Public library celebrates acquisition of John Gnatek painting, ‘Old Hadley’

  • John Gnatek talks about the historic painting he did of Hadley which was recently donated to the Hadley Public Library. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Gnatek talks about the historic painting he did of Hadley that was recently donated to the Hadley Public Library as Melissa Gnatek, his daughter, and Tim Banks listen. TAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A mural depicting a scene from the Hadley of yesteryear by John Gnatek was recently donated to the Hadley Public Library. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Gnatek listens as Mary Thayer talks about the historic painting he did of Hadley which was recently donated to the Hadley Public Library. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Gnatek talks about his painting, “Old Hadley.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Monday, August 30, 2021

HADLEY — Every Tuesday night when he was in high school in the 1940s, John Gnatek would go to the Amherst Boys Club and watch local artist Steve Hamilton paint for two hours, and then he would go home and try painting himself.

Decades later, in 1989, Gnatek left his day job to pursue art as a full-time career. He then showed his former teacher a small painting that he made of North Amherst, only to receive the response, “John, that’s not good.”

Gnatek, now a celebrated Hadley artist, recounted the interaction lightheartedly to a group gathered to celebrate his 65-year-old oil painting, “Old Hadley,” that was recently donated to the Hadley Public Library.

“I didn’t criticize what he said to me, but I just went on my own way and did my own thing,” the 89-year-old artist said.

Gnatek didn’t flinch either when, early in his painting days, a woman said to him, “You know, I’m getting sick of your birch trees! Why don’t you paint the buildings in my town?”

And so he did. “Old Hadley” depicts integral pieces of the town’s history, such as the Hockanum covered bridge, Hopkins Academy and the home of Civil War hero Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

The nearly 5-foot-long oil painting hangs impressively in the main reading room of the library on a “wall that almost looks as if it was built with (the painting) in mind,” said Mary Thayer, a Hadley resident who sat down with Gnatek to learn the history of the painting. The work of art depicts a scene of old Hadley, one with horses and buggies, broomcorn crops, dainty wooden bridges, and buildings that have since burnt down.

The painting was commissioned in 1951 by lawyer Ed Podolak, who had a great appreciation for Hadley’s history, and a 24-year-old Gnatek, who didn’t have much money, had to obtain the necessary materials by trading in his past artwork. He also couldn’t work on the large piece on his family’s farm in Hadley, and instead painted it right in Podolak’s office space on Russell Street.

After Podolak retired, he brought the painting home with him and owned it until he died in 2007. Theodore Mieczkowksi, a civil engineer, who shared Podolak’s deep respect for Hadley’s history, later became the owner of the piece. In 2009, Mieczkowski had the idea to make the mural a part of Hadley’s 350th birthday, and with Gnatek’s permission, it was photographed and became a souvenir postcard for the town.

Gnatek’s love for painting began when he was just a child. He and two of his brothers were encouraged by their father to pursue art when he noticed their natural talent.

“My father liked it because we’d get quiet (when we did art),” Gnatek joked.

On weekends, the boys’ father would bring them to museums and sometimes to Rockport and Gloucester to see the artists’ colonies. He also attended art classes with Hamilton all throughout high school, and after graduation, attended the Maryland Institute of Art.

“I had so much skill in my watercolor that I could paint better than my watercolor instructor,” Gnatek said.

Despite receiving a scholarship in his second year, he was bored and left the school to attend the London City Art Guild School.

Upon his return to Hadley, Gnatek worked as a textile engraver, but by the time he came home each day, he had no desire left to work on paintings.

“I’d rather not teach art or do art (at a job). I wanted to do my own thing,” Gnatek said.

He began working at the UMass Amherst library, a job he got through the wife of his old art instructor, Hamilton. While he worked there, he also raised four children and would continue to paint at night, and even painted the mural at the Big E for 30 years as he had done since he was a teenager.

Since 1989, Gnatek has painted more than 1,700 pieces, many of which now hang inside homes, businesses and art galleries throughout the Valley, depicting local history and landmarks.

And the “Old Hadley” painting is now a part of Hadley’s history as “John Gnatek is an icon of the town, a legend,” said Alan Weinberg, a trustee of the library.