Aaron Hazel made his name painting sports stars and carved out a unique niche in the world of Western art.
Now the Boise-based artist is using his profile to amplify the history and experience of Native and Black Americans and speak up for civil rights. And if he loses a few followers, he’s okay with that.
Western art that provides a stage for the underrepresented
“I’m hopeful that the community of people who like my work can understand,” Hazel said. “I feel like you have a responsibility as an artist to seek to enact change with your pieces.”
Sports and Art
Exploring the nexus between sports and art was a natural fit for this longtime athlete. Hazel grew up in Boise and played basketball at Whitman College in Eastern Washington while earning a BFA.
“I’ve always loved art, but being an art major in college was kind of a default situation,” he said.
Hazel’s plan was to study business or marketing and go into advertising. But as a small liberal arts school, Whitman didn’t offer those programs. So Hazel opted for a fine arts degree. In college, Hazel juggled athletics and art, tapping into the creative flow of sports and the competitive energy of art.
“Playing basketball is one of the most beautiful kinds of impromptu performance art experiences you can have,” he said.
Hazel’s coaches were supportive of his passion for art. He remembers running straight from practices with an ice pack on his back to an evening art studio class, dressed in his practice gear but ready for student critiques. At one point, an athletic director suggested giving Hazel a solo art show in the auxiliary gym. Between games, he sold pieces to professors, friends and family members. The idea that he could make a living as an artist was formed.
As an award-winning 36-year-old artist, Hazel still has the exuberance of the college athlete he once was and embraces the kinetic joy of painting.
“Being able to paint now is a way for me to exert energy to achieve a goal,” Hazel said. “There’s definitely this competitive energy that’s evident when I’m approaching work. I get pumped up the same way. I do my push ups and get my gum and take a big swig of water and get my music going…(I) approach it the same way as walking onto the basketball court.”
“I Always Want to Paint”
After college, Aaron Hazel moved to Seattle with his BFA in hand and worked full time as a bartender while painting on the side.
“I was thinking, whatever happens in my life, I always want to paint,” he said.
His initial art successes were linked with the Seahawks fever that hit Seattle at the beginning of the last decade. Hazel connected with Seahawks team members while working at the bar. And when word got out that he was an artist, he started getting commissions from players. The team made its way to a stellar 2013 season and a Superbowl win in 2014. And Hazel’s cache grew as the team’s fortunes rose. He started getting commissions from other NFL and NBA players and their partners and spouses.
“It slowly but surely snowballed,” he said.
As the sports commissions piled up, Hazel shifted gears and threw himself into the Western art genre through his mentor, the noted Idaho-based impressionist Robert Moore. Hazel took workshops from Moore and eventually worked as his assistant. Through that connection, the young artist got his first gallery representation at Dana Gallery in Missoula, Montana.
Hazel gave up the bartending job and dove into life as a full-time painter in 2014.
“I loved art — it just seemed like a dream scenario,” he said. “You’re going to tell me I can sell a painting and then another one and then another one and be able to pay my bills and buy a house. It seemed so far-fetched.”
A Stand Out in Western Art
Soon, Hazel’s work was in trendy galleries in Missoula, Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Park City and other hotspots in the Mountain West. His mission was to take things beyond the Frederick Remington pastiche that Hazel describes as “pheasants, horses, cowboys,” putting his own very contemporary stamp on the genre.
Hazel has worked to incorporate civil rights, women’s rights, Native American culture and post-slavery migration in the American west into his work, spotlighting underrepresented communities of the American west. He’s known for tweaking Western art with thoughtful and well-researched portraits of Native Americans and Black cowboys. The process has involved lots of research and relearning history that Hazel, like many Americans, says he missed out on growing up in Boise.
“I was excited about digging into the history books and reteaching myself about the Native American experience and minorities of the old west,” he said. “It fits the theme of Western art, but I feel like it stands out.“
Through his gallery in Jackson Hole, Hazel is involved with the town’s annual Fall Arts Festival, which takes place this week. Inspired by Wyoming’s history as a leader in the early days of women’s suffrage, he’s working on a series of “badass women of the old west.”
Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote, and Jackson Hole elected the first all-woman town council in 1920.
“I feel like women’s empowerment kind of started in Jackson Hole,” he said.
Hazel is also getting attention for his images of contemporary Black cowboys, placing modern day men of color in old west scenes. Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine featured his painting “Compton Cowboy” in its September/October issue.
A Homecoming and a Shift in Focus
Hazel bought a house in Boise last year and left the Pacific Northwest after more than a decade to be closer to his family and his galleries. He’s getting to know his hometown again and discovering the city’s arts community.
In the last year, and especially in the last few months, Hazel has shifted the focus of his work to contemporary social justice issues, mixing past and present with a common purpose.
His Black cowboys are now joined by portraits of Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery — and a rare abstract piece: Seven Circles, in honor of Jacob Blake.
“When you look at my Instagram, it’s all over the place, but at the same time it’s all motivated by civil and human rights,” Hazel said.
The provocative pieces have meant losing some followers on social media. Hazel is up front that some fans of his sports pieces and Western art are turned off by a portrait of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but adds that it’s a net gain as new fans get on board.
“I’m sure I’ve lost people who know me as the guy who painted the Seahawks,” Hazel said. “I’ll sacrifice sales to impact someone on a deeper level.”