By Hank Putnam
One of the most prominent artists in Oregon for nearly 50 years, Dutch-born painter Henk Pander has become well known in the Portland area for producing exciting work. Combining old world training and contemporary concepts, Pander’s realistic paintings often deal with controversial subject matter, and frequently draw inspiration from intense real life themes, such as the horrors of Nazi occupation, the raw savage beauty of nature, or the stillness of an abandoned nuclear reactor. His dynamic environmental portraits include the official paintings of two Oregon governors that were commissioned by the state. In addition to teaching art, Pander has also worked on site as an artist in residence for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Bellus Magazine (BM): Do you ever do anything boring?
Henk Pander (HP): Haha. Well, I have always worked large, and I make a lot of big paintings, and ultimately, I am drawn to conflict. I’ve worked a lot in the theater, and without conflict, you have no drama. War is conflict. Goya was a major influence. When you grow up, as a little kid, in World War Two, as I did, you grow up before your time, I suppose. I have vivid memories, and you see the world in a different way. Coming out here, I discovered the airplane graveyards. The old battlefields. The cow skulls. The signs of violence in the animal kingdom. You don’t have to put war into the landscape. It is there already. The Right Wing Extremists, the ones that are the focus of the international news, right now? They are hiding in a wildlife refuge I have been painting in for years.
BM: Some might say death is a common subject in your work.
HP: Of course. Death is part of life. When I first came here, and I got out and started roaming around, I noticed the dead deer, the cattle. Nature is life and death. It’s interconnected, life, death, art. It’s conflict, and there is always conflict in the world. I want to give it a moment of reflection, to consider the absurdity, the randomness, and make some sense. To understand how everything comes to an end. This is more of a tradition you find in in old paintings, in still lifes. For my studio paintings, I started collecting these things, the bones, the skulls, and some of the ranchers, they give me things, dead cattle, skeletons. In my skeletal paintings, I can make it all live once more. Hanging it up, in my studio, it becomes alive! Something wild again, something on its own, in a still life.
BM: Isn’t there some irony in calling a painting of a skeleton a ‘still life?’
HP: Oh sure. Not overly so, I hope. It speaks to me. It’s the violence of the desert. The starkness of nature, and the mixing of times and cultures. Painting all that developed into the idea of The Big Still Life. I’m kind of a Historical painter. The concept comes from the work of 17th century painters, but it’s also about ‘now.’ A contemporary part of a still life painting might have bullet holes in it. It’s all for my own entertainment.
BM: Even your watercolors are dramatic and bold.
HP: To make them more challenging, when I am painting from nature, I don’t do any preliminary drawing. It’s a very spontaneous process, a gesture. They take on a life of their own.
BM: You have described yourself as a ‘reluctant immigrant.’ Why?
HP: I’m a naturalized citizen now. For a long time, I wondered what I was doing here. I never really became part of the art world. I follow my own imagination. So I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve had work thrown out of a gallery show, for being too controversial. During the protests against the Vietnamese War, I saw the similarities to World War Two. The police put up signs, in the parks, saying that protests were FORBIDDEN. This echoes what the Nazis did. But there are also things about this place that make for unique painting experiences- riding along with a Fire Department, or a police crew, or being backstage at NASA, for the launch of a new spacecraft.
BM: As a plein air artist, you have clearly found inspiration here.
HP: It’s a big country. It calls for paintings that are compelling, expressive, that depict powerful experiences. I’m a plein air artist, and a painter of history. Over time, there are still so many events which are rich and jarring, and you also have to be aware of your surroundings. When I found out that there was an old nuclear reactor, out in the wilderness, where they made the plutonium for the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima, I had to go see it, to make sketches, to take photographs, to get close enough to experience it. To paint it. At times like these, I am always surprised that there are no other artists in these places.
From provocative portraits to controversial large-scale landscapes and still lifes, Henk Pander’s adventurous drawings and paintings in oils and watercolor are in several significant collections. These include the Rijksmuseum, the City of Amsterdam, the City of Portland, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Portland Art Museum, Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, where a fifty-year retrospective exhibition of Pander’s work was shown in 2011. To learn more about Henk Pander and his art, visit henkpander.com.