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Bill Hosner‘s Baristas

Anne Stanton - May 25th, 2009
Bill Hosner‘s Baristas
Anne Stanton 5/25/09

Artist captures coffee house servers and their stories

When Bill Hosner first stopped in at the Roast & Toast coffee shop in Petoskey for his daily cup of brew, he was a little taken aback by the kids behind the counter. Earrings in nostrils, hair color not found in nature, and tattoos where you ought not to be looking.
“As I looked at them, I thought what a lot of people might think. I rushed to judgment and thought these are a motley crew. And as I got to know them over the three years I lived in Petoskey, I realized they were just the way I was when I was that age. They were trying to find their way into life. Some were married, some had children, they were trying to build families. They were really great kids, people trying to fit into this world.”
Hosner, a renowned pastel painter, is known for his landscapes and romantic portraits of women strolling on the beach, reminiscent of Joaquin Sorrola, a 19th Century artist he admires.
But he wanted these kids to also have their story told, so he decided to bring his easel into the coffee shop and paint spontaneous portraits of each “coffee house kid.”
Hosner proposed his plan to the Roast & Toast coffee shop owner, and she thought it was a great idea. The workers themselves weren’t quite as enthusiastic, but signed on after they saw the first portraits.
“It was one of those things; as an artist, you have to make a painting, get it out of your system, and you can’t rest until you do,” Hosner said.
These aren’t his usual paintings that take several days, yet they still succeed in capturing the essence and energy of the person. Hosner finished his 14 paintings of the Petoskey kids last summer. Now he has taken his easel to Another Cuppa Joe and Higher Grounds at Traverse City’s Building 50.
Ultimately, he’d like to display the entire collection of 24 portraits at a local museum.

Hosner is relatively new to Traverse City, having lived in Petoskey for three years and then moving to here last summer. He quickly made the area his own. Many of his paintings are of local landmarks such as the Leland boathouse and cherry orchards. They seem to vibrate with color, which is Hosner’s strength, said Max Altekruse, Hosner’s artistic mentor.
“The most beautiful, the strongest thing in his work is that he somehow grasped the magic of color. How he has arrived at that, I don’t know. I didn’t convey it to him,” Altekruse said.
It’s not uncommon to see Hosner outside of a building—even in winter—with pastel chalk in hand. His practice of drawing in open air is called “en plein air.”
Hosner, slim and tall, dresses casually, although, immaculately in button-down shirts and jeans. He lives simply in a studio loft at Building 50, his walls covered with paintings that are too precious to him to sell.
His frugal lifestyle is a far cry from his early years when he worked as one of the top freelance illustrators in Detroit, enjoying $200 martini lunches with advertising executives. His 18-year span as a commercial illustrator included work for Reader’s Digest, box covers for CBS Fox Video, and illustrated portraits of Kennedy Center honorees.
Hosner reviewed his artistic life in an essay, “Mondays with Max,” where he described his early training of illustration in the 1970s. He’d take a photo and project it directly onto the painting surface, trace it and render a drawing that would eventually be colored in with a variety of media.

In the late 1980s, illustrators began using computers for graphic arts, drawing on an electric pad as they watched a computer screen. Hosner felt that art was being lost in the process and set his sights on becoming a “fine artist,” using pastels as a medium.
“I was about 42 years old, my sons were just about ready to head off to college. I was married at the time to a person who was financially independent. I didn’t need to support her, and we decided I could take this chance. I decided to become an easel painter, a fine artist. I knew two things would occur. One, was that I couldn’t have one foot in, one foot out. In the advertising world, it’s out of sight, out of mind. They had deadlines, and if you couldn’t meet them, they’d find someone else who could.
“I also knew it was going to take a long time. It’s a career change. That’s exactly what happened. It’s been almost 18 years.”
Hosner began with an intense investigation of technique and teachers. He kept bumping up against the name of Frank Reilly, a premier illustrator and one of the most highly regarded teachers in Post War World II.
He remembered that Max Altekruse, a coworker at the McNamara studio in the 1970s, had studied with Reilly and that his illustrations possessed an artistic quality clearly above the photographic look of other illustrators.
Hosner learned that Altekruse had retired in Birmingham. He visited his home and shyly drew out a couple of paintings to show his former coworker what he could do. Altekruse, who is by nature thrifty with words, said, “I see.”

He met with Altekruse, thereafter, each Monday, soaking up his critiques, advice, and praise, which in the early years, was sparse.
“I became, more or less, a tutor for awhile to express to him what I had learned under Frank Reilly in New York, which was very valuable for me,” Altekruse said in a phone interview.
“Bill has a very strong instinct, an artistic instinct, there’s no question about it. All he needed was what he loosely termed his formal training in the business, learning to draw and to paint, and to put it together compositionally.
For three years, Hosner attended workshops with master painters and then he went about the business of “practice, practice, practice.”
Altekruse said his student has done well, both artistically, as well as his ability to promote his work.
“A lot of his work is right from nature. The landscape, and in some ways, the romantic content maybe arises from his depiction from old buildings and barns. His composition is very, very good. His sense of design and color are excellent.”
Hosner has since garnered a long list of major awards, including the Best Pastel Award at the 2005 Carmel Plein Air Art Competition. Most recently, he had two paintings accepted to the prestigious Art du Pastel en France in Giverny, France. As Hosner’s talent has evolved, so has his prices.
During the course of his career change, however, Hosner suffered the personal pain of two divorces. Yet his pieces reflect none of the bitterness, capturing beauty even when it’s not obvious—such as an old white farmhouse with a phone line snaking up the corner.
Hosner is remarkably friendly, stopping often to chat with a friend. If you let him, he’ll talk at length about his technique and what he’s learned from Sorrola and John Singer Sargent, another artist with whom he’s compared.
Art and life are intertwined, he said. His favorite quote is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem: “That it will never come again is what makes life so beautiful.”

Before he flies off to the French exhibit in June, Hosner is tying up his portraits with the coffee house kids.
“So far I’ve done Rachel, Kim and Julia. And this week I’m going to do Alisha. I’m going to try to get Kyle, and then I’ll move over to Higher Grounds,” Hosner said.
Julia Hemp, who works at Cuppa Joe, said her portrait is more serious than she normally looks because it’s impossible to hold a smile for very long.
“I liked what he did,” she said. “He really captured my eyes.”
For the “coffee house kids” exhibit, Hosner wants the kids to talk on tape about their lives, but he needs someone with the technical ability to help make the audio interactive with gallery visitors.
His vision is to place the painted pictures against coffee bags. And, of course, serve coffee to the show’s visitors. He’ll devote half the proceeds of an art exhibit or art sales to a college fund or art scholarship for the coffee house kids.
“I’ve always wondered how I can take my talent and give back and make a contribution to the community and the country and the world I live in,” he said. “I’m not tremendously wealthy in terms of money, but I can give my time.”

You can see Bill Hosner’s work at Suttons Bay Galleries or on his website at

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