The walls in the room are deep red and adorning them is some of Hays’ work. There are oil paintings, watercolours and prints. Some are landscapes of jutting rocks and crashing waves; others are familiar looking beaches.
“I’m doing work that I enjoy thoroughly,” says Hays about why he loves it.
“It challenges me intellectually, spiritually, technically. I’m constantly learning.”
Hays started painting with watercolour when was about 14 or 15.
“My mother saw that I enjoyed art in high school.”
Hays’ mother asked him whether he wanted to take lessons from a friend of hers, and he did.
That’s how Hays, 56, began.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s true that genius and prodigy did not come to mind when people looked at my work at that time,” he says.
Hays says he didn’t got to university to study art. He has an undergraduate degree in geography – specifically urban planning.
“Once I graduated from university, I was looking at a professional existence that didn’t suit me.”
At the time, his brother who was living in Alaska called and asked Hays what he was doing. When Hays responded, “Not much,” his brother suggested he go to Alaska.
“That sounded like a good idea, and I bought a one-way ticket,” says Hays.
He moved there from Virginia, where he was born and raised and went to university.
Alaska was where Hays began to paint. He says within a year he had his first solo exhibition in a gallery. Following that, he had several others.
Hays didn’t just start painting seriously in Alaska.
He also met Patricia Long, his wife. He and Long travelled through Asia for six months, stopping in, among others, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia.
One of the things Hays had with him was a watercolour travelling box.
“I carried it all over Asia,” he says. “It was not light.”
He says painting in Asia was an eye-opening experience. Hays was used to unspoiled or seemingly unspoiled vistas and landscapes.
“And I went to Asia, and it was all people,” he says.
“I was incapable of doing people well.”
It was through that experience Hays says he decided he wanted to return to school, but not in Alaska. He says he wanted to go to Pratt Institute or Parsons (The New School for Design).
He ended up taking a drawing course at the University of Alaska.
“I realized when I got into the drawing course that I didn’t know the most basic things about drawing. I didn’t know the difference between a soft and a hard pencil.”
He’d drawn with neither charcoal nor pastels. He quickly moved beyond the basics, which he attributes to working with a passion to get better.
Hays then took a second course, two-dimensional design. Ken Gray, the man who taught the course, would end up his mentor. While Hays says he learned the nuts and bolts, Gray also taught him something far more important.
“He taught me how to think and how to be creative.”
Despite Hays’ desire to go to school outside Alaska, he ended up getting his degree in sculpture from the University of Alaska and continued to work with his mentor.
“So, I had a degree in sculpture. Now, a degree in sculpture is sort of like getting a degree in poetry,” he says. “It’s really great and you learn a lot, but no one is going to pay you to do this.”
A decision of Long’s to return to school led Hays and his wife to Brattleboro, Vt., a town in Windham County on the state line with New Hampshire.
About 25 years ago, Hays and Long moved to Brattleboro with the intention of travelling after Long’s studies.
“There’s a saying that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” says Hays.
“That’s what happened. It happened, and we had plans, and those plans didn’t come to fruition.”
He says he quickly became known as a good landscape artist. At this point, Hays was painting in watercolour, which requires framing, matting and glass. And that’s expensive, he says.
That’s when Hays started to develop his skills in oil painting.
Twenty-five years after the couple’s temporary move, Hays and Long for much of the year at least, live in Vermont.
When Hays and Long aren’t in Brattleboro or travelling, they’re in Liverpool.
“My wife has a profound love for the ocean,” he says.
The two had gone for a vacation in Nova Scotia, during which they stayed at Summerville.
“A week of dense fog and rain, and we thought it was wonderful.”
A few years later, Hays and Long were ready to look for a house and began their search in Maine. But it didn’t satisfy their wants. They wanted to live in a town on Main Street.
Long suggested returning to Nova Scotia. The intention wasn’t to buy property, but just to revisit.
“That was our first time seeing it in sunlight, and it’s much nicer,” says Hays.
The two started to look at property in the province. On a return to trip to Liverpool, Long recalled a house she wanted to look at.
In 2002, 120 Main St. became Hays and Long’s home.
When Hays initially picks up his brush, he says he tries to capture the mood.
“When I start painting, it’s not unusual to make myself start to paint, to stand in front of the easel and make myself mix a colour and make myself apply it to the canvas,” he says.
Hays says there’s then a shift in the way his mind works. He says he’s cruising along, everything’s going well and he falls into the “groove.”
In that groove, says Hays, nothing distracts. No bills are due, the phone goes unanswered and hunger is ignored.
“Then six or seven hours later you sort of wake up and go, ‘Wow, look what I did. That came out good,’” he says.
“It’s sometimes difficult to just snap out.”
He’ll normally start to paint after supper and continue until he can’t.
He does this in a small room toward the back of the house. His studio is filled with everything, including a ukulele atop a binder filled with songs.