Ladislav Hanka, the Kalamazoo-based artist behind the label designs for Bell's Two Hearted Ale, recently donated three illustrations of the late judge, author and avid fisherman John Voelker to the permanent collection of Northern Michigan University's DeVos Art Museum. Voelker was the original subject on the labels before Hanka created the now-iconic trout image. The artist and his work for Bell's are featured in the documentary, A Two Hearted Tale, now screening at the museum. A special showing followed by a virtual Q&A with the filmmakers is scheduled at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6, in Art & Design room 165.
DeVos Art Museum Director and Curator Emily Lanctot had been familiar with Hanka's work from a young age.
“He drew these amazing underwater fish,” she said. “They were a little dark and eerie, but really beautiful.”
Lanctot received a letter from Hanka before meeting him in person after the premiere of A Two Hearted Tale at Marquette's Fresh Coast Film Festival this past fall.
“He mainly wrote to let us know he had heard about our Fred Brian: Lake Gogebic Memories and Myths exhibition [currently on display], and wanted to congratulate us on the thoughtful selections of his best work—black and white woodcut prints—and a beautiful show. He was grateful that we ensured Fred's artistry and story didn't fall into obscurity. Ladislav also mentioned he had shown his own work at the former Lee Hall gallery at Northern back in 1994. Then he mentioned the film's premiere.”
Lanctot said she had a nice conversation with Hanka after the Fresh Coast screening. The following week, she received a package from him with three original John Voelker prints, an in-depth narrative about the label, and a poster from the Lee Hall exhibit. Hanka wrote that he saw the museum had a substantial collection now and thought the prints should be in it.
“I first encountered John Voelker between the covers of Trout Madness (writing under the pen name of Robert Traver),” wrote Hanka, who became an avid fisherman himself, in describing the genesis of the Voelker etchings on his website. “This beautiful collection of fishing stories from Michigan's Upper Peninsula appeared under the Christmas tree when I was 8—admittedly as my father's present, but one which I quickly appropriated. … I snuck off with my new Christmas paint box and father's book to plagiarize the leaping brook trout on its dust jacket.”
“His writing had fed my soul at a formative time, and several years later, I began to feel a need to honor that,” Hanka continued. “Though it seemed presumptuous of me to intrude on the aging master's privacy, I still wanted to meet him face to face; to make the trip to Frenchman's pond and do some sketches.”
In his quest, Hanka was directed to Pauly's Rainbow Room, a modest tavern in Ishpeming. He wrote that he waited there until Voelker stopped in for his morning coke and cribbage.
“I began sketching from my table across the room and when he addressed me, I simply asked John if it were alright. He was amused by the prospect of being worthy of documentation by the youngster in his bar (I was 35) and was fortunately in no mood to dissuade or escape me. I was invited to join him. He did ask if I were planning to sell these drawings, a landmine of a question for the insecure younger artist. Groping in desperation for the right answer, I settled on truth and told him I'd sell virtually anything to stay in the studio and off the job-market, but that my prime motivator was no more pecuniary than was his own. I even told him that I'd been designing labels for a microbrewery in Kalamazoo and that I was hoping to use his portrait for that purpose. When he saw that I was indeed realistically mercenary about my vocation and nobody's fool, I appeared to have gained acceptance.”
Hanka said Voelker invited him to spend the afternoon at the fishing camp at Frenchman's Pond, but the weather was foul and the brook trout weren't biting. Months later, Hanka said he sent Voelker some impressions of the finished etchings. The “Dean of Michigan Trout” followed up with a handwritten letter of thanks and added, “Feel free to embalm me in a beer ad, if you'd like. Grandpa was a brewer and my pappy ran a saloon for years; I'd feel right at home.”
The beer bottle label released after Voelker's death featured his portrait on one side and the famous “testament of a fisherman” on the other. According to Hanka, the label was short-lived after complaints surfaced from Voelker's family about the image projected and their legal team about copyright infringement.
“The story of this one label twists and turns over the span of 40 years,” wrote the documentary's director Rory McHarg. “The legends behind this label and many others have been buried in folklore, but the vision created at Bell's started a revolution in the craft brewing industry that changed what a beer label could be—a piece of art. This is the unconventional story of artist Ladislav Hanka, whose love of fishing, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and beer found its way into every store in America.
“A fish on a label seemed odd, but devoted beer drinkers quickly fell in love. It has long got me thinking about what makes a great beer label. It seemed destined that monotonous corporate branding from every major brewing company would overrun store shelves. … But then, sometime in the late '80s, emerged a label with a trout on it. Did the beer taste fishy? Of course not; the art was curated separately from the product. An eccentric strategy.”
In addition to the special screening Dec. 6, the documentary will be shown at the museum through Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, with an additional 7 p.m. showing on Thursday. For more information on these and other events at NMU's DeVos Art Museum, visit nmuartmuseum.com.