Denying identity: Hassell focuses on the indefinable

Elon professor searches for truth in individuality 

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Ken Hassell has dedicated his work to exploring how people cannot be defined. Photos by Stephanie Butzer

By Stephanie Butzer

Definitions are fickle things to pin on an individual. They trick people to believe everybody must fall under a specific stereotype and obey what is expected from that classification. Ken Hassell has devoted his work to breaking the formula by which society begs him to abide. He motivates others to do the same.

If asked, Hassell cannot define himself; he is a white male from a middle-class family. He grew up in a suburb of Chicago. He is an art professor at Elon University. He photographs and studies coal-mining communities. He likes to read.

But Hassell does not consider himself a normative male. Nor does he think he is an average white person, Chicagoan or anything else. He is an individual who will never fall under a single general definition.

“You think of all the different identities,” Hassell said. “And within each one of those identities there are multiple possibilities as well. Identity is not one thing. It’s many things. We are many things. And those things are changing.”

Starting off to a different beat

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Ken Hassell meets with the Periclean Scholars of class 2014.

Hassell, born in 1946, tasted the first sour flavor of a categorical culture in high school. Cliques developed and it seemed like identities were set in stone. He did not fit into any of them. He was different and thought there was something wrong with him.

“I don’t know that I overtly really thought, ‘what is my identity?’” Hassell said. “But I struggled with who I thought I was versus the norm out there.”

Hassell found companionship with some unusual men: the school’s greasers. The 20-year-olds rode motorcycles to the school they had not yet graduated from. But Hassell came to appreciate them. They were different than the other “normal” students and so was he. It brought them together and Hassell enjoyed their friendship through high school.

Even though Hassell had discovered a comfortable niche, the strains of schoolwork and socialization remained the same. He had no studying skills and could not grasp what his teachers had drilled in the brains of the other students. He scraped by and barely graduated high school in 1964.

Hassell’s love for literature helped him receive high SAT scores. He was admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but the experience was not what he expected. The structured learning and undisputed social norms dumbfounded him and he dropped out to partake in the anti-Vietnam war protests in the mid-1960s.

Money started to become a problem. Hassell tried driving cabs in Chicago to make a living. He appreciated the passengers who were willing to converse with him during the ride. But sometimes the job was horrible and produced a lot of anxiety.

Once, Hassell had a cab with a broken brake. It took him half a block to come to a standstill, so he had to anticipate when he would have to pull over. Another time, the engine shut off as he was driving on Dan Ryan Expressway, a major expressway in Chicago. Sometimes the cab worked fine but the riders treated him like the dregs of society, he said.

“You wouldn’t get fares or sometimes you’d get very difficult people,” Hassell said. “People would objectify you because they were paying you and therefore you were just an object to fulfill their wishes.”

Living fully with nothing

In the late 1960s, as a gangly 6-foot-1-inch 120-pound man, Hassell moved to San Francisco in hope of finding a place he could fit in and find a job. He was incredibly poor and lived in hotel rooms for transients. Even if a job was undesirable, Hassell accepted it to survive.

Most of the work Hassell shouldered was low-paying physical labor. He loaded and unloaded tractor-trailers in 100-degree weather. He was a forklift operator. He assembled commercial singer sewer machines in a factory.

The manual labor did not bother Hassell – he liked the workout. Nevertheless, the work did not fulfill his craving to make a change in the world, he said. Each job seemed to be a failure but he knew they were necessary for him to get by. Hassell began talking to his coworkers in order to make light of the uninspiring workdays.

“I liked the people I worked with,” Hassell said. “They were common working people and I got to really know them and like them very much and later on I would devote my work as an artist to that.”

Hassell also acquired a job throwing advertisements to people’s doors. Sometimes, he would walk around the financial districts of San Francisco. People struggled to see beyond his long hair and ragged clothes.

“I just remember – because I was poor, I had nothing and I looked that way – the way people looked at me,” Hassell said. “I knew what they were thinking: I didn’t belong there. I was not wanted.”

Hassell pushed past the disdainful people and continued working.

As he went from job to job, he realized he was becoming more resilient and resourceful. The work also taught him he would be able to survive, no matter what the conditions were.

Many people were in the same bleak situation. Hassell loved to interact with these interesting and unfamiliar minds. With each conversation, he learned more about their identity as individuals.

“I met people who were just really way out there and quite strange to brilliant people who were on hard times,” Hassell said. “A whole range of things.”

