Jaro Hess 

A look inside,

Jaro Hess, imaginative visionary.

Some years ago I was sent an article which seems to have originated from the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The piece was difficult to read. I was finally able to bring the text to a quality which allowed me to transcribe the article.

Quite frequently I find myself thinking about this relationship I have with Jaro. Caring for another artist work seems to create a bond with that artist. Jaro appears to have had the same type of job history I have had during my life.

Hess apparently was not afraid of changing professions, yet he maintains a constant, with his art. I have created artwork since I picked up my first camera. Each of us, Hess and I, we shared the compulsion of self-expression, and disdain for rigid ideology.

Take a moment and read about a pretty interesting fellow, Artist. Jaro Hess.

Article on Jaro Hess:
Jaro Hess was perhaps the most original artist of fantasy working in Grand Rapids from the 1930s through the 1960’s. His art was a rarity, created solely out of his imagination. Unlike the derivative paintings of Orville Bulman, with their apparent debt to Henri Rousseau, Hess’s art as a unique product of his vision, seemingly influenced by other sources. Bulman, with his high society connections and inherited wealth, achieved fame among his Palm Beach patrons. Lacking the resources of Bullman, Hess’s, art languished unappreciated and un-purchased. In fact, sadly upon Hess’s death in 1977, much of his works of art were allegedly discovered abandoned in the attic of his dilapidated farmhouse on Leonard Road.

Armand Merizon, who met Hess during the Depression, said of him, “Jaro has lived what I would call a truly free life with many-faceted career history. “European culture had influenced him. His imagination was so vibrant, yet so different for that of Mr. John Doe citizen. Hess’s works had a colorful and creative sensibility; some images bordered on the bizarre and absurd. We can assume that they were the product of Mr. Hess’s eccentricity.

“according to Hess. People come to see the painting, “the artist said,”and they ask how I got such an imagination to do them. I just tell them that I studied mathematics in school and it teaches you to think abstract thoughts.

They are different,” Hess savored the differences – the absurdity. In a 104 – page letter he wrote to himself, he captured something of the uniqueness of his art:

“Now although thoughts and imaginations buzz in the headlight breeze and a hive in the spring, none of them come out to be taking into the captivity and put down.
So by reason that I know not what subject I should write.
We noticed the new concrete sidewalk with children’s footsteps all over it, to which the commander remarked that sidewalk – makers probably like children in the abstract but not in the concrete”.

Born Jaroslav Hess in a small Czechoslovakian village south of Prague in 1889, the artist grew up in an unusual environment. His father was an inventor and engineer who had gained wide fame in European Mining and engineering circles. Young Hess was taught German by a governess until he was five, and then entered the public schools in Prague. He later attended the University of Prague, where he took a degree in metallurgy.

At the age of 16 he decided he had enough of the rigid discipline of the Prague schools, so he entered the French Foreign Legion. “It was the worst five days of my life, “he later recalled. He served a stint in the Austrian army after his graduation from college, during which he served two years as an officer. He was fluent in English, German, French, and several of several other of the Slavic languages.

In 1910 Hess came to America to use his metallurgical training in the booming steel industry. He worked briefly in Pittsburgh, the steel mill capital of the world, Hess would later recall, “it was the dirtiest thing, [refering to Pittsburgh], I ever saw.

I beat it right out of there. ” Hess worked as a chemist in a sugar factory in Ohio and made enough money to come to Michigan. He lived in Saginaw, where he drawings for newspapers and the local tourist association. Later he landed a position at the United States Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana. He worked in Gary for about eight years but found the hours long and the work too demanding.

Returning to the Saginaw area, Hess started working in landscape architecture. The owner of the “Booth Newspapers” of Michigan recognized Hess’s good taste and hired him as a personal gardener. After Booth died, Charles Greenway, who succeeded him as president of the newspaper chain, also used Hess’s services in landscaping. Hess moved to Grand Rapids with Greenway and worked for a time as a gardener on his estate at Reed’s Lake.

During the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, Hess, like many other people, found himself unemployed. He turned to making trout fishing flies and designing puppet stages and dioramas for the Grand Rapids Public Museum. For a time, he and his family lived off the land on a small farm, on the northwest side of the house were painted fanciful, imaginative “maps”: “The Land of Make-believe Map,” and “The Land of the New Testament,” both circa 1920-1935. These were acclaimed as creative, imaginative works, and sold well locally. However, someone allegedly stole the original of the land of make-believe and proceeded to reproduce it for half of what Hess was asking.

