Colorado’s Art Educator of the Year: From Holland to UNC after 24 years serving, creating art in military

By Briana Harris

If you run into Sieger Hartgers, you’ll find an inquisitive student close by. The UNC Art and Design professor has long held the reputation of being tough but fair, and he’s someone students continue to call on long after graduation for guidance and advice. In the span of an hour-long interview, one student stops by the office to say hello. “I expect you in the studio, okay? Promise, right?” Hartgers says emphatically. An alum calls for advice on the best materials to use for an educational workshop for her elementary art students. “Keep it simple, honest. Don’t make it an intellectual conquest,” he advises over the phone.

“Without question, his family, the creative process, and UNC students — past, present, and future — are his utmost priority,” says colleague Kris Heintz-Nelson, associate professor of Drawing and Art History. “His love of teaching drives his every action.”

Teaching and art-making have been central to Hartgers’ life ever since he can remember. He grew up in Holland in a poor but very supportive family. “To be from a poor family, and the people think you need to become an artist…that’s a dichotomy, right? But my dad always said, ‘Just let Sieger be. The way he is, he’s going to do it.’” His earliest birthday presents were art supplies, and he developed a high level of proficiency with these tools at a young age.

Sieger Hartgers: Impressions of Campus

January 19–February 28, 2017, Mariani Gallery
Reception: Thursday, January 19, 4-6 pm.

Impressions of Campus features 16 scenic depictions of the University of Northern Colorado campus. The work on view captures his admiration for the university. Hartgers’ photorealistic paintings, drawings and monotypes shine a beautiful glimpse into campus life. This body of work is the first of its kind for UNC, commemorating the past 125 years of the institution.

View gallery hours and location.

Hartgers believes this early start and a strong work ethic are responsible for his success as a visual artist. “I don’t believe in talent, I really don’t. I believe in pursued interest. The more you pursue it, the more interested you are in it, the more proficient you become in it,” he says. “Following your bliss is more important than anything else.” Hartgers entered art college in Holland at 16. After graduating, he began a career as a working artist and also taught at the same technical high school he attended.
In 1971, Hartgers moved to the United States with his wife and first child; his wife soon found out she was pregnant with their second child, who would be born in 1972. Making a living as a working artist proved difficult in the states, so Hartgers joined the U.S. military in February 1972, where he was employed for more than 24 years. His military occupational specialty was illustration, and he initially worked on creating artistic assets needed for various military communications. He also managed a creative team and taught classes as director of the graphics school.
Eventually, Hartgers became a combat artist for the Department of Defense, where his task was simply to document daily military life as he saw fit. He traveled to active military operations and training exercises, including Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Asked if being in active combat areas was nervewracking, Hartgers shakes his head no. “I loved it. As long as I get to push the pencil, I don’t care. The military gave me a sense of belonging.”     
After leaving the military in 1996, Hartgers went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree, and then received a master’s degree from UNC. Immediately after graduating, he began teaching freshman-level foundations courses as a lecturer in UNC’s School of Art and Design. Now, 15 years later, he’s the head of the printmaking area and co-heads the drawing area.
Hartgers’ colleagues appreciate his sense of humor, frankness and passion. Associate Professor of Ceramics Michael Lemke has been teaching with Hartgers for 12 years. “He always greets me with ‘How’s my favorite professor?’ He also says that to everyone!” Lemke explains. “With all seriousness, he’s inspiring to watch. He cares deeply about teaching and loves every day of it.”
Hartgers has always maintained an active career as a working artist, exploring all kinds of mediums, including drawing, painting and printmaking. “Switching into all these different medias keeps me hungry, keeps me working,” he says. “It keeps me from being still and lazy. To me, being an artist is not being a rocket scientist — it’s just being in tune with yourself and working hard.’ ”
It’s a philosophy he tries to pass along to his students. “I tell all of my students: ‘There is a place for you, but you really, really, really have to work extremely hard.” The high standards and accountability he requires for his students reflect his expectations for himself. “If you don’t do it yourself, then don’t ask other people to do it either. You want to be as genuine as you can be.”
“No other teacher at UNC has influenced me so greatly in my time here than Professor Sieger Hartgers,” says senior Art and Design student Brandon Malaty. Malaty has taken six courses with Hartgers and has worked as the professor’s studio assistant. “I took my first printmaking course and was instantly hooked on the process, but Sieger was the real reason I switched my concentration. He wasn’t afraid to tell me I wasn’t performing well, and he never shied away from acknowledging exceptional work.”
Hartgers shows no signs of slowing down in his career as a working artist or educator. He just completed a series of impressively detailed paintings and drawings of UNC’s campus. In November, Hartgers received the Colorado Higher Education Art Educator of the Year award from the Colorado Art Education Association.

Still, the seemingly tireless artist tries to live a balanced life. “Live well, live intense and work hard,” he advises his students. “Try to live every day like it’s your last. And smell the roses — don’t be in a hurry! That’s not a contradiction. It really isn’t.”