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By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
Jun 30th, 2019

Tim Hayes discovered painting long before becoming an architect. In the structure and organization of his work, viewers can see the connection to architecture.


The relationship between an artist’s personal history and his or her work is difficult to discern without knowing something about that history, but one thing is certain. Each piece will reflect the artist’s unique experience and perspective. Nineteenth-century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher once said, “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures.” Whether this translation happens consciously or through flares of insight and intuition, the resulting work literally contains parts of the artist. According to artist Tim Hayes, “Artists are who they are, and they paint the way they paint because of that.”

A retired architect, Hayes taught architecture at his alma mater Louisiana Tech University for nearly 30 years, but he discovered painting long before becoming a professor. While studying architecture in the 70s, one of his professors taught a watercolor class. In that class, Hayes discovered that watercolor was a difficult, unforgiving medium, but he also learned a lot about pure design and hard work. He carried those lessons throughout his career in architecture and as a painter. “Slowly but surely,” he said, “I found the medium for me—hard board and acrylic. I can sort of manhandle that, and the process of doing it creates a wonderful character.” Hayes has been working with acrylic on board using the same process since 1998, and his goal for each painting is to create a work with clear character and meaning.

With his extensive background in architecture and design, Hayes is equipped with a unique knowledge base that inevitably plays a role in his work. Hayes believes there is a synergistic relationship between all forms of art, and he’s continually fascinated by the relationship between visual art and architecture. Although he didn’t realize his love for either until he was in college, the seeds of that love were planted when he was just a child. Born in McComb, Mississippi, Hayes spent his early childhood in the Deep South, but at the age of seven, he found himself boarding the S.S. President Wilson bound for Vietnam where his parents served as missionaries until the conditions of war made life too unsafe.

Initially, the Hayes family lived in Saigon, which is now Ho Chi Minh City. Approximately 300 other Americans lived in the country at the time, and from 3rd through 6th grade, Hayes, along with his brother, attended the American Community School. Although some Vietnamese children attended the school, the student body was composed mostly of children of American diplomats and expatriates who worked for big corporations operating in Saigon. Approximately four years after settling in Vietnam, the Hayes family moved to Da Lat, Vietnam, where they lived in a beautiful resort created by the French. In the meantime, war tensions continued to rise, and in February 1965, President Johnson ordered all dependents of government personnel out of Vietnam. A few months later, the Da Lat School, which the Hayes brothers were attending, was forced to evacuate Vietnam to assure the children’s safety.

When the Da Lat School closed in Vietnam, it was temporarily moved to Bangkok, Thailand. As a result, Hayes and his brother were moved to Bangkok as well. Although his parents, who remained behind with his younger sister, never seemed scared or worried, Hayes said being transported by the U.S. Army on a C-123 was scary. Even his brother’s best efforts to comfort him were unsuccessful. “I felt like a paratrooper getting ready to jump,” Hayes said.

After moving to Bangkok, the Hayes brothers changed schools more than once, attending the International School of Bangkok and Morrison Academy in Taichung, Taiwan. While attending the International School, they lived in a hostel for Southern Baptist missionary children that was located right on the canal.

During his family’s time overseas, the world around Hayes was quietly making a lasting impression on him. They lived in and were surrounded by both modernist and French colonial architecture. “We lived in some really wonderful houses,” Hayes said. Some were really complex in terms of form and shape. “I feel I had a reaction to it, and it’s always been somewhere in my bones,” he said. In addition to the architecture, Hayes has memories of breathtaking scenery, particularly a drive through the mountains from Saigon to Da Lat that his family took in the early 60s before the roads were overrun with Army trucks. From the windows of their Volkswagen microbus, Hayes watched in awe as they glided in and out of the clouds.
Growing up there, Hayes took everything in. The culture, landscape, and architecture became part of who he is, and viewers can see their influence in the many layers of his paintings, in the grids that echo the modular spaces of his childhood, and in the bicycle motifs that recall the Saigon streets, which swarmed with them.

After spending more than 10 years overseas, Hayes’s family returned to the U.S., allowing him to finish high school in Louisiana. However, Asian culture had become so ingrained that on the trip back to the U.S. Hayes found it a bit strange to see Caucasian men working under the planes. The change in culture was dramatic, and he said, “It was weird to try to adapt,” but he did.

