If you live in the Terrace area, you may have seen Mark Hart’s artwork before on the side of his truck. Or, perhaps you may have seen it on TV.
The self-taught airbrush artist always tried to incorporate visuals into elementary and junior high school assignments. He took every art class he could and decided to pursue it as a career around the time he started high school.
“Probably once I reached grade nine, grade ten it was between teaching and art, and I realized teaching, I wouldn’t have the patience with the kids,” he said.
After high school, he attended art school in Vancouver, worked at Safeway, then went to art school in the U.K., just outside of London.
He continued to practice airbrushing and got his first opportunity to paint a goalie mask for a local goalie. He said when he looks back, that first mask was not very good, and his work is now “night and day” in comparison.
But it gave him a much needed break into the industry.
“If it wasn’t for that one break I got, and I put it in the same context of a bar band, there’s probably bar bands in the world that are better than U2, better than the Rolling Stones, but they don’t get that break because there’s 10,000 other bands just like there are 10,000 other artists,” he said.
“But I found that niche and a goalie here in town in the early 90’s, he was getting married and he had a white mask and I thought ‘hey, I can airbrush.’”
Itech was one of the largest manufacturers of goalie equipment at the time. They needed a painter, and they gave him a chance.
“When you have somebody in your corner who’s got a name, that’s why I go back to the bar band, it’s like having a producer,” he said. For Hart, working with Itech was like a band signing with Sony Music.
Being a certified Itech artist meant that if something happened to a mask or paint job he would do the painting as per the company’s warranty. It was proof his work was reputable and his name was sent out to NHL teams. At the peak of his career Hart was painting around 12 masks per month.
“When Henrik Lundqvist came into the league I was the first one to paint his mask,” Hart said.
“When I saw my mask on TV for the first time I was like ‘holy crap, that was in my studio.’”
Hart painted Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider’s mask, which made him feel like a sort of celebrity in B.C. But as the number of artists grew, the mask painting game turned political. Lundqvist switched to a painter in Sweden when his profile rose in the NHL and he became a star.
“There were guys that would come and go at Itech and if they had their own guys you’d get pushed out of the way, like at one point Scott Clemmensen was a goalie for New Jersey at the time, again Itech at the time gave me him. I did up his work, he loved my stuff.”
In his second year painting for Clemmensen, Hart mysteriously did not receive the mask for painting. Clemmensen didn’t know where the mask was either. Hart called Itech and found out four artists, including Hart, were off Itech’s list because a new goalie had signed with a different artist from Ontario.
“So Scott, here’s a guy, NHL, doesn’t have time, he’s a busy guy. He phoned up [Itech] said ‘look, I don’t know where that mask is, I don’t care if it’s at your painter’s, tell him to package it up and send it to Mark.’”
“That’s when I thought ‘okay, this is how this goes,’” Hart said.
Then, “A group in L.A. came into the league and said to all the goalies ‘look, we control your designs because the league said so.’”
That meant no royalties for mask artists, whose work was featured on hockey cards, tee-shirts, video games and more. Hart said that he didn’t care too much about royalties because having an NHL goalie on his portfolio was enough to draw in plenty of new customers. But playing the game was frustrating and tiring.
“I’m just a painter, I just want to paint, I don’t want the politics,” he said.
“There’s nothing you can do because if you [complain] about it they go: ‘You know what, we don’t need this, go away we’ve got 15 other guys knocking on our door,’ so you kinda have to cower and bow.”
Since the days when Hart was one of the few certified painters in North America, the mask painting world has changed. There are far more artists, many using computer decalling do extremely fine details, which Hart said looks great, but it is not real painting.
Hart has stepped back and lightened his workload in recent years, enjoying to paint as a way of relaxing and doing work on other things like guitars, motorcycles, automobiles, speaker covers, wall murals and even ride-on lawnmowers in addition to masks. Hart even painted Jon Montgomery’s skeleton helmet for his memorable gold medal win in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“That was pretty cool because I have his bib, one of them, and he autographed it for me. Nice guy, I’ve got pictures when he was walking around the village he had his helmet in one hand and that jug of beer in the other,” he said.
Hart’s career has offered him the chance to attend Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies and meet some of the biggest names in the sport like Pat Quinn, Brian Burke, Glen Sather, Stan Mikita, Billy Smith, Denis Potvin, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis among others.
“It’s given me a life that I’ve enjoyed more than I ever imagined, and even to this day those memories will never go away, and thank God my hands are still steady enough and I’m still doing artwork and I love it,” Hart said. “To anybody out there, if you get that one break, don’t do what some people do and go: ‘Somebody’s looking at me now, I’m going to sit back and watch it roll in,’ no no no, you got that break now you’ve got to take that next step and push doors open and they’ll open if you have that one person to give you that chance.”
Hart plans to stay in Terrace when he retires from working part time at Safeway and painting professionally. He loves to fish and ski said he has a good group of friends in the area and that his children love it.
“Even as my business grew and with the NHL, people would ask ‘why do you live in Terrace,’” he said.
“There’s just something that draws you back here, and I remember there was an old saying where it was ‘once you’ve touched the Skeena River you’ll always come back.’”