Arizona's Oldest Artist

American Artisans, Hometown Heroes, People
on January 6, 2002

At his easel, brush in hand in the early morning, Hal Empie says of his passion for art, “It’s in my genes. I have to do this. I was born with this creative urge. Others have different talents. With me, it’s art.”

At 92, Empie is Arizona’s oldest continuous resident artist. That productive place of residence is Tubac (pop. 949), one of the state’s oldest communities and a village claiming the distinction of being the crossroads “where art and history meet.”

A just-published book about the painter, Arizona’s Hal Empie, His Life, His Times and His Art, by Dr. Evelyn Cooper, declares that “Empie is the creative genius we all hear about but seldom meet. His trademark paintings, drawings, cartoons, illustrations, stories, and witticisms are … a unique package made up of artistic talent, scholarly curiosity, honest ambition, and compassionate kindness. To call him an original is an understatement.”

Empie’s odyssey began in 1909 in a one-bedroom adobe house in Safford (pop. 8,828), when Arizona was still a territory. His path to art maven wound through the Great Depression, medical and pharmacy training in college (where he took no art courses because he felt he wasn’t good enough), marriage, three children, and a 47-year career as a pharmacist. Empie ultimately came to own a drugstore—Art Gallery Drug in Duncan, Ariz.—a unique pharmacy featuring an old-fashioned soda fountain, with Empie’s pictures displayed on the walls. After a 1978 flood destroyed much of the store, Empie retired to Tubac to concentrate on painting.

As with many artists, his career began early. At 5, he debuted his skills in an unconventional manner by drawing a chalk mural on a school building. A teacher temporarily squelched the young artist’s burgeoning talent when he ordered Empie’s first masterpiece to be destroyed. Later, the old Saturday Evening Post influenced the self-taught Empie, and inks and paints began to fascinate him.

Empie’s colorful paintings and realistic line drawings would go on to capture and interpret the mood of Southwest desert life throughout the 20th century. His work has been featured in Arizona Highways, American Artist, and Life, as well as in international collections.

Inspiration, vital to any artist, comes easily to Empie, who says ideas dance in his head. “I wake up with beautiful pictures in mind,” he muses. “There’s a power in silence that brings vision in detail.” He stresses the importance of going with his heart and head. “No camera! That’s my rule. Look to nature or your mind’s eye to create original art. Photography is another whole art form.”

Empie’s embrace of both family and pharmacy could have snuffed out his art early on, but his passion said otherwise. “I maneuvered my life to make time to paint,” he acknowledges. His steady output has netted him one painting a week on average for more than 70 years. More than 6,000 works comprise his total in all media. All have sold except what is currently in his gallery.

Having attained a lofty age that some might say has earned him venerable status, Empie is a ripe source of artistic wisdom. “If you want to paint, you can,” he advises those dreaming of pursuing art. “Read books, find a good teacher. Take classes. Believe in yourself. You can do it.”

Health issues—including bypass surgery, cataracts, and macular degeneration (vision deterioration)—along with the death of his beloved wife, Louise, last year after their 72nd anniversary, have not deterred him. Life goes on for the artist, who paints nearly every day.

“Visions keep dancing in my head,” he says, “inspiring fresh expressions celebrating desert life.”

His favorite compliment, he recalls with a chuckle, once came from an unlikely critic: a 5-year-old. “Mister,” said the youngster, “you sure stay in your lines good.”