Duayne Hatchett has built a career out of his own curiousity.
Years ago, as he drove along a road in Southern California with his wife, Hatchett caught a glimpse of some tire tracks leading off into the desert. On a whim, he followed the tracks and eventually encountered a group of hang-glider enthusiasts who were launching themselves off a cliff and floating gracefully to a valley below. Intrigued, Hatchett, a former World War II fighter pilot and longtime sculptor, returned home and built his own working hang-glider using information he found in a pamphlet.
During a visit to a science museum in his native Oklahoma, Hatchett was fascinated by a device called a harmonograph, which used pendulums to create curious geometric drawings. When he came back to Buffalo, Hatchett cobbled together a large door, a series of weights and several lengths of cable to create a mammoth homemade harmonograph in his Essex Street studio.
"I made one bigger than any of theirs," Hatchett said with a grin.
And so it is with Hatchett's art, which has followed any number of tire tracks into the desert across a prolific career that stretches back nearly 60 years. An extensive retrospective exhibition of Hatchett's work opens today in the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Hatchett's studio, part of the Essex Arts Center, is directly attached to his apartment, a two-tiered structure that he designed himself. This setup, with studio adjoining living space, speaks to the easy flow between life and art that has resulted in so many of Hatchett's most intriguing creations.
Hatchett's work dwells comfortably in the interstices between art and invention, where process and product shoulder equal weight and the creation of a new way of doing something is a prerequisite for doing it at all.
"To me," Hatchett said, "art is an invention. I never was happy with it if I couldn't invent the process. I didn't plan it, it's just that I always found a system that was different from anybody else's."
For the grooved, lyrical paintings Hatchett produced in the 1990s, he created a tool with evenly spaced teeth, which he would draw across a freshly painted canvas in calculated sweeps -- "not a dance, but a motion that has flow," Hatchett said -- to produce geometric forms that look at once automated and individualized.
To create his striking, formally contained wall sculptures, which look like computer models of complex formulas or dozens of intertwined DNA double helixes, Hatchett welded together a shaping tool that looks something like a car jack. With three metal rings fused to a solid, rectangular body from which a long metal handle protrudes, the tool is capable of creating endless waves of custom-corrugated galvanized steel. This and other self-invented tools will be part of the Burchfield Penney exhibition, which includes a massive variety of work from across the artist's career.
"Artists pick up a paintbrush. That's, like, standard," said Burchfield Penney Director Ted Pietrzak, who organized the retrospective. "But he's kind of making his own paintbrushes as he goes along."
From Hatchett's "Harmonograph" series and collection of grooved paintings to his multifarious explorations of sculptural forms and materials, Hatchett has sidestepped the standard approaches to art -- and life, for that matter -- that seem to confine so many others.
"I would get bored," Hatchett said, "if I had to do art the way most people do art."