JEFFERSON — Punzel’s Hardware never looked liked this.
The space here at 127 and 125 E. Racine St. has also been home to a silent movie theater, a Kroger grocery store and a Buick dealership.
But the 1886 buildings next door to Ron’s Barbershop and across the street from Wendl’s hamburger stand have taken on a very different role and look over the past 14 months thanks to Derek Hambly, an Australian artist with an international reputation.
Landscape portraits of Jefferson’s Main Street, the pedestrian bridge over the Rock River and the old junior high school on top of the hill on the west side of the river, dot Hambly’s studio. The majority of the wall space, however, is consumed by abstracts.
Some measure 6 feet by 12 feet, can cost as much as $18,000 and are made with vivid, swirling colors. Others are minimalist creations with Hambly using an old plastic spice container to pour black paint onto a white canvas. No brushes, rollers or other tools are required for some of his work, which would look the norm for galleries in Los Angeles or La Jolla, Calif., New York City or Jackson, Wyo.
They’re a bit more noticeable in German-centric Jefferson, the city of Gemuetlichkeit.
“It’s definitely a nice positive addition to the neighborhood,” said Ron Disrude, who has been barbering on Racine Street for 33 years.
“He’s just a very nice guy, for one thing, and a very good artist. He spends a lot of hours on these paintings, and he’s very good at what he does. The quality is there,” Disrude said.
Hambly, 67, was born in Melbourne, Australia, where he played in a rock band, broke horses and graduated from what was then known as Caulfield College in 1967.
Two years later, he mounted his first solo show and quickly became known for his abstract work. He visited the U.S. in 1999 for three months and in 2000 moved to Champaign, Ill. In 2002, he opened a studio in downtown Stoughton after finding a large space with reasonable rent near other artists.
He first lived in McFarland, moved to Fort Atkinson and now lives with his wife, Nan, in an old farmhouse a few blocks from Jefferson’s downtown.
Hambly was on a walk one day when he happened across the empty store space that had been Punzel’s Hardware for more than 50 years. Hambly said the decision to move his studio and gallery to Jefferson was easy, but much of his inspiration remains rooted in his home country where he paddled salt-water tidal lakes and surfed the open ocean.
“Nature has a lot of power,” Hambly said. “I don’t care where I am in the world. I’m just me.”
For one of his triptych paintings, which is one painting over three separate canvases displayed next to each other, Hambly said the work is rooted in a close encounter he had with a great white shark while surfing years ago. Dreams followed and a painting was born.
“There’s a big wave developing up there,” Hambly said as he pointed at the triptych. “It’s very watered-down paint so it flows. It does all these beautiful, crazy things.”
When I arrived at his studio and gallery recently, with my 15-year-old son, Zeke, in tow, the music of Bach was pumping through the gallery’s speakers but Hambly was dressed in paint-free clothes, the exception being his splattered loafers. On other days, his pants and shirt can be covered with paint and the music can include the Everly Brothers, Leonard Cohen, Mozart or the Pretenders.
Jefferson County won’t be confused with Milwaukee’s East Side, Monroe Street in Madison or Door County but is making a name for itself when it comes to the arts.
Lake Mills is home not only to Ephraim Pottery but several artists including quilter Betty Butler Berns, painter Karen Calkins Ragus and the Arts Alliance of Greater Lake Mills. Cambridge features artisans like glass workers Laurie Struss and Jean Lang, blacksmith Andrew Eggert and a half-dozen pottery studios, among 50 other artists in the community.
The Fort Arts Council, founded in 1983 in Fort Atkinson, lists dozens of artists in 13 categories while the Watertown Arts Council is celebrating 50 years this year with its annual art show in June on the island at Riverside Park.
Jefferson is also a major arts player.
Around the corner from Hambley’s gallery is the studio and gallery of Terry Coffman, a painter, author and musician, and former longtime president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Just down the street from Hambly’s studios is the headquarters for the Council for the Performing Arts, founded in 1977, which stages five to eight shows a year at the Performing Arts Center at Jefferson High School. The city recently built a band shell along the river and in July will host an art show with artwork displayed in store fronts throughout the community.
“There’s just a lot going on in Jefferson County. There’s a lot of dedicated passionate people, and Derek has really jumped on board,” said Nicole Pupanek, CPA executive director, which serves all of Jefferson County. “He’s shining a light on how tremendous of a community we have.”
Hambly has removed all shelving from his buildings, refinished the walls and ceilings and even cleaned the basement where he displays art against the building’s stone foundation and occasionally plays his electric guitar. Outside, two large billboards painted in hard-edge primary colors grace the building’s facade.
On March 1, Hambly will open “Abstraction from the Stars,” his spring exhibition of abstract paintings based on the constellations, the myths created about them and the powers of the universe.
“I used to turn a blind eye to this whole block here,” Hambly said of his new digs. “This is what I call being successful. I’m painting constantly and that’s success.”
“I don’t care where I am in the world. I’m just me.” Derek Hambly, artist