Reno artist Peter Hazel’s sculptures might be most familiar to the alkali-dusted inhabitants of Black Rock City.

“Burning Man actually launched my (art) career,” said Hazel, who spent 30 years as a tile and granite contractor at Lake Tahoe before turning to art full time in 2011.

From a 4-story glass jellyfish to a 30-foot by 20-foot mosaic octopus to a 40-foot-long mosaic crocodile to a massive shark at last year’s Burning Man festival, Hazel’s art is eye-catching to say the least.

But, it’s still a bit surreal for Hazel to know that this past August another of his sculptures found a place of honor some 2,600 miles away in the peaceful farmlands of Plains, Georgia; that he would be sitting with former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter for its dedication; and that he would be embraced by the residents of Plains and presented a key to the city.

Peter Hazel shakes hands with Rosalyn Carter. Photo courtesy Jack Bacon.

“It didn’t really hit me until right about now as to how important this was,” Hazel said after news broke that Jimmy Carter, the nation’s oldest living president at 98, had entered hospice care at home. “I’m just a redneck from Half Moon Bay.”

His sculpture, titled “Monarch Tree,” is the focal point of the Rosalynn Carter Childhood Garden, located on land just feet from the home she grew up in. The 3,000-pound sculpture – which was transported from Reno to Plains via semi-truck – stands 15 feet high and 15 feet wide. The “tree” features 8 stems and 18 glass monarch butterflies, in honor of Mrs. Carter’s birthday, August 18.

Peter Hazel’s sculpture “Monarch tree” was installed in the Rosalynn Carter Childhood Garden last summer. Photo courtesy Jack Bacon.

Mrs. Carter is a longtime advocate for butterfly conservation and her garden is part of the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, a nationwide network of public and private gardens dedicated to protecting and preserving butterfly habitat.

Hazel and his colleague, Cody Munson, spent several days before the ceremony assembling the sculpture and Hazel said the welcome they received from the people of Plains was something he’ll never forget.

“The people down there are just incredibly nice and the southern hospitality, it’s real,” he said. The mayor (Boze Godwin) gave me a key to the city. I’m still a little overwhelmed.”

Hazel credited Reno’s Jack Bacon with making the whole experience happen.

Reno’s Jack Bacon and Peter Hazel in Plains, Georgia last summer. Photo courtesy Jack Bacon.

Bacon, a longtime appraiser of art, autographs and personal property, and his wife, Kim, are longtime friends of President and Mrs. Carter, and associates of their charitable foundation, The Carter Center.

In early spring of last year, the Bacons were doing an appraisal on an art collection, which included a different Hazel sculpture. Unfamiliar with his work, they decided to visit Hazel at his studio in the industrial area near Mayberry Park.

“We walked in and introduced ourselves,” Jack Bacon recalled. “While I was talking to him, Kim walked to the back of his shop and noticed there was a working (small scale) sculpture of a tree with monarch butterflies on it and there was a draft on the wall, kind of a sketch of what he was trying to create. I walked back there, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, I know somebody that needs to have one of these, Miss Rosalynn.’”

So, they told Hazel that they were friends of President and Mrs. Carter and such a sculpture would be a perfect fit in Plains and they would see about getting the support to commission the piece from Hazel.

Hazel, not knowing the Bacons, was a bit skeptical at first.

“As an artist, you hear stuff like this all the time,” Hazel said. “I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ In the art world, people make promises, and you constantly get rejected.”

But Bacon followed through, working with fellow friends of the Carters, Carter family members and the Carter Center to secure the funding for the commission.

“Monarch Tree” in progress at Peter Hazel’s studio at Artech in July. Photo: Kris Vagner

The plan was to unveil it in August in time for Rosalynn Carter’s 94th birthday. 

So, Hazel found himself in a whirlwind to complete the Monarch Tree, while also preparing projects for the Burning Man festival. He and Munson made a trip to Plains in May to survey the landscape and meet the people working in Plains to bring the project to fruition.

“They really rolled out the red carpet for us,” Hazel said. “I’ve got friends forever from that first trip.”

In August, they were back in Plains, along with Jack Bacon, for the dedication ceremony. With both President and Mrs. Carter in frail health, it wasn’t known if they’d participate in the ceremony or simply do a drive-by where the artist could meet them and shake their hands in the car.

“Then the Secret Service called and said (the Carters) were actually going to come down and attend the ceremony,” Hazel said.

“Monarch Tree” at night. Photo courtesy Jack Bacon.

Hazel, Munson and Jack Bacon were at the head table with the Carters and Munson accompanied Rosalynn Carter and her sister, Allethea, to “flip the switch,” for the lighting of the Monarch Tree.

“It was kind of surreal,” Hazel said. 

He said meeting and conversing with the former president is also a memory he will cherish and knowing that, through his artwork, he is forever linked to the former president and first lady is emotional.

“Until you experience it, it’s impossible to put into words,” he said. “It’s emotional to be a part of a great humanitarian like him. It’s an honor of a lifetime. He is someone I admire. He’s an amazing human.”

You can see more of Peter Hazel’s work on his website.

Posted by Guy Clifton

Guy Clifton is a longtime Reno journalist, writer, author and Nevada history buff.