Hatton Balderson: Where fearlessness and talent meet.
by Janine Latus
photography by Keith Lanpher
Hatton Balderson has a canvas bag so old its handles are reinforced with duct tape. In its myriad pockets are screwdrivers and awls, fishing line and piano wire, pencils and pliers and an ice pick older than Hatton himself.
The back of his Isuzu Trooper is stacked with man-sized sheets of cardboard and two sleeping bags, not for himself or his beloved French bulldogs but for swaddling his customers’ art as he moves it from their homes or offices to his framing studio and back.
“I’ve moved millions of dollars of art in the back of this thing,” Hatton says.
Hatton is a painter, a framer, a musician and an installer of art. His hands move as easily over the strings of an upright bass as they do over a mat cutter, instinctive to the point of not thinking. He has sold his own paintings – blends of acrylic and watercolor that evoke Van Gogh and Matisse – stood and delivered as a professional musician, framed thousands of pieces of art and installed even more.
When South University opened its Virginia Beach campus in 2010, it was Hatton the school hired to hang 300 pieces of art in three days, each “security hung” as it would be in a McDonald’s or a motel so no one could take it off the wall and walk away. Banks have hired him to move and hang entire collections. Art owners call him to frame and hang their precious and priceless. Indeed, when the Chrysler Museum of Art ran its Our Community Collects show last fall, the framing on several of the masterpieces was his.
Even Senator Mark Warner uses him, not just to hang his annually rotating collection of Virginia art in both his Norfolk and D.C. offices but also to help choose what’s included.
“Hatton has been a member of our team since the first year of our effort to showcase Virginia art on Capitol Hill,” the senator wrote in an email. “He has great taste and an amazing ability to combine different mediums from different artists to form one cohesive show.”
Hatton got into it three years ago, when Susan Hirschbiel, at the time a commissioner on the Virginia Commission for the Arts and a longtime friend and supporter of Warner, asked Hatton to join her in selecting art for the senator. Together they travel the state looking for cutting-edge artists, a smorgasbord of sculpture and glass and canvas, creating a slide show of options to send to Warner’s staff. Once the senator has made his choices, Hatton and Susan navigate a van full of art through the security labyrinth of bomb-sniffing German shepherds and gun-wielding guards under the Russell Senate Office Building, Warner’s eager young tie-wearing aides as escorts. Once through the tunnels and halls to the office, it is Hatton who stands back and evaluates the art and the space, then launches into measuring and math-ing and positioning everything just so.
“It’s always a challenge,” Susan says, “because it’s not a gallery or a home, it’s a public space.”
Hatton, though, has absolute faith in his abilities.
“When I get going I shift from being human to being an installation machine,” he says. “I love what I do, I’m passionate about it, I get a fearlessness and confidence from all of the years of doing it, and I’m an obnoxious perfectionist, a gift from my dad’s side that’s both a blessing and a curse.”
For hours he works, not stopping for lunch, the pieces of his mobile arsenal arranged like surgical tools in the holes and slots in the tray of his paint-stained stepladder.
Hatton started in the business as a 24-year-old college kid, filling in at the old Decker Studios as a favor to his mom, Shelby Balderson, the galleries’ manager. Then the framer quit and Hatton picked that job up, too. Gone were his plans for law school; he had found his passion.
When Decker closed in 1990, the dynamic duo of mother and son built a sunny studio behind the family’s home and went into business under the name Shelby’s Picture Framing. In truth it was Hatton doing the framing and Shelby going in with her artist’s eye and directing what needed to be put where. Hatton was just the hired muscle, the one who schlepped and carried and hammered in hangers.
Twenty-five years after their partnership started, it’s all Hatton.
“He’s learned everything I can teach him,” Shelby says, in her native accent of “to-mah-toe” and “ah-boot.” “I’m trying to retire.”
Still, she is “Virginia Beach Central,” as Hatton calls her, with a network of connections throughout the Hampton Roads arts community. For years she was a pre-judge for the Boardwalk Art Show and she and Hatton would raid the shrink-wrap bins and buy Virginia originals.
The Baldersons’ only advertising is word-of-mouth, one satisfied customer sending their name along to the next. Bob and Janet Chenman, owners of L. Chenman Inc., a scrap metal company, hired Hatton in 2009 when they bought their spacious, blank-walled home half a block from the beach.
“It was a tabula rasa house,” Hatton says. “There was not a stick hanging.”
Together the Chenmans and the Baldersons considered the art and the walls.
“I always have an idea where I want things and then I let him have his say,” says Bob, a longtime champion surfer who has a collection of custom surfboards that needed to be hung, plus 5-foot-by-5-foot nudes and colorful acrylics and oils of surfers. For Janet, Hatton framed an oil painting that had belonged to her grandmother, the new frame encasing the old to maintain the historic authenticity of the piece. He painted and sanded and touched up another frame so it would match ones Bob had brought back from Hawaii.
“We’re very pleased with what he’s done,” Bob says.
Hatton cuts mat with the ease with which most people butter bread. His studio has racks of mat boards in colors with names like Raphael and Monet’s Cloud. His glass cutter is 30 years old, the diamond blade lubricated with lighter fluid, its missing springs replaced by rubber bands. A beam is decorated with photos sent by clients of bulldogs in costume, and one of himself at about 3 years old, the year the family moved into the Oceanfront home they are now leaving.
Razorblades litter counter tops; linked foam mats like you’d see in a child’s playroom cushion the floor. A work table is covered with plans and paintbrushes, straight-edge clamps and a giant roll of Kraft paper. Classical music plays quietly.
Clients rarely see this space, though. Instead Hatton goes to them with his measuring tape and cases full of frame samples. There are some clients he’s known so long that he just picks up the art and brings it to the studio for the deliberation process. Others need more client input.
“The first frame I pick might be the perfect thing, and other times I’ll spend a few days thinking about what I want to put on to set it off.”
Sometimes what has to happen first is an un-framing.
“We have art come in here that people spent a lot of money to get framed and it’s so bad it just makes your teeth itch,” Shelby says. “It’s something plain and clean that needs a plain and clean frame and it’s got something floop-do-doo all over it that’s just awful. A frame can kill a piece or enhance it, and it should enhance it. Always.”
So should its placement, and Hatton takes pride in having inherited his mother’s artistic eye.
“I’ve had customers when they’re writing a check for me say, ‘You’re cheaper than a chiropractor and infinitely cheaper than a divorce lawyer,’ ” Hatton says. “I’ve had them say, ‘You saved my marriage.’ ”
Or as Senator Warner writes, “We couldn’t do this without him.”