Michael Hartwig is not one to let Covid cramp his style. During the pandemic, he and his partner, Steve Ridini, who split their time between Boston and Provincetown, chose to settle in here for the long haul. The 68-year-old Hartwig teaches sexual ethics and LGBTQ studies at Emmanuel College and also organizes international travel packages for groups with an educational and religious bent. He found that in Provincetown he was able to pursue a long-dormant interest: writing novels.
In his sexual ethics classes, Hartwig assigned novels as a way to bring complex issues between characters to life. “Trying to get them to read academic books was like pulling teeth,” Hartwig says, chatting affably in his artist studio on the second floor of Whaler’s Wharf in Provincetown. “Why not get them to read fiction as a way to engage them?”
About 20 years ago, as a result of this teaching experience, he decided to write a historical novel, he says. “It had three characters: an artist, a cardinal, and a sorcerer. In writing their story, all this stuff started getting stirred up in me — foremost, the art. I just had this urge to paint. It was almost like a compulsion. And partly because of the painting, I put aside writing the novel.”
What might have been an impulse for others became a full-fledged practice for Hartwig, who had little studio art background. He is now represented by On Center Gallery in Provincetown. “A pivotal year was 2008,” Hartwig says. “I took a workshop with Robert Cardinal. It was transformative.” And indeed, it’s easy to see the influence of the longtime Truro painter in Hartwig’s Cape landscapes, with their vibrant palettes that often substitute pinks and purples for blues.
Hartwig’s pursuit of painting and fiction writing had a long gestation that began in Dallas, Texas. “I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in East Dallas,” he says. “I was a Catholic kid in Protestant Dallas, and my classmates thought I was part of a cult. My dad was a schoolteacher; my mother was a secretary. We didn’t have a lot of advantages, but I had a loving, supportive family.”
He studied philosophy and religion at the University of Dallas, and then, in a move that changed his life, spent five years doing graduate studies in Rome, Italy. “It was the aesthetics of Europe,” Hartwig says. “The art, the food, the geography, the buildings. I was so stimulated by all this history and art. I fell in love with languages. I speak Italian, French, Spanish, and German.”
Returning to Dallas, Hartwig got his doctorate in religious ethics from Southern Methodist University. “I started coming out in the late ’80s,” Hartwig says. “I was 33. Part of it was because of the Catholic Church. I came from a religious background. But as an adult, I saw that the church’s views on such subjects as contraception, women, and gay people were very off-base. As more and more information came out about gender and sexual orientation, the more the church was taking positions that couldn’t be supported by the evidence. The Catholic Church’s whole ethical methodology is that it relies on reason, but when reason doesn’t support the positions you take, where does that leave you?”
Around this time, Hartwig met his first partner, Don Baker, a major gay activist in Texas, who was behind the landmark Baker v. Wade case that challenged the state’s sodomy statute (a struggle that finally ended with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the statute in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003). Hartwig and Baker moved to Connecticut and then Boston, where Baker died of cancer in 2000.
Hartwig first came to Provincetown with Baker in the late ’80s. “I loved it,” he says. “We had a circle of friends and would come here together. It was magical.” He met Ridini, his current partner and the president of the Boston nonprofit Health Resources in Action, a year after Baker died. Ridini had a seasonal rental here, so the couple kept visiting, eventually buying a place.
Which brings Hartwig back to his pandemic novel-writing binge. He’s published four books so far: Crossing Borders, a “steamy gay love story” about a divorced man who travels to the Swiss Alps to ski; Oliver and Henry, about a college student raised by two women who goes to Rome one summer to track down his biological father; Old Vines, in which a gay man named Patrick journeys to the vineyards of the Amalfi Coast to explore his ancestry; and, finally, Our Roman Pasts, which came out in September.
This last novel meshes Hartwig’s twin passions for painting and Rome. Julian is a classics scholar with two grown daughters whose Italian wife has died of cancer; Bruno is a celebrated Roman artist known for his plein air scenes of ancient ruins. They have an intense gay awakening on Capri, in a story filled with secrets, lies, and fateful revelations from the past. It’s a page turner and erotically charged, though never vulgar.
All four books are self-published by Hartwig via his Herring Cove Press. He chose this route because, he says, “At my age, I don’t have the time to take a manuscript and shop it out.”
Living in Provincetown during the pandemic, however, he had the time to fully indulge his creative urges. “I’m finding that, for writing and painting, the process is similar,” Hartwig says. “For me, it’s starting with a place, an overall story or theme. You sketch it out like a painting. Sometimes, you realize you need more highlights here and there. The painting talks to you. You don’t want to get in the way. Bobby Cardinal said work fast — don’t overthink it. Later, I’ll go back and get multiple layers.”
Hartwig’s canvases and writings are his way of engaging with questions about sexual identity and beauty. “The painting kind of manifests itself, and the books are doing the same thing,” he says. “The characters speak to me. Suddenly, there’s something else to tell — a new twist in the plot.”