there’s an excitement that flows through one’s veins when you encounter any kind of animals, at home or in the wild.

Q. Have you found that it’s a challenge to paint certain scenes or specific species?

A. I tend to struggle more with painting North American game. My African animals I can paint really well, I think, because I’m just familiar with them. I’ve got to really research the North American stuff. Most animals here tend to be brown or brownish-gray — the bears, moose, deer and cats — which are more difficult to paint than a zebra with its stripes or a leopard with its spots.

Q. Is it difficult to capture the expression or interpreted personality of a wild animal in a painting?

A. Yes. I think a lot of the larger animals indigenous to North America have a more goofy, huggable personality — at least from a distance — whereas many African animals have that wild stare, like a large striped shark with the dead eyes.

Q. Aside from your parents, who were some of the modern wildlife artists who have influenced and encouraged your work the most?

A. There’s an artist named David Shepherd (the namesake of the U.K.-based charity project David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation) who was knighted for his artwork. He was one of the first people to bring modern wildlife art to the public in a big way. As a youngster, he used to paint airplanes for the Royal Air Force before traveling to South Africa and painting landscapes and wildlife.

Incredibly good artist.

As a kid, I was very influenced by his work.

On the other side, all the magazines I read featured great work by artists like Robert Bateman, Guy Coheleach and John Sylvester. They were young at the time, but I was younger than them, and I used to dream of working alongside them. I’m actually working on a project this month with John Sylvester on the same canvas, which is such a great honor. There are some great artists here and abroad who are much younger than me that I really admire these days, too.

Q. Early in your career, did you enjoy studying art in formal academic situations, or did you find the field and studio work more appealing?

A. I never had formal training. Learning to paint on my own was very much like learning an instrument by ear. In a way, I think it’s more difficult to learn to do your own thing when you have to adhere to the rigid structures of an academic situation. I think by learning on my own, I had a better chance to develop my own thing. I checked out other artists whose work I liked. Early on, I found that you could mess yourself up by copying too much of someone else’s style. I knew that I had to develop my own.

Q. How do you initially develop and shape an idea for a painting? Do you start with a specific thing in mind, or do you work your way up from a general idea?

A. It’s a little bit of both, actually. With wildlife, I’ll have a specific animal in mind, and I’ll figure out what I want to do with the pose of the animal. In wildlife painting, you tend to reference a lot of photographs and get very specific with the details. With landscapes, I usually go out, see a scene and paint it very much from memory with maybe a couple of photographs for reference. I tend to go with my imagination with the majority of my landscapes and backgrounds, whether it’s a rocky scene or a snow scene or whatever. It’s an interesting process, either way.

Q. Have you found that you ever leave a personal mark on a painting, perhaps by emphasizing or even overemphasizing something about the subject matter?

A. Hmmm ... There must be something. I hate to say this, because I’m sure most artists really focus on this, but the eyes are really important. I remember really nailing it with the eyes on an early painting and feeling really excited that it brought the painting to life. I felt like I stumbled onto the formula. We all struggle with it from piece to piece.

I’ve experimented in different ways, but I tend to come back to the same methods. Sometimes, I’ll include something that really naturally would not be there, but they help bring the eyes of an animal to life. One thing that wildlife artists tend to struggle with is getting a little bit too photographic.... It’s ideal to get the details, but it’s great to build up the texture of the paint and building it up. You want to express yourself with the paint, but you don’t want to lose the fine details. It’s a challenging balancing act. I vary a bit from painting to painting.

Q. How long did it take to paint the “Scouting the Territory” piece featured in the SEWE poster, and what’s the story behind it?

A. Most of it comes from complete nerves and freaking out (laughs). I was so panicked about coming here as the featured artist and really excited to paint that as the SEWE poster. I wanted to do something striking and powerful. I had to keep in mind that as a poster, the subject would have to be fairly central and that there would be writing around it. I wanted to design it so that it wouldn’t lose the central image.

Bobcats are fascinating creatures. I really love cats. I have one at home. Growing up in Africa, I often saw major cats like lions and tigers. With the bobcat, it’s just a bit larger than a big house cat, but it’s an extremely powerful little animal, and it can pull down some impressive game. I wanted to feature that power and fierceness. It was a challenging piece to do. I did that one before I did anything else for this show, and I’m really pleased with it.

Q. How do you feel about returning to Charleston this week as a veteran of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition?

A. I wonder if people in the Charleston area realize how international and diverse the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition really is. I’ve done shows all over the country and overseas, and SEWE draws some of the top artists from around the globe. It’s extraordinary. It really is one of the top wildlife shows in the world.