At 70 years old, Ken Hunter said he still plays like he’s 35.
Regular hunting, fishing and hiking trips keep him feeling young, but they’re not just hobbies — they’ve been a basis for his livelihood for more than three decades.
Well-known as a Pennsylvania wildlife artist, Hunter is perhaps known best for his six-year stint as co-host of the television show, Pennsylvania Outdoor Life.
He describes himself as an “outdoor communicator.”
“I tell people about the outdoors through different mediums,” he explained.
That includes his paintings, sculptures, woodcarvings, photography and illustrations that are featured regularly in Pennsylvania Game News magazine.
Hunter also writes for several publications and newspapers, and he regularly gives humorous and educational lectures at various venues in which he talks not only about the ins and outs of hunting and fishing, but also shares stories from his own experiences in the outdoors and life in general.
Meeting Barbara Bush at the White House, for example.
Traveling to Scotland for a Loch Ness Monster Expedition.
Scuba diving with manatees in Florida.
Coming face-to-face with a bear that ripped open his tent while camping in Canada.
His membership with the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America “put me in touch with people all over the world,” he said.
He even illustrated a cover for a major Japanese publication, similar to Field and Stream.
But none of it would have been possible without his God-given gift, a lot of hard work and fortitude, and a supportive wife who was willing to take a leap of faith so her husband could live his dream and do what he was created to do.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Hunter was born and raised in a family that believed in hard work to support your family — usually meaning 9 to 5 factory jobs.
“People didn’t make a living doing (art),” he said.
In his senior year of high school, Hunter’s art teacher recognized and encouraged his natural artistic talent, as well as his love for the outdoors, and though Hunter always enjoyed both, he never once thought about making a living off of either.
“You could tell he had an extraordinary talent,” said Sam Richards at DuBois High School, Hunter’s teacher and outdoor mentor. “I gave him pretty much free reign. He had a lot of natural talent, and I didn’t want to pull him back by including him in the regular class objectives.”
Eventually, Richards’ and Hunter’s relationship grew beyond art. Their faith and their love for the outdoors soon bonded them as friends.
“I introduced him to fly fishing his senior year,” Richards remembers. “We were the outdoor types, we hunted and fished together. I was kind of a mentor for him at the time, as he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.”
As he attended college, majoring in history, he continued to paint and actually sold a piece for $35.
“I thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” Hunter remembers.
Shortly after he and his wife Sheila got married, he drew a circle on a map around the largest hunting and fishing areas in Pennsylvania, and sent his resume to school districts in that circle.
He secured a job as an eighth-grade history teacher in the Warrior Run School District.
“The whole time I was teaching, I was painting,” Hunter said, “and I was starting to sell stuff.”
And he was longing to be in the outdoors.
“I’ve got to find a way,” he remembers telling himself.
That’s when the idea of being a wildlife artist dawned on him.
“It’s a good thing I’m stubborn,” he said. “If I had listened to the wrong people along the way, I never would have done it.”
In 1981, after 10 years of teaching, Hunter left his job.
They were in their mid-30s at the time. Sheila didn’t have a job, and they had two young children.
“I really wasn’t scared,” Sheila said. “I know Ken can do about anything. He’s very talented in a lot of different things. I knew he would do something to make a living – and he would do it well.”
“She stood behind me in this in the thick and the thin,” Hunter said. “And there were some thin years.”
But that only drove them deeper in their faith.
“Every time we’ve been down and out about something,” Sheila said, “God has provided every time.”
To help make ends meet, Hunter worked a construction job on the side. Within a year, he was selling enough art to do it full time.
With Sheila’s help, particularly in the accounting side of things, they ran their gallery and framing business out of their basement for a number of years as Hunter also built a reputation as a lecturer.
With some help about eight years ago, Hunter added a 2,000-square-foot extension onto their house — a dedicated space for both the gallery and his studio.
“Not many people get to do this,” Hunter said, “especially in the art world.”
And though he does what he does to make a living, it’s not the only reason.
“Even if I didn’t get paid to do it,” he said, “I would do it. I get satisfaction showing how beautiful our world is.”
He can see that beauty in outdoor moments – a turkey flying down from a tree, for example, or a hummingbird next to a flower.
“I didn’t get rich and famous,” Hunter admits. “And I don’t care. I want to have a good time doing what I’m doing. And I have what I need, what I want.”
Every November, the Hunters hold an open house at their gallery that draws hundreds of people, and they participate in the Early Bird Show at the Bloomsburg fairgrounds every year in early February.
But most of the year, they are content to stay at home and build up Hill Country Gallery, which is attached to the Hunters’ home, located on Muncy Exchange Road at the northern tip of Montour County.
The walls are decorated in framed artwork depicting various incredibly lifelike wildlife and outdoor scenes, from deer to various types of birds to a picturesque view of a church steeple in South Williamsport, rising as high as the trees in the forest surrounding it.
In a small room off from the back of the gallery lies Hunter’s bright and tidy studio, his drawing table occupied with his latest project on canvas — a winter scene of cardinals sitting on a rusty water pump, surrounded by evergreens.
The work is already spoken for, having been a request by one of his former students at Warrior Run.
In fact, Hunter’s biggest collectors are some of his former students.
The same kids, he jokes, “I used to yell at for chewing gum in my class.”
With oldies music often playing in the background, Hunter approaches each painting with precision and care, often combining sketches, or scenes he has noticed on his outdoor journeys, with mounted birds or photos to use for reference.
With each stroke of his pen or brush, Hunter seeks excellence.
“People often ask ‘What’s your best painting?’” he said. “I say the next one.”
TIPS FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS:
• Find a way to market your work. There’s no point in doing art if nobody sees it. “There’s more to this business than painting,” Hunter said. “There is a huge gap between what I’m doing in that little room (pointing to his studio) and getting it out to people in the world.”
• “Produce a lot of originals. Don’t run out and start making copies — they’re not that much in demand.”
“If you really want to do something, you should do it,” Hunter said, stressing, however, that you do it with responsibility, making sure that you and your family are taken care of. “Be responsible, but be diligent and give it a fair shot. And don’t get discouraged.”
• “Paint what you know. If you know flowers, paint flowers. If you know buildings, then paint those. If you don’t know about something, learn first.”
Hill Country Gallery is located at 4094 Muncy Exchange Road, Muncy, PA
The gallery does not have set hours of operation, so guests are encouraged to call 570-437-2928 first.