“For me there are two sources of art: nature and the art of the past. The past is all-inclusive, from cave paintings to the thing produced yesterday by the artist around the corner. … Nature does not mean just ‘subject matter.’ Nature is total phenomena experienced by human beings. Seeing is the thing, seeing with both the inner eye and outer eye, not separately but interrelated, inevitably and irrevocably…” — Kenneth Callahan, 1959
Kenneth Callahan, one of the masters of the “Northwest School,” chose to live and paint on the Long Beach Peninsula during the last quarter of his eventful life. He’d walk the beach in the morning, watching the squealing seagulls glide over the surf. Pausing to admire razor-clam dimples in the sand, he might gather some shells before heading home to spend the afternoon at his easel. If Callahan had met Erik Sandgren, young enough to be his son, he would have loved his work. It’s an eclectic expression of nature as total phenomena.
Sandgren’s living-room studio in Aberdeen is a profusion of remarkable paintings, prints and drawings. The art of the past influences every artist. In the 1930s Callahan painted fishermen mending nets along Lake Union and loggers yarding timber in the Cascades; thirty years later he gave us ghostly horseback riders and driftwood abstracted into shards. Sandgren is another shape-shifter. He makes the old new and the new old.
Growing up as the son of a gifted artist, Sandgren soaked in every easel and evergreen as he was becoming his own painter. He studied Picasso, Motherwell, Calder, Grant Wood and Northwest Coast Indian art. He marveled at the masks Haida masters carved for ceremonials in the days before the fur-traders arrived with their chisels and beads. Sandgren became a strikingly original artist, a well-traveled art historian and a quietly charismatic teacher all rolled into one. The Harbor felt like home to him practically from the day he arrived in 1989 to begin teaching at Grays Harbor College.
I have to tell an Elton Bennett story right now because he too would have loved Sandgren’s work. It captures everything Bennett celebrated while adding mystical new inner-eye twists. (I wonder what might have happened had Elton ever met Ken Kesey!) Before he perished in a plane crash in 1974, Bennett had singlehandedly rescued “popular” Northwest art from souvenir-store kitsch by giving people something affordable, yet unquestionably beautiful, to hang on their walls. In 1966 at his Hoquiam studio, I watched him produce one of his most popular silkscreens, “The Sea Birds’ Cry.” Twilight clam diggers tap the sand with their shovels; birds circle overhead, wings sparkling in the fading light. They’re waiting their chance to peck broken-shell leftovers. With practiced hand, Bennett adjusted the rack to ensure the colors would be in register before lowering the screen to the paper and squeegeeing the ink. “This one’s yours,” he said when satisfied with the outcome. Oh no, I said, I’m doing a story about you. It wouldn’t be appropriate to accept a gift. Bennett chuckled and said, “I’m selling them for only $10.” My editor said I could keep it. When I told Sandgren that story he shook his head and laughed: “10 dollars for a silkscreen a Japanese master would have admired.”
Looking around his studio, my eyes trying to drink it all in, I notice “Pacific Northwest Starry Night,” Sandgren’s magical painting of campfire smoke creating luminous whorls in the sky. It’s an homage to Van Gogh’s famous painting. I tell him it also reminds me of one of Bennett’s most evocative silkscreens, “Steelhead Weather.” An old-fashioned coffee pot sits warming next to a fire on the banks of the Humptulips as rain streaks down. Long before he was “discovered” as an artist, thanks to sheer perseverance, Bennett had worked aboard the Port’s shipping channel dredge. He’d seen the estuary emerge from the April morning mist like a steaming fjord and trekked all over the Olympics.
Harbor as art
When Sandgren began to explore his new home he immediately grasped what Bennett saw: the quality of the light; the blues, greens and grays; the fish-belly gray clouds that could dissolve into striated Kodachrome sunsets. Luckily, Sandgren even loves the rain. Better yet, he likes the people — their resilience and ability to spot bullshit at a hundred yards. Driving down Heron Street he can almost hear the Wobblies on their soapboxes in 1911, excoriating the sawdust aristocracy. Fast forward a century, and there’s the downtown mural Sandgren and a team of artists created to celebrate the roots of grunge and remind us that no matter what Seattle says, Nirvana was an Aberdeen band.
IVy League Roots
This sense of place is why Grays Harbor College can boast an art teacher who graduated magna cum laude from Yale and received a master’s degree in painting and printmaking from Cornell University. Ivy League credentials don’t get much better than that. Sandgren grew up in Corvallis, Ore., in a home that celebrated art and literature. His father, Nelson Sandgren, was a highly regarded painter and art professor at Oregon State University. Artists and writers were constant house guests. Erik can’t remember not wanting to draw, paint and read—and talk all about art, music and literature. He hugely admires the stark realism of Aberdeen native Lee Friedlander’s provocative photographs. He notes that Alexander Calder’s brief stay on the Harbor working as a timekeeper at a logging camp in the 1920s surely inspired a mobile that resembles the apparatus used to yard logs to a landing.