After graduating from Airline High School in Bossier City, Louisiana, Hayes briefly attended Northwestern State University in Natchitoches before transferring to Louisiana Tech with his girlfriend Martha, who later became his wife. It was at Louisiana Tech where his lasting passion for architecture and painting truly developed. “At their highest ideal,” he believes, “these two art forms speak the same language.” There is similarity both in the disorder of the process and in the benchmarks of clarity and meaning that define success in both fields. According to Hayes, they’re both equally fulfilling, but painting is more difficult. For Hayes, the process of creation is a struggle that borders on torture at times. “It can be really hard, but you just have to stick with it,” he said.

While planning is a key step in architecture, Hayes said he doesn’t plan anything when he paints. “It’s flying by the seat of your pants,” he said, “at least for me.” At the same time, there is a process of revision inherent to both art forms, and Hayes takes revision seriously. His former colleague Karl Puljak said, “From building elements as small as a drawer pull to as large as his studio, Hayes voraciously questions the spaces in which he lives and works by proactively responding to their existing conditions with a passion of a consummate maker. Everything in his house is on the table and subject to be reconsidered, remade and attacked with zeal…even his own previous renovations.”

He approaches his paintings with the same energy and perspective. The process is recursive, and every layer is continually evolving. It is subject to be changed, painted over, drawn on, or carved into at any stage. In his artist statement, Hayes described his process this way: “Through indecision and dissatisfaction, the design is parsed down to the essential. Begin, stop, erase, rethink, redo, remove, question, begin again, alter, erase, remove . . . always simplifying and honing.”

Everything in a painting, even its title, which he considers really important, may be revised. Even though this process is hard, Hayes said, “It happens naturally. You don’t have to force it.” In the end, the layers can create surprises, and they can change the order and organization of the painting. From the beginning, Hayes has been conscious of the painting surface and the character that can be created from that. He likes the fact viewers can see the history of the work in its layers. “It’s like an old person,” he said. “They have so many stories.”

Although his work has grown less representational over time, Hayes is not entirely comfortable calling it abstract. The category is too broad and encompasses too much. Plus, he’s not satisfied with some of the associations people have for the word “abstract” or with some of the company his work keeps in that style. But for now, he can’t think of a better word to describe it. Perhaps there isn’t one. But Hayes shared that his work has at times been compared to the work of Richard Diebenkorn whose geometric, lyrical abstract paintings helped him achieve worldwide recognition. Hayes described Diebenkorn’s style as poetic and architectural, and he counts Diebenkorn among his influences. At the same time, he wasn’t even aware of Diebenkorn’s work until someone made the comparison to his own. At least initially, the similarity was serendipitous.

As Hayes’s work has grown less representational, it’s also grown more bright and colorful. In addition, he’s become more conscious of the order and organization of his work, but he said, “That’s just the device to help you get where you’re going—it’s a vehicle.” In the structure and organization of his work, viewers can also see the connection to architecture. After retiring from Louisiana Tech, Tim and his wife moved into a new home he designed himself. When looking at the home from the outside, the numerous horizontal and perpendicular lines make an impression. In his paintings, these lines become the graphic and organizational devices that help deliver the meaning.

In creating his recent work, Hayes said he derives inspiration not from objects but instead from the challenge of trying to find and create something new and powerful. With each piece, he asks himself, “What are you capable of doing?” Then inspiration happens in the process of doing it—in the process of watching the work alter and change. “It’s hard work,” he said, “but you’re compelled to do it. Just like I was compelled to build this house. Just like everyone is compelled to do something.”

According to Hayes, one of the greatest lessons he’s learned as an artist is that consistent hard work pays off. “There’s no big revelation in that,” he said, but it’s been an important lesson nonetheless. He referenced a book by Malcom Gladwell called Outliers in which Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. “I don’t think I’m there yet,” Hayes said, “I think I have a long way to go.” At the same time, he’s proud of the work he’s accomplished and is now more conscious of how people respond to it. “What I’ve recently discovered,” Tim said, “is that it becomes really interesting what people read into your painting.” They bring their own experience and perspective to the painting, and it can become something unexpected. Along the way, feedback from friends, family, and other artists has provided Hayes with some encouragement and reassurance that the work he’s creating is worth it. “When you get a compliment from someone you really respect, you think, ‘Man, I’ve arrived,’” he said.

For some artists, letting go of work they’ve poured themselves into can be painful. The same is true for Hayes who compared it to losing a cherished pet. “When you sell a painting you really like, it’s like someone is taking one of your dogs away,” he said. Of course, selling work is a basic requirement for any professional artist. Fortunately, there is some joy in seeing others respond to the work. Hayes hopes to create something that triggers an emotion. “Hopefully, in every piece, there’s something beyond the form,” he said, “something latent that’s hidden within, a secret you see for yourself.”