These conversations affected him for the rest of his life. He appreciated the people he met and was not tempted to place them in stereotypic categories.

Over the edge of poverty

Hassell was homeless for a year when poverty hit particularly hard. He found work where he could and although this was a difficult time, he does not regret this period in his life. It became a very important time for him and he embraces the experiences he had.

“It taught me how to be very resourceful,” Hassell said. “I had to find ways of existing.”

Hassell learned he would not perish if he did not have everything he thought he needed to survive. He had little shelter, food and water, but they were the true essentials and he was thankful to have them.

Homelessness taught Hassell poverty was not just a lack of money and resources. It is a somber psychological experience where people did not respect him as another human being, he said.

Hassell hit a stroke of luck when he was offered a job in the parts department at a Fiat dealership in Wisconsin.

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Ken Hassell has a deep dedication and connection to his students.

One day, a woman came in with a Fiat Spider in need of repair. Hassell liked the way she talked to him and got her phone number off the repair order.

Her name was Annie.

Hassell dialed the number and asked if she would go out on a date with him.

“I must have sounded pretty creepy,” Hassell said. “But six weeks later we got a date to get married. And that was 37 years ago.”

After their marriage, Hassell assumed he would work at more unattractive labor jobs. At the same time, he knew he would never fit into the world of a mainstream worker. Annie was a research scientist and was paid well for her work.

The unconventional jobs Hassell took up were disappointing. He became very depressed because he did not feel like he was making a difference in the world. Annie helped Hassell realize he had that potential, just like all the people around him. She became a huge influence on him.

With his wife’s encouragement, Hassell went back to school to pursue an art and teaching degree. While he was at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and graduate school at University of Wisconsin, the pair was very poor, even though Hassell worked part-time.

After his graduation, Hassell and Annie moved to Philadelphia, where Annie had landed a job at Glaxo. Hassell worked part-time at two schools.

In the summer of 1990, they arranged to relocate to North Carolina. Annie was offered a job at Glaxo Smith-Kline in Research Triangle Park in Raleigh. However, before they headed down South, they took a vacation to England for a couple weeks. Hassell cannot put his finger on why they were so attracted to England, but he believes it has to do with the country’s people.

“Sometimes we can think we like to go places because they’re different, which is true, but I really like the English people,” Hassell said. “Some people are very critical and describe them as aloof and unfriendly. I don’t find that at all. I like the English way.”

Hassell did not feel like he had to censor himself, as he did for most of his younger years, when he spoke with the English. They were open about what they talked about and how they talked about it.  It was an instant fascination for Hassell.

Finding a place of comfort

Hassell had obligations in the United States and moved to North Carolina. He knew it would be difficult to find a teaching job for artists in a university and started looking around for work. He had never heard of Elon University, but after interviews to be an art professor, he was hired immediately by Clair Myers, the dean of arts and humanities at the time. The couple moved to Hillsborough soon after.

Hassell worked at Elon nine years part-time and 12 years full-time, leading to a 22-year career at the university. All of his classes, including The Global Experience and Photography as Social Critique, taught students how to view and understand people in a complex and open way. He challenges his students to avoid making assumptions but supports them as they struggle to open their minds.

“He makes students feel like they have something to contribute and like they’re important to him,” said junior Caroline Hood, one of Hassell’s students. “It makes students want to learn more from him.”

Hassell’s love for London, England – the public transportation, weather, entertainment and people – led him to take a group of students on a study abroad to the city every January for an ethnographic study of the immigrant communities.

“When I’m there, I probably walk ten miles a day because it’s so wonderful to walk around and experience,” Hassell said.

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Members of the Class of 2016 Periclean Scholars meet to discuss fund-raising.

Back at Elon, Hassell is as engaged in the school as the students are. The environment fits the dynamic atmosphere he has always searched for. He said his good friends here are brilliant people with incredible minds so the discussions are always bright and intriguing.

One of Hassell’s best friends at Elon is Kirstin Ringelberg, a professor of art history and coordinator of the LGBTQ office. They have known each other for nine years.

“She’s an amazing human being,” Hassel said. “She’s had a really profound effect on me in terms of our conversations and both believing in me and also being critical.”

The deep and profound conversations started when Ringelberg first visited Elon. She was impressed by the knowledgeable conversation they had during the interviews and all the ones they have had since.

“We’d be interested in something, talk about something and then it would turn into a conversation about the meaning of life,” Ringelberg said.

