WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Aaron Hazel, a 6-foot-5 senior center on the Whitman College men’s basketball team, knows his way around the “paint,” the area on the basketball floor closest to the hoop.
That much is obvious to fans of Whitman basketball. Strong, quick and athletic, Hazel works the paint like an artist, taking passes on the low post and brushing past or soaring over defenders for quick scores.
There are reasons other than the obvious to say that Hazel plays his position like an artist. What fans might not realize is that Hazel is, in fact, an artist – a painter, to be more precise.
Hazel, a studio art major who graduates from Whitman in May, will have several of his paintings on display this Friday and Saturday in Sherwood Center as the Missionaries host men’s and women’s games against George Fox and Linfield.
Basketball fans can view Hazel’s paintings at any time either evening. The games start at 6 p.m. Friday and at 4 p.m. Saturday.
While Hazel has been sketching and drawing for as long as he can remember, his serious interest in painting developed after he came to Whitman. By the time he was finishing his first painting class, “I felt like I had found my groove, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
“I enjoy painting a variety of things, including landscapes and portraits,” Hazel says. More recently, his interests have wandered into the more abstract realm of depicting contemporary pop culture. “I enjoy exploring shapes and colors, and how they interact with one another, as well as focusing on the surface and texture of the painting.”
One of the larger paintings Hazel plans to display is a mixture of deep cadmium reds with a hint of green, orange and yellow covered in black circled outlines. Another painting shows three adult beverage containers lined up against a red background, which he says “represents my coming of age and the realization of my passion for contemporary pop-art.”
Other works in the exhibit will include a self portrait as well as a small pop-art painting of Muhammad Ali in reds and yellows.
Philip Miner, a visiting assistant professor of art at Whitman, sees an athletic side to Hazel’s paintings. “Aaron manages to leverage his talents on the basketball court into the field of visual art,” Miner says. “His athleticism is evident in the physicality of his painting technique. He uses squeegees, trowels, blades and large brushes to scrape, drag and spread paint across the surface of his paintings.”
Noting that Hazel takes inspiration from “structures of advertising and cultural signs of identity,” Miner says his student’s approach “plays with the idea of the grid as a pictorial convention of 20th century abstraction . . . invoked to consider the significance of his personal experience.”
“Abstraction and representation commingle in paintings where Aaron layers color in vibrant combinations,” Miner adds. “Circles and geometric shapes are repeating motifs that manifest as icons describing his curiosity of color relationships, movement, and the emotive potentiality of paint.”
Hazel, a native of Boise, Idaho, draws on different sides of his family gene pool for his athletic and artistic talents. His father Michael played point guard at Boise State, where he met Aaron’s mother Becky. “My uncle on my mom’s side is an amazing artist,” Hazel says.
His uncle, Dan Barsness, lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he operates his own framing business and sells his paintings and prints to a variety of customers. “He is extremely gifted at painting realistic portraits, something I am still trying to improve on,” Hazel says. “I have always wanted to have the same artistic ability as him. I really believe he played a key role in my amusement and passion for art.”
Hazel, a senior co-captain on the men’s basketball team, missed this season’s first game in late November when he traveled to New York City for an annual weeklong excursion of Whitman art majors.
In his first game back, Hazel made up for lost time, scoring a game-high 21 points while grabbing eight rebounds. He added a “double-double” in his next game, combining 12 points and 10 rebounds. His run of impressive early season games was snapped in December when a broken left hand sidelined him for all or parts of six games.
A lefty on the basketball floor and in the art studio, Hazel says the broken hand was a “very humbling time for me. I still had use of my fingers, so I was able to paint my abstract fashion, but basketball was a little more difficult. Once the hand was healed, it took me awhile to have confidence in coming in contact with other players. Now it’s not a problem.”
Just as he was catching his second wind in January, however, back spasms added another round of tribulation. Hazel is thankful that his back is feeling better this week. The injuries, he says, have “made me appreciate life, basketball and my health even more.”
After a hit-and-miss season with injuries, Hazel is deserving of a strong finish to his senior season, Whitman basketball coach Skip Molitor says. “When Aaron is healthy, he finishes plays at the basket as well as anyone in our conference.”
Over the past three seasons, Hazel has connected on 207 of his 330 shot attempts, an extraordinary shooting percentage of nearly 63 percent.
“Aaron has a chance to finish with a career shooting percentage of over 62 percent,” Molitor says. “That’s a remarkable number at any level of basketball.”
After graduating from Whitman, Hazel plans to take his artistic traits to work for an advertising firm. If all goes well, that first step into the working world will only be temporary. He’s already working on plans for two Internet-based companies and a reality TV show.
“There’s a lot of things I’d like to do,” he says with a chuckle.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information, (509) 527-5902