An artist’s eye and a love of history made Gene Hayes the right man to paint murals at David and Lee Manuel’s Hot Lake Springs Resort.
THE WAY THINGS USED TO BE: Hayes displays the mural he did of Hot Lake’s surgical suite. He worked from photographs and antique equipment on-site to produce the painting, which reflects the days when Hot Lake was a busy hospital. Observer photos/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Hayes, a remarkable fellow in more ways than one way, was busy last Friday on the third floor of the resort’s main building, roughing in a large-scale map of the Oregon Trail along one wall.
As he worked, he pondered the immigrants who took to the trail and headed east to west during the 1840s and 1850s.“I’ve been told they were people of average intellect who were looking for a place to live, and also to have a little adventure,” he said.
At 86, Hayes should be considered the most durable — and certainly one of the most productive — artists working in Northeast Oregon.
Born and raised in Wallowa, where he and his wife Eunice live today, Hayes graduated from the local high school and served in World War II.
Not long after he came home from that conflict, he lost an arm in an accident at a feed mill. He decided then to take up art, an avocation he’d had since he was a boy.
He studied at the Jean Turner Art Center in San Francisco, and also at Oregon Tech (now Oregon Institute of Technology) In Klamath Falls.
Back home, he worked on a U.S. Forest Service survey crew for six seasons. The art career was on hold, but always beckoned.
There came a time when he could no longer resist.
“I decided I better put my knowledge to work and pick up a paintbrush,” he said.
He started out painting signs, and still does plenty of that kind of work today. But art of an historical nature has always been his passion.
Though he lived and worked in Sandpoint, Idaho, for 23 years, Hayes has spent most of his life in Wallowa County.
He has made much of his work local, chronicling in hundreds, perhaps thousands of pictures the history of Wallowa County and greater Northeast Oregon. The regional flavor is what makes his work so unique.
“I do actual scenes and places as much as I can,” he said.
The mural he is working on now traces the Oregon Trail from Independence, Mo., to Oregon City. Hayes wasn’t able to travel the whole route himself, but in his quest for inspiration, he did journey to Pocatello, Idaho and worked his way west to the Columbia Gorge.
“This work will have scenes of places along the trail, including Fort Boise, Fort Hall, Hot Lake, even a little bit of Wallowa County up north,” he said.
The Manuels are restoring the old Hot Lake building, which once was a hospital and sanitarium. They plan to transform it into a premier destination resort and arts center.
A bronze foundry, art gallery, gift shop and coffee concession are already in operation. When remodeling is complete, the resort will also feature dining, lodging, a museum, a theatre and more.
Besides his Oregon Trail mural, Hayes has done two other paintings on the third floor, pictures of Hot Lake’s patient ward and surgical unit. He worked both from photographs and from observation of antique medical equipment on-site.
The Manuels love the final product.
“Gene is so good to work with. He’s pleasant and always so happy to do what’s accurate,” Lee Manuel said.
Accuracy is something that comes from years of trial and error, said Hayes.
“Anybody with less than 80 years experience is an amateur and beginner,” he said with a laugh.