Ringelberg helped Hassell gain confidence to accomplish everything he sets out to do. He put up many obstacles in his younger years because he felt they were out of his reach. Now, Hassell said it is a remarkable feeling to believe he can do anything.

A nonstop creation and discovery

Hassell is lucky to be doing something he thoroughly enjoys. He did not expect to be where he is today based on the circumstances earlier in his life.

“I got here. I worked hard. But there were also people here to help me out. We all get help or can seek help. That’s a very important thing. That’s not a weakness. That is a strength.”

The jobs Hassell tolerated before have now determined what is important to him and why. He came to care about people in low-income situations or those demeaned as worthless based on their position in life.

Last summer, Hassell presented his written work on identity at conferences in Harvard and Liverpool. This experience allowed him to explore a separate side of himself and he is excited to develop it more.

Through these intense studies, Hassell discovered more about identity and how it influences society. It is a fluid thing, forever reorganizing itself, and it is not moral to peg oneself to one particular definition.

“We’re complex, we’re changing all the time,” Hassell said. “You have this range of things and you can actually be in multiple locations in terms of those identities.”

Hassell will retire in a year and a half. Be that as it may, he does not plan on slowing down. He aspires to move to London with his wife for a year. He wants to write a book. Most of all, Hassell wants to continue examining identity, the extraordinary people in the world and the ideas that spring from their heads.

“Ideas are just fascinating,” Hassell said. “I get so excited about them.”


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One thought on “Denying identity: Hassell focuses on the indefinable

  1. andersj October 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm Reply

    A-ma-ZING! This story really shows you as an intelligent, thoughtful, talented reporter.

    1) Remember when you refer to people they are “who” and not “that” – always watch for this in your copy editing. Here’s one sentence where you need to replace “that” with “who”:

    He is an individual that will never fall under a single general definition.

    2) Here you have a problem in placement – this sentence is written in a way that makes the hotel rooms transients. You need to rewrite it so that the hotels are mostly populated by transients:

    He was incredibly poor and lived in transient hotel rooms.

    3) The word “bad” strikes a false note in the following sentence. Be more precise. Did you mean to say most of the jobs were low-paying roles that are generally are seen to be done by strugglers in society:

    Most of the work Hassell shouldered was physical or bad labor.

    4) You need to keep the grammar parallel in this sentence – plural should be plural all the way through – if it is “people” plural, it is not “their identity as an Individual” but “their identities as individuals”:

    Hassell loved to interact with these interesting and unfamiliar minds. With each conversation, he learned more about their identity as an individual.

    5) The piece is missing some chronological details that would have been of benefit. We know when he was born, but when was his year of homelessness, for instance? Help us make the connection from decade to decade by getting the year in there here and there.

    6) The following sentence is a contradiction: Poverty hit an all-time low when Hassell was homeless for a year. … Actually, he was MOST impoverished when homeless so his poverty was an “all-time high,” but you would not want to write that. Perhaps you should write that: At the economic low point of his life Hassell was homeless.

    7) Keep the writing ACTIVE – so this passage should say poverty “is” and not “was”:

    Homelessness taught Hassell that poverty was not just a lack of money and resources. It was a somber psychological experience where people did not respect him as another human being.

    8) You are missing an “s” at the end of this sentence:
    After his graduation, Hassell and Annie moved to Philadelphia, where Annie had landed a job at Glaxo. Hassell worked part-time at two school.

    9) When you refer to the South as a region you need to capitalize it:

    However, before they headed down south, they took a vacation to England for a couple weeks.

    10) You should use “as if” and “as” instead of “like” in this passage – it is more sophisticated and polished. I would also substitute the words “spoke with” for the word “talked”:

    Hassell did not feel like he had to censor himself, like he did for most of his younger years, when he talked to the English.

    11) I think you give Ringelberg too much credit in this paragraph and you should probably transition to Hassell’s confidence in some other way. I think he has always been confident but he has also led an unconventional life for various reasons. I have known Ken for 15 years and Kirsten did not make a life-changing alteration for him. She’s a great colleague of his.

    Ringelberg gave Hassell confidence to accomplish everything he sets out to do. He put up many obstacles in his younger years because he felt they were out of his reach. Now, Hassell said it’s a remarkable feeling to feel that he can do anything.

    12) You need to insert more subheadlines between the “poverty” one and the “creation and discovery” one.

    If I were line editing this on a hard copy to give to you I would make a few more changes, but the story is quite good if you make these adjustments.

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