During World War II, Hess returned to engineering as an employee in an assembly plant in Bristol, Virginia. When he was tired of that, he left for Duke University in North Carolina to work with Dr. J. B. Rhine, head of the parapsychology department and one of the early students of extrasensory perception. Hess recalled, “Oh, Dr. Rhine was tickled to see me. He tested me, and I ran kind of high in ESP. Then he took me to tour a big insane asylum at the University and asked me to do portraits of the patients,” when Hess returned to Grand Rapids, he created a series anthropomorphic animals to represent the various neurosis, fixations, and personality types.

In all, Hess sent twenty-six different portraits to Dr. Rhine – representing the introvert, the extrovert, the schizoid, the anxiety complex, and so forth. Several versions of the painting called the brain doctor where the result of this experience. On his return to Grand Rapids, Hess was hired by Daverman and Associates to survey land at the old city airport. He held that job until 1950 when he finally retired.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Hess continued to work at his art and was a member of the Grand Valley Artists Association. He was a slow worker and would rework compositions numerous times until they achieved the degree of imaginative reality he desired. Among the most exciting works by Hess to have survived are the big show, 1969 and the jungle interior, circa 1968.

Their whimsical humor and authentic surrealism are in marked contrast to the contrived formulas of Orville [bowl Bulman and suggests that, despite his limited oeuvre, Hess was a far more original artist than the wealthy socialite Bulman.

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Grand Rapids, MI, Jaro's home town.

Merizon’s Portrait of Hess

Jaro Hess: “A Truly Free Life”

Exhibition at Calvin College

Armand Merizon, a regional, Grand Rapids artist, was Hess’s chief connection to the artistic community in Grand Rapids. Merizon admired Hess’s work and was one of his few friends. Both artists found a shared appreciation of nature and music.

Merizon founded the Grand Rapids Artist’s association in 1955, and Hess became a member. The group met on Thursday nights to practice different artistic techniques. Hess did not attend all the meetings, but when he was present, he was the life of the party.

This image most likely dates from 1960-61, when Jaro elected to be the sitter for one of the groups figural study sessions. Merizon’s portrays a subdued Hess; he slouches in his chair, eyes downcast; Merizon captures Hess’s moodier, introspective side.


Grand Rapids Around Town

Grand Rapids City Scene



Grand Rapids City Scene, 1936, watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Hess Family.


Most of  Hess’s work is realist or illustrative. But he did, on occasion, experiment with a more abstract, geometric style. Hess rarely painted urban scenes, unlike some of his Grand Rapids contemporaries. But here he pays his respects to the city where he spent most of his unusual life. Hess captures the business of the city—shop front windows, women, men, and children walking on the street with its lamppost and streetlight. The painting reveals portions of signs of two department stores, once in Grand Rapids—Stekettee & Sons and Herpolsheimer’s.

The Land of Make-Believe



Land of Make Beleive Classroom Copy


Jaro Hess, The Land of Make Beleive, c . 1930.
Courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Museum.

The Land of Make Believe is the only one of Hess’s works to achieve fame outside of Grand Rapids. The map was created in 1930 and was exhibited in the children’s section of Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World Exhibition.[i]There are disputes about who originally widely published the map, but Hess certainly distributed and sold copies and the map himself, and, regardless, the Land of Make Believe found its way into classrooms and children’s bedrooms across America.[ii] Children loved the map and many people still recognize the map from their childhood. This particular map, from the Grand Rapids Public Museum, used to circulate among Grand Rapids schools.

With a Bosch-like flourish, Hess reduces over thirty fairy tales or nursery rhymes into one geographic landscape. Hess drew on several traditions of fairy tales, some familiar, such as the “Pied Piper,” “Goldilocks,” or “Jack and Beanstalk,” and other more obscure—the “Wandering Jews,” the “Wonderful Moo-moo Bird,” or the whimsical “skull fish.” Hess also includes a varying landscape with distinction different flavors of architecture—some of the castles look European, but others, like the “bronze castle” have an eastern flair (A similar castle appears in Il ‘etait une fois une Princesse). Viewed in the context of Hess’s larger body of work, which is filled myth-making, The Land of Make Believe contextualizes as a catalogue of visual myths. The piece also uses a wide frame of vision with several high hills breaking up the horizon (a pattern Hess uses in his other large works).


[i] Bruce Buursma. “From Ghoulies and Ghosties, Good Lord Save Jaro Hess.” Newspaper. (Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Press, July 16, 1972). Grand Rapids Public Library: vertical files portrait and biography, 22.

[ii] Laurie Hess McClahnahan (Jaro Hess’s daughter) in discussion with the author, August 2014. Laurie explains that the J&R enterprises bought the rights to the map and took Jaro’s name off it. However, some maps with Hess’s name also exist, suggesting he distributed them under his own name before he sold the rights.