In Sandgren’s murals—especially the panels in the commissioners’ chambers at the Port of Grays Harbor — I see echoes of Diego Rivera’s powerful depictions of industry in Detroit’s heyday. Sandgren’s work is embedded with clues and cues. The dangling sneaker in the Nirvana mural speaks to me as a symbol of Kurt Cobain’s brilliant, star-crossed life and tragic death. The safety-yellow sign that says “This House Supported by Timber Dollars” is an artifact from the spotted owl wars that pitted the lunch-bucket proletariat against environmentalists while big timber companies that had overcut, exported raw logs and automated their operations to boost stockholder profits dissembled. One day Sandgren saw “Scab” spray-painted on a street alongside an arrow pointing to a house. He realized life has never been easy here if you punch a time-clock. Now, with debates simmering over oil trains and neurotoxins in oyster beds, he’s an artist with complicated subject matter. “To me these local dynamics are part of a big picture the whole nation needs to form about essential relationships of human progress to Nature. I live in a stick house, light it with electricity, eat fish and drive a car quite a bit, so I’m implicated!”
Erik Sandgren is a tall man with lively blue eyes and a close-cropped gray beard. Fizzing with enthusiasm as he talks about what it means to be an artist, he seems much younger than 63. At Grays Harbor College, he makes a mockery of the old saw that those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. “He turned my head upside down,” says Brandon Maine, a talented young filmmaker. “With just a few brushstrokes he demonstrated a whole new way to look at the painting I was working on. He’s an amazing teacher.”
And a captivating storyteller. Sandgren remembers that when he drove past the South Side Swanson’s supermarket the week he started work at the college, Bob McCausland, the legendary retired Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist, was on a ladder painting a mural, with house paint no less. “I stopped and told him I had just finished 4,600 square feet of mural, working alongside my dad, at the Eugene/Springfield airport. It’s unusual to meet a guy who had made a living by drawing, but he was an accomplished artist on many fronts.” Sandgren made an effervescent new friend and later organized a retrospective of McCausland’s work at Grays Harbor College.
Hergé’s adventures of Tintin and all of William Steig’s fabulous books, especially Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, were my daughters’ favorites growing up. Around 12, Sarah, the oldest, began drawing her own comics. So I took her to spend a day with Bob and Ruth McCausland at their charming beach house at Tokeland, which Bob had proclaimed “The Center of the Universe.” He swooped her up the stairs to his studio, and they drew side by side for most of the afternoon. Sarah particularly admired a striking oil portrait of Ruth as a young woman. “Mr. McCausland,” she said, “you can draw anything.” He smiled his wonderful, twinkly smile and said, “And you can too.” On a Saint Mary’s School field trip to the Seattle Art Museum she saw her first real Picasso. I stood alongside her for several minutes, both of us mesmerized. I flashed back to my first real Picasso and the revelation that no picture can do justice to a great painting. The brush strokes are real; the colors, depth of field and scale captivating. You realize that a real live person did this.
Sandgren can draw anything — from a classic descriptive scene of fishing boats to archaeologists excavating a spirit world that reminds me of a cross between cave painting and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” He can pull you right through the looking glass into what one art critic aptly describes as “translucent veils of imagery.”
I have another artist friend who says the problem with most of us is that when we look around we usually see “the dreadful familiar.” Sandgren sees history embedded in the weathered bones of old docks. One of his paintings blends a logger’s “misery whip” saw into the evergreens. Through a tribal shaman’s transformational mask he shows us the now deserted Weyerhaeuser sawmill site that once produced millions of board feet of straight-grained lumber. A clearcut in spring is alive with new life. Sandgren can be descriptive or abstract, sometimes all at once. His composites are a concatenation of images. Something that first appears as a snapshot becomes mythic. “How do you translate what you know about a place into an image?” Sandgren asks. “You can compress time with a painting; embed eras in its layers.”
It’s a moveable feast that Sandgren’s work is all around us, and that he can’t stop creating more of it because he sees paintings everywhere—even driving down Scammel Hill to the Port Dock on a drizzly day. Now that you’re seeing more of it, I’m sure you’re as dazzled as I am. Maybe it will inspire your inner Sarah. The next time I retire, I’m going to buy some paints, brushes and an easel and see what comes out of my head. Becoming Erik’s friend has inspired me to imagine that someone addicted to painting with words ought to try his hand at oils.
When I was around 7, my mother had a telephone operator friend who did paint-by-numbers, plaster-of-paris nativity sets and praying hands bookends. She worked in a spare bedroom that featured an old oak rolltop desk and a shelf lined with Hummel figurines. Her husband indiscriminately chain-smoked whichever brand was cheapest at the moment. She saved the cigarette wrappers and fashioned them into montages on pieces of cardboard. When I admired them, she shrugged almost guiltily and said, “But that’s not art.” Even back then, I knew she was wrong. Then my mother bought us a big paint-by-numbers Last Supper at Lancaster’s hobby center where I got my balsa-wood airplane kits. I tried to be so careful, but accidentally smeared Jesus’s nose. I felt bad about it until, after a while, Jesus looked better to me that way. If Erik Sandgren had been my art teacher I’m certain he would have said I was onto something.
John C. Hughes is the former editor and publisher of The Daily World. He is currently a historian with the Legacy program of the state Secretary of State’s office.