Painting big

Geologist Peter Hatgelaskas has a lifelong love for art, turning his Washington Road office into a small gallery with large paintings.

Peter Hatgelaskas wants to set the record straight.

“I told you it took me 72 hours to paint that mural,” he said of the 4-by-10-foot joyous jumble of shapes, colors, patterns and textures that capture a garden at his Mt. Lebanon home.

But after a while, he admitted, “that’s a lie.”

So, what’s the real story?

“The more thoughtful answer is that it took me 69 years to finish that mural,” he said. “Everything leading up to that moment, a lifetime of art and experiences, is the culmination of my work in that piece.”

In fact, every one of hundreds of the paintings and drawings stacked by, hung on or leaning against the walls of his Washington Road office required his seven decades of life to complete. Unpretentious yet dignified portraits of his Mt. Lebanon neighbors gaze down at him. Scenes from his childhood keep old memories fresh. And vignettes of everyday life freeze-frame everything from the construction workers outside his office to fellow public transit passengers.

And, of course, the flowers. Some of the florals are just a bit bigger than a paperback book, while others grew so large that they require heavy-duty hardware to assemble and hang.

Ask Hatgelaskas to name a specialty and he’ll tell you “everything.” He even put his own spin on classics such as Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring.

Almost from birth, Hatgelaskas seemed destined to pick up a brush. His mother painted. His father collected art. And an uncle taught the subject at the university level.

He earned his first rave review in preschool. “It was an abstract of lines that looked like scribbles, but I filled them in with
different colors. My teacher was so impressed she couldn’t stop talking about it with my mother.”

A geologist by trade, Hatgelaskas and his wife moved to the area almost 40 years ago when he landed a job with People’s Natural Gas. They settled on Mt. Lebanon for a familiar reason—the schools.

“The taxes might be higher here,” he said, “but you get what you pay for.”

While he often paints at his Washington Road studio between doing business, he also creates at home. Usually, he starts around 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, when his wife goes to bed, and finishes long after midnight.

“Basically, I don’t sleep,” he said.

Still, Hatgelaskas doesn’t toil alone through the night—or day.

Whether at home, in the studio or in the field, Bella, his frisky 4-year-old Bichon, is always by his side.

“Bella’s a good dog,” Hatgelaskas said. “She goes everywhere with me. She’s patient while I paint outside. She is my consummate and constant companion.”

While he studies other painters for inspiration, Hatgelaskas developed a style that ranges from realistic to abstract. Though many of his pieces could be called “small,” he loves working on a larger scale.

“I love to paint big,” he said. “I’m a better painter when I paint big.”

Still, even before Hatgelaskas pours a lifetime of experience into 72 hours of creating a mural, he puts in even more extra time.

“For three years I have been planting a flower garden for the expressed intent to paint it,” he said. “This year, I was finally able to do that.”

He explained how every color, every texture, every bucket of gesso he mixed and applied to the canvas is the result of years of physical and mental planning. He even checked weather forecasts, contended with deer and selected the plants for the garden shown in a recent mural.

While a near fatal heart attack three years ago slowed him down a bit, Hatgelaskas said he’ll keep painting to the end.

“I’ve been painting all my life,” he said. “That’s what I plan to continue to do.”

Photos: John Altdorfer