NEW HOLSTEIN — Dale Heinen remembers what triggered his interest in art.
“When I was about 7 years old, I stood in front of one of my grandfather’s paintings and said, ‘Someday I want to do this too,’” he said. “He gave me some tips from time to time, and that got me started.”
Seven decades later, Heinen hasn’t stopped.
The 79-year-old retired teacher, who grew up on a hobby farm, still spends several hours each week painting out of his Calumet County home. Many of his creations involve agriculture or outdoor scenes painted on holiday ornaments.
In previous years, Heinen also showcased his artistry on saws, barn boards and tree fungi.
“I definitely don’t do this for the money. It’s a hobby where you get to meet some really nice people and have meaningful conversations,” said Heinen, who occasionally shows his work at area craft events.
“I had a gal who came up at a show once and said, ‘You wouldn’t have an ornament with a Farmall C tractor, would you?’ I said, ‘Actually, yes I do.’ I asked her why she was interested in a Farmall C and she said that was her grandpa’s tractor. So people often buy them as a memory because of their grandfather or father. And she ended up coming back to get another one to give to her cousin too.”
Using acrylic paints, Heinen spends about 60 to 90 minutes creating images on standard-size round holiday ornaments. Agricultural themes often include tractors, cows, barns and classic pickup trucks. He also paints an array of wildlife and occasional Green Bay Packers players.
Heinen’s work is meaningful to the people he meets as well as himself.
Growing up in the rural Sheboygan County town of Gibbsville, not far from his grandfather Henry Voskuil’s house, Heinen worked for nearby dairy farmers throughout his teen years.
“There are a lot of people like myself who have good memories of growing up on a farm or near a farm,” he said. “I remember threshing, combining, working in the fields. A lot of memories.”
When he wasn’t working on neighbors’ farms, Heinen was busy drawing. His grandfather got him interested in art, but it was Heinen’s older brother, Ron, who steered him toward creating images of tractors.
“I started out as a wildlife artist,” said Heinen, noting his grandfather enjoyed painting horses. “And then Ron suggested there was a market out there for tractors. So I painted a few trial tractors, and at the next show I went to after that (about 18 years ago) they were the first things that sold. So I knew he was right and we were on to something.”
Ron was a farmer who restored tractors, so he offered ideas for tractors that could be painted.
“I had a cheat sheet to start with of what to do,” Heinen said. “I started paintings tractors that were from the 1940s and 1950s. Then as I was selling them I discovered there was a demand for the next generation. Then I went back to my brother to find out which were the popular tractors from the 1960s and 1970s.”
Heinen paints five or six of the same tractors in a row, then transitions to a different tractor.
“If I paint too many of one model tractor it becomes tedious,” he said. “I like the variety of new things. And I’ll do all different types of tractors, but I don’t do as many of the John Deeres because there are so many places people can get those already.
“People who like Farmalls and Olivers and Minneapolis-Molines, things like that, they’re ecstatic to find my ornaments because they’re not as common. I quite often hear the comment, ‘You have Olivers?!’”
Heinen said that as he approaches his 80th birthday he’s not sure how many more shows he has left in him. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to put down the paint brushes anytime soon.
“I’m a compulsive painter,” he said. “Sometimes I walk away from my painting table but not for very long. I enjoy keeping busy during the daytime.”
Beverly, his wife of 58 years, agrees.
“I think art is very important to him,” she said. “He enjoys doing it so much. I think he would be lost without it.”
Heinen said he hopes the people who acquired his ornaments over the years enjoy displaying them each holiday season.
“Sometimes it hurts to see a favorite ornament go, because you’ve worked hard at it and it turned out so nicely,” he said. “But I’m very grateful that people appreciate my work and showed an interest.
“The ornaments are meaningful because they’re reliving a memory that means a lot to them.”