Artist in Residence — Painting a visual symphony

Published 6:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2021

God answered Charles Hartwill’s prayer, and the rest was history.

“When I was living in Maryland before I came to Virginia, I went through a turn of events in my life where I wound up being evicted, I was homeless, abandoned by some close friends, even a few relatives, and I remember the only thing I had while I was on the street was this huge art bag that I had, and I had all my art in it,” he said. “And I can remember praying to the God of the heavens that if He would just allow me to keep my talent, I knew it could change my life.

“And it did.”

Charles Hartwill

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Hartwill, who lives in Blackstone but is planning a move to Farmville, is now a noted artist whose paintings have been on display for years for the General Assembly in Richmond.

He said he probably first fell in love with art in the 1970s.

“Being in school, and you’re in grade school, and somebody gives you some candy for one of the comic heroes you drew, and I think I was hooked,” he said. “I was like, ‘People give me stuff for these things.’”

He noted that as he grew older, the “stuff” became money.

Around the age of 20, he went to Morgan State University and majored in art.

But in the second semester of his junior year, his father became seriously ill.

As a military veteran, his father went to a veteran’s hospital in Richmond. Hartwill left college and went to be with his family.

Later, he tried to go back and finish school.

“But it was kind of tough being a young person trying to run a household, doing classes, working, and it wasn’t long — I think within the next year — it just all unraveled, and that’s how the homelessness and everything else came about,” he said.

He said he was about 23 years old when he was without a home.

“I wound up coming here to Virginia because my parents were down here,” he said. “They just had to settle here. It was easier.”

Though he was in a difficult situation, he had a background in marketing and managerial experience that later gave him options in terms of employment. He ended up taking a job as a manager for a Dollar General, though this was not tapping into his artistic passion that was burning brightly.

“I didn’t want to take a manager’s job because when I did come down here, I started a little greeting card business, and I was selling greeting cards,” he said. “I did all the poetry on the inside, and I did all the pictures, and I was making a nice little piece of change.”

But he took the manager position after he was told he was overqualified to take anything else there.

“From there, I went and worked for American General, and I handled financial services, and it was around that time, a few years after working for American General, that I left the corporation, and I just said, ‘I’m going to be a full-time artist,’” he said. “And everyone thought I was crazy.”

Hartwill said he decided he was going to leave and take a chance on himself.

“One of the first things I did is I started going to art shows, looking at what was out there,” he said.

He also presented his work to one of Virginia’s noted folk artists, Eldridge Bagley.

“I went to see him, and I showed him what I had, and I can never forget,” Hartwill said. “We were in the South Hill Art Show, and he actually took time out, looked at my work, and he said, ‘Man, you need to do this.’

“And from there, I never looked back,” Hartwill said. “I decided that I love music, so that’s what I mainly paint — a unique jazz motif, and it just kept going by leaps and bounds.”

His website notes that his “jazz-playing” snowmen have evolved into a signature series and have helped him progress to being one of Virginia’s premier artists, with artwork now being featured on the VIDA clothing line, a line of art-inspired clothes, accessories, face masks and decor.

He noted that his art has won quite a few awards, and the endeavor has gone further than even he envisioned it going.

“I wanted to paint what I felt in my heart, so to speak, as opposed to what I thought would sell,” he said. “With my background in marketing, I know if you do something well enough, the passion shows up in the work, and that’s what attracts people, and that was the key to my artwork. I’m painting people playing the piano on the beach. You don’t see that every day, but people will pay me nice money for a woman, dressed, playing a piano on a beach.”

Hartwill explained how he comes up with a visual scenario like that one.

“With the jazz music, what my line of thinking was, because the music is impromptu, I allowed the settings to also be impromptu, and that kept me from painting pieces where everyone was always in a bar or a club,” he said. “I don’t have any work where you see them in that type of setting. So my settings tend to be very unique.”

Some of his paintings reflect an affection for other types of music as well.

“Because I like all forms of music, one of the things I taught my daughter was, ‘Learn to enjoy all forms of music so when you hear it, you don’t have to endure it,’” he said.

There is always some form of music going on in his mind when he creates, and then it takes him somewhere on the canvas.

Hartwill said he remembered opening a letter in the mail and reading excitedly that he was being invited to show his art at the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

He said he continued to have his work on display up until they began doing renovations to the building a year or so ago. The space they gave him to fill grew significantly over the years.

Farmville is where Hartwill said he is probably best known because he is there all the time. He has contributed art to the Heart of Virginia Festival and the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts.

He also took the money he has made as an artist and bought a window-cleaning business. His art and window-cleaning businesses have ended up having a notable synergy.

“Many of the businesses who we do the windows for now own my artwork,” he said.

Those interested in purchasing or seeing more of Hartwill’s artwork can visit