St. Augustine serves as newest canvas for NYC artist

By Caroline Young

Photographs by Phillip C. Sunkel IV and David Hartzel

Hot pink leopard curtains hang in one window and bohemian green fixtures dress the other. Bright paintings filled with vibrant color, flowers, human faces, snakes, skulls and female genitalia surround the perimeter of the room. One after the other, each is completely unique from its neighbor. They all have a story, a meaning. And each painting is determined to evoke some kind of emotion hidden beneath human layers.

“My paintings are completely unapologetic,” David Hartzel, 31, said. “They are just sloppy and fabulous.”

We lounged in the cozy den of Hartzel’s brand new cottage in Lincolnville as he told me about his life as an an artist, a retired competitive swimmer and his struggles with the sport as an openly homosexual athlete. And, why he made the leap from the Big Apple to the Oldest City.

He moved to St. Augustine on March 29 with his dog Fiona. They are ready for a fresh start after spending a decade in New York City.

“I left it because the opportunity that was given was enough for me to spread my wings and give it a shot,” he said. “I know it’s always going to be there like a pacifier if I need it, but I have got to give this a shot … I’d be stupid if I didn’t.”

Life has thrown Hartzel curve ball after curve ball, but he knows how to transform anything negative into something beautiful, something funny or something to say goodbye to.

With courage, inspiration and motivation, he has maneuvered through his life’s ups and downs phenomenally.

His artwork will be sold in the Absolute Americana Art Gallery on Bridge St. And he is beginning an installation of his works for Gauzeway, a boutique on Hypolita St.

Hartzel mostly uses mixed media on plastic panels, which makes them easy to move around and “slap on a wall,” Hartzel said. His clients range from family households to people in the fashion industry.

“It’s so modern and they fit together like a puzzle, so people collect them over time.”

Up until a few years ago, Hartzel had another enormous passion in his life — competitive swimming. And he started at just 6-years-old, when he won the Delaware State Championships.

By the time he was in fourth grade, he was excused from spelling class everyday to train with high school seniors at Wilmington Aquatic Club.

In 1995, Hartzel went to Germantown Academy in Philadelphia, where he was the All-American National Preparatory School champion from his sophomore to senior year.

“High school was awesome,” he said. “It was like being a Marine … we would do an 18,000 for time, which is 660 laps.”

He earned the Good Citizenship Award after working with Habitat for Humanity. He trained hard and went to Nationals at age 15, which is uncommonly young for males. Hartzel went back six more times, made it to Senior Nationals and then took third in the 1998 U.S. Open at 17-years-old. He competed with the National Distance team from 1995 to 1998, and spent his summers in Colorado Springs at the Olympic training center. He made the World University Games team in 1998.

"Bell of the Ball'

Hartzel courageously came out of the closet in high school, in front of Germantown’s entire upper school when the leaders of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders club came to speak about gay awareness.

“My best friend tackled me and she hugged me a million times … it was such a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

But what is it like to be a gay athlete in high school, a place where judgmental is the dominant personality trait?

“Swimming is a predominately straight sport,” he said. “I had ‘fag’ sprayed on my locker a few times … It was harsh. I had to learn that bitter side to appreciate the sweet.”

There was no doubt his team needed him, but he was never asked to be captain because of his sexuality. Hartzel sucked it up and rose to the top. His drive was unstoppable.

“Subconsciously, I made myself the best because they couldn’t get rid of me.”

When he told his father he was gay, his response was, “shame on you.” But it was because his father wished Hartzel had told him sooner, so he could have been there for him, and been more connected to him.

“I had no idea my dad was so in tune with it,” Hartzel said. “If there was ever a bully, my father always took care of me … having a young effeminate son is not the easiest thing, but I was still living the American dream.”

For college, the University of Southern California was Hartzel’s dream school. But after being there for only one semester, he was asked to leave because he was caught drinking at a men’s swim team freshman initiation party.

He went back to his high school coach and tried to train with a club team, but the USC fallout prevented him from doing so.

So Hartzel went back to the same pool in Wilmington, where he had won his first award, and trained himself. To win.

Where in the world does someone find that kind of motivation?

“I trained 7 days a week, 5 hours a day,” he said.

