Bruno Hirzel paintings: as diverse as the man himself
See his work at Besser Museum now
ALPENA — What do a double-decker outhouse, some old cars, fall foliage and an abstract combination of colorful shapes and lines have in common? They were all born of the unique and talented mind of Bruno Hirzel, originally of Switzerland, but now a longtime Alpena resident.
Hirzel’s work is on display at the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan from now until Aug. 20. His paintings cover a wide range of subjects, based on whatever strikes him as interesting.
“I don’t stick to one thing, in particular,” Hirzel said. “Whatever hits me. I even tried abstracts this year, and I’m pretty happy doing that. This year was kind of an experimental year for me, and it seems to work out for me. I experiment with a lot of things. I’m always thinking of something.”
He tries to make unique works of art that no one has seen before.
“When something hits me, I like to put something together that I like to think nobody has done,” he said. “Really, one of the richest compliments that I can get is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ And that tells me that they haven’t seen something like that. And that’s enough reward, right there.”
Some of his favorite subjects to paint are things associated with cars or music, he said.
The self-taught artist has painted 300 or 400 works, by his estimate. He used to paint with oils, but he got tired of waiting 3-4 days for them to dry, so now he paints strictly with acrylics.
“Now I do nothing but acrylics, because if I don’t like something, two minutes later it’s dry and I can paint over it,” he said. “I love that.”
Hirzel gets lost in his work, painting for hours without realizing the time.
“That’s the fun part,” he said. “You can really get involved … you can really get tied into your paintings. I do, anyway. Once I get started, I just want to be in it and do it. You’re in your own zone. You don’t want company or nothin’. I just close my doors and hide my car, but if somebody bangs on my door, my dog always gives me away.”
Gucci the pitbull is Hirzel’s housemate.
“Oh, he’s a riot,” Hirzel said. “He’s great company. He’s all I’ve got.”
Hirzel said he usually finishes a painting in a few days, but some only take a few hours. Knowing when the painting is done is an important skill.
“You really have to know when enough’s enough, and you can overdo it,” Hirzel added. “You’ve gotta know when to quit.”
Hirzel recalls that he’s always wanted to paint, even as a young boy. His father would draw stick figures on the ceiling while they were lying atop their tile stove, and Hirzel said that was his first inspiration to create art.
“I just loved the way he drew on that ceiling,” Hirzel recalled. “That’s really what got my wheels rolling. I wanted to paint. And the first painting I ever did was a still life. I hate still lifes! I hate ’em today … I’m not a still life painter. And I hate painting people. But when I do it, they come out OK.”
He doesn’t do it for the money, but he said he should probably sell the 100 paintings he has at his home right now.
“If I wanted to make money, I could finish three, four, five paintings a day in landscaping, landscape paintings,” he said. “But I don’t do it because they’re too fast and they’re too easy for me.”
He prefers a challenge.
Hirzel also finds time to play one of his 40 guitars.
“I like the blues, the older rock ‘n’ roll, I love rockabilly,” Hirzel said. He has been in the band “Old, Not Dead,” but they are currently missing a bass player. “Every one of us are older than the hills, but there wasn’t anything that you could name that we couldn’t play.”
The former Air Force man, who will be 80 this year, won championship titles in boxing and spent many years training both amateur and elite boxers. He still trains fighters, including a fighter who spars with Floyd Mayweather, based out of Grand Rapids. Hirzel is still in great shape, since he has always treated his body well, eating healthy foods, working out, and avoiding drinking, smoking and drugs.
“I feel 39, I really do,” Hirzel said. “I’m in great shape.”
Hirzel moved to Alpena in 1964. In 1972, he started a sign shop. Hirzel spent more than 40 years hand painting unique signs in the Alpena area. He retired from his sign business in late 2014 and has been painting since then.
“Now I have the time to do it,” he said.
After 50 years of marriage, his wife Shirley passed away in 2015. Since then, Hirzel has devoted himself to painting as both hobby and therapy. Expressing himself through his work brings him peace and balance.
He doesn’t do commissioned work, he said, because then “it’s work.” He would rather paint for the enjoyment of it, and to express his thoughts and feelings through art.
“New Works” by Hirzel opened May 1 at Besser Museum. This exhibit showcases many of his different styles of paintings, from abstract to landscape.
Born in Switzerland, Hirzel and his family came to the U.S. by boat in 1952 in search of the American dream. His art career began in Chula Vista, California, where he attended Catholic school for junior and senior high. Hirzel still has his very first oil painting, which he painted in high school. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a fireman. He entered art contests during this time for events such as Fire Prevention week and won.
His job in the Air Force is what brought him to Alpena, where he met his wife, Shirley. He and Shirley had three children — Kelly, Mike, and Sherri. Hirzel held many seasonal jobs in Alpena.
This is Hirzel’s second exhibit at Besser Museum — his first was in 2016.
Call 989-356-2202 for more information or visit www.bessermuseum.org.