Professor Hartmut Austen Channels His Past Into His Paintings

When confronted with a Heights camera last week, studio art professor Hartmut Austen did not shy away. Instead, he enthusiastically made his way down the hallway of his department, knocking on doors and inviting his fellow professors to join him in the shots. 

Born in Bielefeld, Germany, Austen has been drawing since he was 12 years old—he has also been confident in his desire to work with people for just as long. After studying art in Berlin and working as a painter in Detroit, Austen arrived at Boston College as a professor and an artist in 2016. He considers art-making a necessity for himself, and drawing to be a way of thinking that anyone can benefit from.

During his upbringing, Austen’s family was supportive of his love for art, in large part because they themselves had shared similar ambitions. Ultimately, however, his parents had chosen to dedicate their lives to working with disabled individuals in their community—Austen partially attributes the intersection of teaching and creating in his career to being raised in this environment. 

“On the one hand, I wanted to do something that had to do with people and interacting with people, and that was part of the upbringing I had,” he said. “And also, I wanted to do something with the arts. I felt I had that independent streak, and for me, art-making was also an escape in a way.”

Austen had always loved drawing—so with the support of his family, he began attending art classes, in addition to his regular schooling at age 12. Even in this more structured setting, Austen valued the freedom and self-expression that the art-making process afforded him. As he developed his creativity and artistic style throughout his adolescence, he began to seriously consider pursuing a career as an artist. 

But after high school, Austen’s creative ambitions were delayed by a late ’80s West German policy which mandated that all young men serve in the military after graduating high school.  Austen filed a request to be exempt, citing that he felt he could not shoot a gun, and while this request was approved, he still was required to serve 20 months of civil service on a farm that doubled as a children’s home. 

On the farm, Austen split his time between working with the children and engaging in physical labor, from taking care of animals to working on maintenance of the farm. Yet for Austen, pressing pause on his formal artistic training and career was a blessing in disguise. 

“When you get out of school, you don’t really know what you want to do—it gave me time to think about my ambition,” he said. “Even while I was in my early 20s working on that farm, I still kept drawing and painting, and that kind of made it even clearer that I wanted to go to Berlin [to continue my formal training], which was really the most exciting city in Germany.”

Austen resumed his formal education at Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts) in Berlin, completing it in 1990. He arrived merely months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and found a fast-paced city rife with change and transformation. His own life kept pace with this new environment, as he quickly threw himself into his work, developing a portfolio and working to find a job.

Austen ended up in Detroit, Mich., because he was following a girl he had dated—who he wryly described as having “pretty much left me”—but what he found across the world was a city that was shifting and growing in similar ways to the one he had left behind. Despite some parallels between Detroit and Berlin, Austen found inspiration in the obvious differences that were also visible in his new environment. 

“I found it really exciting to be in a place that was, in a way, almost forgotten,” he said. “People were moving away from Detroit and for me it felt like an exciting place. It meant there was an opportunity and nobody knew me.”

Austen found Detroit to be the right place to develop his career, and he sought inspiration both by looking inward to his past and emotions, and outward to his new surroundings. In fact, he saw lots of similarities between the visuals he  created and the interior spaces and architecture of the city. This reflection of physical environment in his work is one he noticed later in life as well, when he worked in Minnesota, and, more recently, in Boston.

“Each place affects me and always has,” Austen said. “However, it is not immediate—it is often with a time delay. You make these connections from your visual work to the place, an experience of a place, and the interactions you have with individuals that often become only apparent much later.”

The clear connection between his work, personal life, and surroundings is apparent on every level of his creative process, and these links carry over into his identity as a professor as well. Austen’s former student, Andy Zhang, MCAS ’20, worked on an independent visual arts study with Austen as his adviser, and described him as challenging, kind, and passionate. 

“Professor Austen would show me how to come to my own conclusions without telling me exactly what to do,” Zhang said. “He’s challenging, but he supports his students through taking risks.”

For Austen, it’s as much about helping his students as people as it as about training them as artists. He wants students to learn, to experiment, grow, try new things, and ultimately, to accept the failure that often comes with risks. And while Austen clearly loves the way his teaching guides his students, he also values how it grounds him in his own work.

Austen described his life both as an artist and a professor as taking on two separate personas. 

“As an artist, I’m crazy. I’m manic. I’m impatient. I am very self-critical. I’m sometimes frustrated,” he said. “At the same time, I’m also very joyful because I can really do whatever I want to do and what I feel is important to do. The professor’s persona is in a way the opposite. It balances it out.”

In teaching, Austen is drawn back to the tangible explanations of his craft, and he feels this has given him more awareness of the concrete aspects of his own work as well. 

As an artist, Austen has been around the block, showcasing his work across the United States and Berlin, and he specifically referenced his exhibition at the McMullen Museum titled Not Here, Not There, and an exhibition in Atlanta, Ga. titled Blurred Vision is just one of the Symptoms, as some of the work he is most proud of. 

Though Austen is experimental in his work, having dabbled in print-making, wall installations, and multimedia in the past, he firmly classifies himself as a painter.

“The absolute fundamental discipline is painting,” he said. “And it is really my own work. Lonely in the studio, staring at blank canvases, not only working but wondering, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

He is an artist, not an illustrator, and this is a distinction that he feels is very important in his creative process. He doesn’t aim for precision or conceptualization in his work, but rather speaks to the way art imitates life. 

“For me, art is a discipline that creates its own reality, but at the same time, as an artist you are not separated from what is going on around you,” he said.

In his teaching, it is the intersection of these two elements that Austen seems to be the most skilled at portraying. He does not deny that self-doubt, critique, and failure are fundamental parts of the art-making process, but he also doesn’t think that these difficulties should dissuade him, or his students, from pursuing their love of art both in and out of the studio.

“Everything [in art-making] is very personal,” he said. “It’s not that I read something, go into the studio, and translate it. No, usually it takes a long time, and this kind of figuring out how to approach something … and I have unique abilities [that] nobody else has, but I need to figure out what exactly they are.”

September 22, 2019