Gene Hatfield was born November 23, 1925, in Conway, Arkansas, to Lester Hatfield and Gertrude Powers Hatfield. He, his three older sisters, and one older brother were greatly influenced by their experience growing up during the Great Depression. Learning from his father to live frugally, Gene began to see the world differently. For him, the constraints of poverty were not limitations, but opportunities to be resourceful.
Living in both Conway and Mount Vernon, Gene also learned to see beauty in clutter from his grandmother whose yard was known as a “treasure chest of junk.” This junk, for Gene, was instinctively transformed into the means to create beauty. His eyes were predisposed to see a multitude of uses for any one item, naturally spinning out innovative ways to create meaning from the clutter of everyday life. He was artistic even as a child, painting at an early age, performing puppet shows in elementary school, taking singing lessons, and hosting impromptu performances in the family’s garage.
Gene attended Conway High School and subsequently entered Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in the Fall of 1942 at age sixteen. Soon after, in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was trained as an infantryman in Camp Robinson, Arkansas and Fort Benning, Georgia, before being shipped to Europe to fight in WWII. As a solider abroad, Gene spent time marching through France and was immediately struck by its beauty. He vowed then to paint the scenes upon his return to the States, and knew then he must try to travel back to France one day - under lighter circumstances.
Gene was injured on April 22, 1945, while fighting in Germany when he was struck by shrapnel from an anti-tank grenade. Among his other wounds from the shrapnel, the muscles under his left eye were severed. Already a professed artist, he was afraid he would lose his sight, but an army surgeon in England saved his vision and his life. Gene was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945, having received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Medal of Meritorious Service, whereupon he returned to ASTC using the G.I. Bill.
His experience in World War II affected Gene for the rest of his life. The scenes of sorrow and pain of battle stuck with him and emboldened his proclivity for peace. Although he was a leader in his battalion, trusted with more responsibility than other soldiers, Gene did not look back fondly on his time in the war. The suffering he witnessed drove him to do more good in the world to offset the bad. This innate motivation to create not just beautiful pieces, but beautiful feelings in others, resulted in a hyper-generous lifestyle. Whatever he had, he would give to his friends in need. He provided affordable living space for artists and friends, and gave any small amount of excess income toward helping those with even less. Still today, new stories of Gene's giving nature come out - revealing that perhaps he succeeded in balancing the dark he saw in the world with every bit of light he had to offer.
After the war, Gene majored in Speech and English and minored in Art at Arkansas State Teachers College. After earning a BSE in 1948, he went to Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, CO to earn a Masters in Art Education. He then returned to Conway to teach Art at ASTC, which became the University of Central Arkansas. Spanning both the art and theatre departments, Gene taught Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, Crafts, Design, Art History, Art Appreciation, and Stagecraft at UCA until he retired in 1985. Gene's students were affected by his predilection for resourceful, inventive art. His pupils learned to treat each piece like a sleeping giant, a vessel of untapped potential ready to be brought to life.