Hartzel competed in the 1999 World University games in Spain, and took first place in the 800 meter freestyle event. Victory never felt so good.

Schools like Berkley, Stanford, and the University of Texas all begged for him to swim on their teams.

“I basically gave a giant middle finger to USC swimming community,” he said. “This was before Will and Grace, before anything was considered … it was like a freak show — it was like Lady Gaga.”

Without looking back, Hartzel traded his goggles for a paintbrush, and went to art school to pursue his other passion. He attended Oakland University in Michigan. He studied exactly what he wanted to study — fine art, theater performance and direction.

He started out writing poetry and citing his work at open mic night at random bars, but he realized quickly what he really wanted to do.

“I had so much rage built up inside of me, I wanted to just evoke it on to a canvas,” Hartzel said. “This was a way for me to really channel it … it morphed into these crazy incredible canvases that people all over enjoy.”

Hartzel moved to New York on a whim, after his ex-boyfriend told him he didn’t have the guts.

“The next morning I got up with my mobile gas card, loaded the VW Golf and drove to New York City.”

He started off selling his art in the streets of SoHo and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He lived off Starbucks’ leftover sandwiches and muffins his roommate brought home from work.


Then, Hartzel started painting the scenery and writing poetry for off-Broadway shows, and scored a gallery gig in Chelsea, a neighborhood in Manhattan. He was well on his way to making a name for himself.

“The clientele base just kept building and building,” he said. “It was like a cult-collector … a lot of Brazilians liked the unapologetic nature and the big shapes.”

The NYC Starving Artists’ Ball picks four of the best artists in the city to showcase, and Hartzel was one of them.

“New York is an area where you can get very jaded very easily, but if you stay true to yourself, it opens up to such an amalgam of opportunity,” Hartzel said. “I loved it because it taught me so much on how to run a business, and that’s incredible … what an opportunity, to run any operation.”

Hartzel has many sources of inspiration for his modern, emotional artwork.

“At different points throughout my life, I’ve had different muses,” he said. “At each stage of my life, I’ve had a woman who has moved me.”

One of his muses, Marylou Thompson, lives right here in St. Augustine. Thompson, a retired model, interior designer and currently a real estate broker for Old Carriage, is one of the powerful women who has impacted his life.

"One of the muses," Marylou Thompson, is a huge role model for Hartzel.

“It’s people like that … that adulation … it just keeps me going,” he said. “It’s just like putting kindling on a fire, it just keeps burning.”

However, his mother is not fond of his artwork.

“She can’t stand it because it’s so sloppy and loud and aggressive, like a bull in a China shop,” Hartzel said. “She likes a nice watercolor, a palm tree, a pretty picture of a bird … that’s just not who I am.”

But Hartzel accepts that and makes him want to be even more successful than he has become.

“I did swimming because mommy and daddy were happy all the time, and this is what I want to do and she just doesn’t understand it … That’s OK, that’s just how life is.”

In 2009, Hartzel’s father passed away.

“My dad was someone who fought every windmill in my life, he made everything possible.”

His deep connection to his father is what primarily brought him to St. Augustine.

His dad always insisted on Hartzel’s family stopping in St. Augustine on the way to Orlando for swimming competitions. His dad always told this town has something special to offer. Hartzel was hesitant about stopping here, because he was anxious for his meets.

“I was like a racehorse in a stable, but my dad really took his time here,” he said. “It was something about the land that made it so magical for him.”

Hartzel came to visit Thompson in February, and the town haunted him. A feeling inside tugged at him, and he knew he needed to be here.

“There’s something here I have to unlock in myself.”

He didn’t have the chance to fully grieve his father’s death because he went headfirst back into the unwavering commotion of New York City, and his career.

“It took me this long to actually dismount,” he said.

His use of skulls as a symbol throughout about 70 percent his work reminds Hartzel of his father, who told him, “When we die, that’s all we are- it’s just bones, flesh and bones. We aren’t sexuality, we aren’t emotions.”

Hartzel’s artwork makes him get out of the bed everyday. He is ready to start again, in a new place- a place his father absolutely adored. He is here to healthily grieve his loss. And he is here to share his love, creativity and fierce passion with St. Augustine.

“You can’t look back,” he said. “You have to remember your core, who you are and why you get up in the morning.”

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