The Brandywine Valley has prompted artists to break out their sketchpads and canvases for years, while locals watch in admiration.
West Chester-based artist John Hannafin, 34, experiences this tradition from both sides. As someone who grew up in West Chester, just a few miles from the Wyeth haven of Chadds Ford, he was familiar with the area’s rich artistic history. Now, as a successful artist himself, he is slowly solidifying his place in this tradition. He’s hesitant to admit it, but the buzz surrounding him in recent months is indicative of his talents and building fame.
“Some people will say, ‘you’re the foremost West Chester artist,” and that’s just crazy to me because I have role models in this town,” Hannafin says. “I guess people just see that I’ve been getting a little buzz in the past few years. That perception is building, so I’m starting to feel like I’m a part of this tradition.”
It’s easy to see why Hannafin finds the area so appealing: Artistic legend aside, the town is beautiful and quaint. The brick sidewalks are uneven and worn from age. Trees line the streets, providing a wonderful splash of greenery to the city’s historic architecture. And as a part of the highest income county in Pennsylvania, there’s a market for original artwork like Hannafin’s.
His love for the town began as a kid. “I grew up on High Street. I used to be able to walk to school, skateboard around town, so from a young age this was what I knew.” Along with his love for West Chester, Hannafin appreciated the Brandywine River. “As a kid that’s where I would do my birthday parties, tubing down the Brandywine. Some of my earliest memories are of being with friends there.” His admiration of the region strengthened with age: “As I grew up I learned about the history of the Brandywine – first the Battle of the Brandywine and George Washington, then Lafayette – All of that history intrigues me. I painted a point in the Brandywine where 6,000 British troops crossed.”
The river is a work of art in itself and continually inspires Hannafin. “On hot summer days it’s a great way of cooling off – just setting up in the water waist deep with your easel. It’s a great escape from the sounds of the city.”
Hannafin’s love of art also began at a young age. “I started drawing, just like most kids, scribbling at 3 years old. It developed into cartoons and liking to draw caricatures between [ages] 7 and 10. Then I took studio art courses in high school and college but never really painted – it was more drawing and I mostly worked in pencil.”
Before Hannafin was able to make a living painting the familiar landscapes and architecture of his beloved home, he bounced around trying to find his niche. “I was a business major at Lafayette College. I thought I would combine that with creativity by going into advertising – which my sister did in Boston” said Hannafin, who had gone to boarding school in New Hampshire. “After college I lived in Boston and fell into a job for Herman Miller, which is a big office furniture dealer.” It was while Hannafin was working there that he underwent the first of many drastic life changes.
“I only worked that job for a year, and then had back surgery from a pre-existing college canoe injury. It got to the point where I was stuck in bed for a month. I tried acupuncture to everything else, and ended up having the surgery.” His recovery time would result in the beginning of an entirely new chapter of his life. “My mom came up to help me recover from [the surgery] – and I had thought about adding color to my drawings for a long time. I had the time, so she bought me a set of paints and I started painting as a hobby.” He recalls some of his earliest paintings, and how this new medium became a learning experience. “She brought me both oil and acrylic, so I was experimenting with both at that time. My first painting was of my apartment building. It looks like a cave man painting compared to what I’m doing now.”
He’s quick to clarify that statement, not wanting to appear egotistical, though he never does. Hannafin is down-to-earth, humble, and inviting. “I’ve definitely come a long way, but I’m still learning everyday.”
Hannafin remained in Boston for a few years after his back surgery, working odd jobs and volunteering at local art museums. “I was laid off from my first job, so I kind of floated around. I worked as a security guard and volunteered at the Museum of Fine Arts for their impressionist still-life show, which was right down the street from where I was living.”
His constant exposure to the arts served as a catalyst for his newfound hobby. “I had van Gogh, who’s my favorite artist, right down the street. I had a taste of art and knew which galleries and artists I liked as I started painting.”
While living in Boston, Hannafin experienced more troubling times. “I had that back surgery, and a few years later [there was] more adversity – bad roommates not paying rent and that kind of thing.”
“I was forced to move back [to West Chester],” added Hannafin. “I worked a title-insurance job for a year; then they had a round of lay-offs.” Just like the back surgery, this had a silver lining as well. “At the time, Pennsylvania had a self-employment assistance program for those who were laid off at a small business development center. So, I was able to take an eight-week class for free on starting a business and being an entrepreneur. I was able to take free Photoshop and QuickBooks classes through that program too – I took that adversity and turned it into a positive by pursuing the art business.”
For his first professional artistic endeavor, Hannafin began a business, Art Passionista. “Epson had a new affordable printer, so I bought the printer, represented a group of artists that I found both through Craigslist and throughout the North East and locally. It was supposed to be online prints on canvas.”
Unfortunately, after spending two years trying to develop the business, Art Passionista did not take off. While hiking in the Poconos, Hannafin decided to put the business on hiatus to pursue another goal. “I decided I was going to take my trip across the country.”
Covering 10,000 miles over two months, Hannafin traveled around the perimeter of the country. “I’d be in 6 feet of snow one moment, and four hours later it would be 70 degrees,” comments Hannafin. He saw some of America’s greatest landscapes, from White Sands, N.M., to the Columbia River Gorge in Portland to Glacier National Park in Montana to Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
“I had 24 national park paintings, and experimented with video along the way, uploading You Tube videos the night after filming and painting a national park. I would take the footage of the animals I saw – bears, bald eagles – and the creation of the painting, putting it into a two-minute video so people could watch it that night on You Tube.” The culmination of these paintings and videos resulted in Hannafin’s self-published book Art Across America.
After returning from his cross-country adventure, Hannafin held his first show at the Chester County Historical Society, and has held two shows a year there ever since, his most recent of which displayed work by both Hannafin and Jackass star and professional skateboarder Bam Margera. “[Bam] started painting because he has some heel-spur injuries and can’t skate like he used to, so [painting] is kind of his creative outlet. For Bam it’s cool because he does it for the fun of it. It’s a reminder of the fun in it and not always trying to make something work.”
Hannafin continues to travel, seeking out new experiences and subjects for his art. “Each spring since then I’ve picked a different part of the country to paint. I did Arizona for two months, I’ve done Florida twice for two months, and I’ve also painted in Ireland. Whenever I take a trip I always base my next show on that trip.”
Despite his travels, Hannafin claims West Chester as his home. “This is where I feel like my heart and soul resides.” Hannafin couldn’t be happier with his new studio on S. Church Street, just a few minutes from the High Street he was so well acquainted with as a child. “West Chester is such an eclectic and creative place, and there’s so much history and artists that I’ve admired through the years who represented it. I would love to be a part of that tradition, representing the feelings of West Chester.”
Hannafin’s next month-long gallery show opens July 6 at the Other Colors Gallery in Exton, Pa., from 6-9pm. After that, Hannafin opens his month-long show at the Delaware Horticultural Society in Wilmington, Del., on August 3 from 5:30-8pm. Visit www.johnhannafin.com to see more of his work and follow his most recent news and projects.