Mark Hadley creates acrylic paintings of dark and disturbing scenes featuring fairies, grim reapers, teddy bears and zombies juxtaposed with bright colors.
WINDERMERE – It began with a watercolor painting he created in fifth grade of a potted plant propped against gardening tools.
Noticing his talent, an art teacher coached him in art techniques, and it wasn’t long until his painting was published in a book titled “Outstanding Young Artists in American Elementary Schools.”
Yet, despite his early aptitude for art, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Windermere resident Mark Hadley began to take steps toward making a name for himself in the art world.
“I didn’t really know where I wanted to make my money until I was almost 30,” said Hadley, who previously earned his income as a waiter and working odd jobs. “I was like, ‘All right, let me start becoming a painter.’ I had never even owned an easel, but I was always drawing.”
At 15, he confessed he mostly created paintings to impress girls. At 30, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream to become a professional artist.
“I always knew I was going to be an artist; I just didn’t know what kind,” he said.
Once he picked up a paintbrush again, his years of hard work and practice eventually culminated into his successful art business named Studio Hadley.
“So then I started painting and I started selling,” he said. “For some reason, the darker stuff started selling more ... but I found a way to make it pretty and dark at the same time, like a creepy beautiful.”
Hadley, now 48, has been painting and attending art shows for 12 years. He uses the profits from his art sales to support his wife and two kids, Skylar Moon, 4, and Jack River, 1.
His artwork adorns the walls of his home and gives visitors a small glimpse into Hadley’s artistic and dark imagination. Serving as an example of just how dark his paintings can be is his bestselling, yet most controversial, artwork depicting characters from the children’s show “Winnie the Pooh.”
While those who know the story of Winnie the Pooh and how each character represents the author’s mental disorders consider the work genius, others accuse Hadley of going too far and making light of the suicide epidemic.
“It’s so pretty, and light and cartoony, but it’s equally as dark,” Hadley said. “I sell out at every show though — every single show I go to. ... People either hate it or love it. I’ve been cussed out for it; I’ve seen little kids cry over it, but it definitely brings people to my table.”
Although most of his work possesses a darker aspect, few illustrate controversial subject matter. Most of the canvas prints in his home feature galaxies, skulls, grim reapers, butterflies, gothic fairies and even “Star Wars” fan art. He describes his art style as “creepy beautiful.”
“I get bored sometimes, and I’ll do space paintings with nebulas and stars, and then sometimes I’ll get tired of the space stuff and get in the mood to paint something dark,” he said. “But I usually do the backgrounds first and then let them talk to me. I’ll walk by a painting for a week or two before I think, ‘OK it could be this.’ So I really don’t sketch anything out at all — I usually just go with the flow.”
While most stem from his imagination and dreams, some pieces are requests by others who admire his skill with a paintbrush.
In fact, his most challenging painting was a commission piece for a Windermere resident who wanted an elaborate 3-foot-by-4-foot painting of the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Hadley sold him the piece for $8,000 and estimates it took 50 hours to complete.
Although $8,000 might seem like a lot, it took Hadley years before he reached a point where he could financially support himself solely via his art.
Before coming into his own as a painter, Hadley made his living as a waiter.
“So I figured I’m either going to die in this restaurant, or I’m going to make it as an artist,” he said. “I’ve been out of the restaurant business for about six years now, but I’ve washed cars, mowed grass, whatever I could to stay out of a corporate job just so I could freelance and easily take off for shows whenever I needed.”
His early career presented many challenges and moments of self-doubt. At times, he couldn’t pay his power bills, get gas for his truck or even afford the monthly $30 fee for his professional website.
“The hardest part is just making money,” he said. “You’ve got to establish yourself, come up with your own style and then be seen. When I was so broke I couldn’t pay my power bill, I would pay my way into a show just so I could go be seen. I wouldn’t even have money for business cards, but at least I would be seen.
“It was a vicious cycle for a long time, and I would come home to the power being turned off and not being able to eat for a week, but then I would go to a show and sell a painting for two grand and it would keep me pumped up,” he said.
Recalling memories of his early struggles, Hadley described a time when he drove into Dragoncon in Atlanta with bald tires and the “loudest squealing brakes you’ve ever heard.”
He also remembered a day 10 years ago, when he’d made the first painting that established the style he would later adopt. He credits that “eureka” moment as the day things began to turn around for him.
“The power was off,” he said.“I was living over in Hunter’s Creek, and it was in the middle of a Florida summer, and I’m lying there with a battery-operated fan with almost no clothes on with both my cats on either side of me with their tongues hanging out. We were just laying on the kitchen floor, and I was just feeling sorry for myself going, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’
“It was the worst,” he said. “And I was so hungry, but there was no gas in my car. ... So I’m lying there feeling sorry for myself, because I also didn’t have money for canvases at the time, and I was thinking I just can’t keep painting. So I looked at one painting on the wall and thought, I don’t really like that. So I put my fan on my easel, and I stood there dripping sweat and made that painting.”
The painting, a haunting piece that depicts a fairy with long hair and butterfly wings, was on display in his mom’s house until she died. It was his mom’s favorite, he said. It now hangs on the walls of his own home, and he has no plans to sell it.
Currently, his favorite works are a series of paintings he recently created based on photographs of the uninhabitable Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine. The paintings make use of fluorescent paint and feature children in gas masks surrounded by abandoned buildings and structures still found at the site today.
The paintings, like most of his artwork, are simultaneously disturbing and intriguing, and Hadley speaks proudly of them. However, they, like a good majority of his pieces, may not be for everyone.
“Sometimes, I get psychiatrists who come to the shows,” he said. “They ask me, ‘Can I get you a couple of beers so we can sit down and talk? And I’m like, ‘I’m fine, I promise.’”