Type "MS Paint" into Google. One of the top results should direct you to the eight-minute documentary, The Pixel Painter. The video profiles 98-year-old nearly blind Rocky River artist Hal Lasko, who creates sprawling but finely detailed landscapes and science-fiction images on Microsoft's rudimentary image-creation software.
Last Friday, August 2, the short film passed a million views. Lasko had not been expecting such sudden and widespread attention to his work.
"I am certainly surprised and amazed. It's wonderful, after all this time," Lasko says. "It's just the realization that after all the time I spent painting, it's gotten some kind of recognition."
He says he's been grateful for feedback on his work, even that of a negative character, which he takes as constructive criticism.
"I like to read compliments, but I even like to hear negative thoughts and why they feel that way. As an artist, I learned early on you're going to get negative comments," Lasko says.
After being introduced to Paint 13 years ago by his grandson Ryan Lasko, Hal has produced enough work to start commercializing his products, selling 16-by-20-inchprints on a family-maintained website. His son, Ron Lasko, says he has displayed work at the Rocky River Senior Center and that they are looking for other exhibition venues. What everyone expected to be a hobby became a vocation and a business venture.
"I showed him Paint and he did more with it than we anticipated," says Ryan.
This isn't the first time Hal Lasko has reinvented himself. He was a self-taught artist whose commercial career began before his service in World War II. Most of his work was as a "lettering man," where he drew the alphabetic characters and punctuation which make up a printer's typeface. A few years after the Allied victory, Hal began working with American Greetings, where he would remain for decades. His years with the company included Jimmy Carter's presidential administration, during which Lasko produced the lettering for the White House's Christmas cards.
Though he made a living on the projects his company assigned, Lasko maintained a drive to create art for art's sake. In the 1950s, he displayed oil and watercolor paintings in the Toledo Museum of Art, and experimented in the 1960s with drip painting techniques made famous by Jackson Pollock.
After the '60s, Lasko says he was only able to paint for himself "sporadically." Even retirement didn't afford as many opportunities for passion projects as he might have hoped. By the end of the 20th century, his eyesight had faded from wet macular degeneration. He has since been declared legally blind.
Lasko thought this could be the end of his artistic career, until the tools of his trade underwent an unexpected upgrade.
Lasko's family gave Grandpa Hal his first desktop computer around 2000, as a present for his 85th birthday. Everyone was getting online at the time, and Lasko's son and grandson thought that even if the computer couldn't keep him more connected, it would at least keep him occupied. The elder Lasko never got onto the Internet, but mastered solitaire.
That might have been the end of his digital career had his grandson Ryan not introduced him to Paint, which allowed him to zoom in on any images. By massively magnifying tiny areas of a painting, Lasko is able to build up a large picture out of the minute details that would otherwise be invisible to his failing eyesight.
Lasko and his son Ron said it took him between six months and a year to be able to command a mouse like a brush. Since then, he's worked nonstop at the patient work of building forests, amusement parks and space highways pixel by pixel.
Around 2011, San Fransisco-based filmmaker and friend of the family Josh Bogdan discussed his fascination with the elder Lasko's late-career reinvention, and thought his story could receive wider appreciation. He interviewed the family for The Pixel Painter, and posted the finished product on July 23 of this year.
The film attracting national media attention including coverage on ABC News, Yahoo! News UK, the New York Daily News, and Gawker Media. Ryan estimates at least 500 unexpected new orders for his grandfather's prints poured in after the video became a hit.
Though much appreciated, it doesn't look as if Hal Lasko will let his newfound notoriety affect his artistic practice. For years he worked in privacy, pouring over reference images in magazines and his monitor, without any expectation of esteem.
"I was used to sitting in my studio doing painting and there was no chance to show anyone. This was a chance to get a public reaction, but that wasn't my primary concern. I would paint by myself anyway," Lasko says.
See Lasko's work and the video at hallasko.com.