The first time people meet Chris Hagebak, they might do a double take. Chances are, he doesn’t mind. It’s not everyday people see someone proudly sporting a green, blue or purple mustache.
Hagebak first came up with the idea to dye his mustache a few years ago when one of his art students walked into 809 Gallery of Art with a pink streak through her hair.
“I said ‘wow, that’s so cool. If I had hair, I’d do that.’ And she said, ‘well you have that mustache, and I dare you,’” Hagebak recalled with a laugh. “So, I made an appointment with the hair dresser.”
The mustache — which is currently green — hasn’t been the same since, and it’s become one of the most recognizable traits of one of the country’s top coffee artists. The only thing more unique than Hagebak’s laid back personality might be his actual artwork, which varies in medium, style and technique from painting to painting.
“I’ve had other artists give me a hard time about it,” he said. “They say you don’t have a style of your own. No, I don’t want a style of my own. I want to be able to do everything. I consider myself a generalist, and that is if I can do everything reasonably well then it makes it easier for me to teach it. That’s what keeps the doors open is being able to teach all these different techniques, styles and mediums. By being able to do a little bit of everything reasonably well, that has worked to my advantage.”
Although he doesn’t focus on one specialty, he’s found a niche in coffee portraits. He first painted a portrait completely in coffee two years ago, and since then he’s completed almost 150 paintings.
“I am primarily known as a watercolor artist, and I would occasionally use coffee stain as a background element for painting,” Hagebak said. “If I needed a soft, kind of old-fashion, antique look then I would use coffee stain as a way to achieve that. Then I started using more detail in the coffee to make background trees and stuff like that.”
His first, a portrait of a long-time student named Isabel called “The Elf” placed second at the New York Coffee Festival in October and was exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
“I figured if I paint somebody I know who is pretty — and pretty people are easier to paint, any artist will tell you that — then I’ll probably do better. It turned out well,” he said.
His favorite painting is of a girl named Maliwe in Zambia. It’s titled “Dry Season” and pictures Maliwe standing against a tree.
Most of his paintings he’s OK with selling because he could always repaint them again if he needed to. However, the painting of Maliwe is different.
“Something like that, no I couldn’t do that again. It’s so personal. That’s someone I know personally, and it was an important time for me,” Hagebak said of that painting. “That one was painted from the heart more than the rest of these. The rest of these may be technically well done. They may involve skill, they may have a creative flow or some artistic flow, but they are just paintings. That one, that one’s not just a painting.”
Hagebak has managed the gallery, located on Hill Street in LaGrange, for the last 11 years. He moved to LaGrange from Atlanta 17 years ago when he met his wife, Pepper.
Before he opened an art gallery, he was a personal injury lawyer. He spent much of his time arguing with insurance companies, until one day, he’d had enough.
“I didn’t mind the job so much except that it was very time consuming and stressful. I never got to see my daughter, and spent all my time yelling at people and getting yelled at,” he said. “That’s kind of the job. After a couple of years, I gave that up, and looking back on it, I’m really glad I did because I’d much rather be happy than rich.”
Not long after that, Hagebak was in an accident and decided to give up owning a cell phone, and he takes it serious. He uses other forms of communication to reach people.
“When I had a telephone, the telephone was keeping me from being able to do my work. I had a horrible accident involving a telephone, and I shattered my heel bone and broke my ankle in two places,” Hagebak said. “After that, I said that’s it, no more phone. I gave them up. I’ve been to Japan, the Caribbean, African — no phone.”
For most, it’s hard to imagine living in today’s hustle and bustle world without a cell phone, but Hagebak has adjusted and doesn’t miss it.
“Occasionally it can be a little bit of an issue, but I’ve discovered if I need to get in touch with somebody I can do it somehow,” he said. “There are messenger services, and there is Facebook and there are all kinds of different ways to get in touch with people.”
Pepper and Chris are also huge animal lovers. In 2016, the LaGrange Daily News wrote a story about the couple keeping a wading bird for a night. Wading birds aren’t common in the Southern United States and someone found it and called the Hagebaks, knowing they are animal rescuers.
The couple also rescued a blind cat with several deformities and has also rescued several other elderly animals over the years. He said they rescued one elderly dog that was about to be put to sleep and required extensive medical care. The dog lived several more months and had a chance to experience a lot of new things.
“For the last three months of his life we gave him a wonderful home. He had other animals he could play with, we took him places, and he had a good life at the end of his life,” Hagebak said. “That felt good.”
The Hagebaks are also on a list of people that will be called if a bear ever finds its way into an area it shouldn’t be, such as downtown Hogansville. After the animal was tranquilized, they would transport it.
“If there’s ever a bear, we’re the guys,” he said with a laugh.
They also have a pet iguana, which stays at the studio as a pet. It’s the second pet iguana the Hagebaks have owned in their lifetime.
“The kids love her. She’s like a puppy,” he said.
Even though he has a fascination for animals, art was his first love, and he enjoys sharing that with his students every day. Hagebak teaches art to students ages six and up, but he doesn’t just leave them drawing tips, or advice on which material might work best for a particular idea.
He also discusses the history of art. He wants his students to wonder why things are the way they are.
“What I want everybody to get out of this is to understand the various mediums and styles and techniques so that they’ll be familiar with all of them,” Hagebak said. “And by all of them I mean everything from drawing and painting to pottery to stained glass to sculpture to whatever. If they have some familiarity, even if they don’t have proficiency, with each of those mediums or styles or techniques then that’ll be something they can keep with them the rest of their lives.”