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Art Beat: The art of the beer label

Ladislav Hanka, who created the label art for Bell's Two Hearted Ale
Rory McHarg
Ladislav Hanka, who created the label art for Bell's Two Hearted Ale

It is a cult of Americana. While most beer labels merely show a company logo, the beers of Bell’s Brewery have unique labels, each a work of art. And the artist? That is Kalamazoo’s Ladislav Hanka. He has created nearly fifty labels for the brewery, and perhaps none better known than the fish on the label of Two Hearted Ale. It captured the attention of film director, Rory McHarg, who has created a documentary about the artist and the beer label, called A Two-Hearted Tale.

“I co-directed the film with my directing partner, Brett Miller,” McHarg says. “How did I connect with Lad—I had moved to Michigan and was looking for an IPA to drink, and someone told me about this Two-Hearted Ale. It’s like the best IPA in the State. When I found it, I was like, why is there a fish on this label? I thought, it’s so weird to see a fish on a beer label … so I just Googled, who did this label? And I found Lad’s website which was like this treasure trove, like a museum of hundreds of sketches.”

Intrigued, McHarg called the artist, Ladislav Hanka, and asked him if anyone had ever done a documentary on the nearly 50 unique beer labels Hanka had created for the brewery.

A conversation with Rory McHarg

Poster art for "A Two Hearted Tale"
Rory McHarg/Ladislav Hanka
Poster art for "A Two Hearted Tale"

Hanka recalled how the long-term art project of beer labels began. “That goes way back,” he says. “To about 1982 or something like that. Just out of college. I was a home brewer—I always made beer for myself as a young man who likes beer but has no money, so you start making your own. I found out it wasn’t so hard to make a decent beer for myself. So I got to know Larry Bell, who was pretty much in the same position at the same time. Over the years, we developed a friendship and worked together. He founded a brewery, and I was the one artist he knew around town.”

Hanka willingly shared his story with McHarg, and they began work on a documentary, which came to be A Two-Hearted Tale.

“I got this entire history of the State, of Hemingway, the history of the river,” McHarg says. The Two-Hearted River, he learned, appeared in Ernest Hemingway’s stories about fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Adding that to the story of Hanka’s labels on the IPA beer, the film came together.

“When have you seen a humble beer bottle design elicit such interest? Somehow it happened, and so I guess it is a good story to tell,” Hanka adds.

The documentary won first prize in the Marquette Film Festival in Marquette, Michigan. It will open at the KP Cinema, downtown Kalamazoo, on May 2nd and run for two weeks, followed by shows in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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