Erik Sandgren – Painter of the Pacific Northwest

by Bill Rhoades

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Erik Sandgren’s painting “Clammers” is prominently displayed in the home of Coralee Popp, my partner of nearly three decades. Coralee is a graduate of the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), a multi-talented artist, and a non-profit gallery director. She knows a lot about painting. Terry Luther, a close friend and former colleague, is a retired wildlife biologist who loves digging razor clams on the Oregon coast. Terry says Sandgren’s acrylic is the best painting of clammers he’s ever seen and Coralee agrees, although not necessarily for the same reasons. These statements illustrate an important point. Erik Sandgren is not only an astute observer, he also has the ability to translate personal observation into stellar works of art.

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photo by Kathryn Cotnoir

Sandgren’s entire life has been linked to the art world. His father Nelson was a prolific artist and celebrated figure at Oregon State College (later Oregon State University), where he taught for many years. The city of Corvallis is not considered a hub of artistic activity, but after the second world war the OSU art department amassed a now legendary stable of professors who influenced a generation of aspiring artists. Nelson’s fellow instructors included Gordon Gilkey, Demetrios Jameson, Robert Huck, John Rock, and Paul Gunn. The group was collegial with artists/professors David McCosh and Andrew Vincent who were employed by the University of Oregon just a few farm fields south on Highway 99. Nelson also associated with Bernard Geiser and Carl Hall in Salem and a highly regarded group to the north in Portland, where artists Louis Bunce, Jack McLarty, Amanda Snyder, C.S. Price, Charles Heaney, Manuel Izquierdo , Fred Heidel, Florence Saltzman and William Givler were charting regional history. It’s important to recognize Nelson’s network of friends and associates, because these are the people Erik grew up around. Many of the artists came to Nelson’s home for art-based discussions, print exchanges, and planning sessions over maps of the Oregon countryside. Erik first watched from the shadows so to speak and later became an active participant in conversations and field trips.

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Contact with Nelson’s friends is noteworthy, because the breadth of experience within this group was profound. They were well educated, worldly, and each maintained a fruitful studio practice, all attributes assimilated by Erik. There was a generational divide to be sure, yet the exposure to one another created a continuum. Some of the best known printmakers in Oregon history entered the Sandgren circle, along with painters who distinguished themselves with gallery owners and curators. Erik’s upbringing also exposed him to foreign cultures and art history on a broad scale. His family travelled overland to New York and crossed the Atlantic for sabbatical stays in Europe where they saw important museum collections and the work of masters. Erik came face to face with a cohesive anthology of fine art, which he embraced enthusiastically as a teenager. Travels continued during and after his Ivy League education at Yale College (BA) and Cornell University (MFA) with an ever-deepening appreciation for art created by his predecessors.
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photo by Kathryn Cotnoir

The education was not solely academic, however. Camping and exploring trips back west, primarily in the mountains and coastal regions, exposed him to the lush greens of west side landscapes where colossal stands of Douglas fir, red cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce are predominant. He stood on promontories and watched the morning fog fill low lying valleys, while leaving loftier ridges exposed to sunlight. He was enthralled by the same star-filled skies that captured the imagination of indigenous people and their ancestors.

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photo by Kathryn Cotnoir

He watched with a sense of wonder as small, open-hulled boats puttered over tidewaters in search of salmon, and hikers strolled the beaches to seek out agates, or prized flotsam from mysterious foreign ports. He became part of and later expanded his father’s summer painting workshops on the Oregon coast. These workshops have aided dozens of regional artists and provided Erik with the dual benefit of teaching and gathering input from a group more mature and experienced than the undergraduates he mentors at Grays Harbor College during the school year.

All this exposure to the art and the natural world has been put to good use. It culminates in Erik’s approach to art making, which is both intellectual and sensory. His technique has been honed through study and practice. Erik is the type of person who can analyze a single etching without boredom for hours at a time. He talks with enthusiasm and authority about the work of painters he admires.

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He speaks in-depth on a wide range of topics. Complementing this cerebral background is a blue-collar approach to his studio practice and the ultimate result of his efforts. Here is a man who dives into every scene, spending entire vacations on a sailboat navigating the straits and inlets of Alaska and Haida Gwaii, reading tides, charting course, dropping anchor near remnants of native sites and pre-contact glyphs. He hikes with friends on the parched, yet colorful deserts of eastern Oregon and the Four Corners area of the Southwest – taking stock of the fragrant sage and stiff winds whistling through Canyonlands or howling over the edge of a remote basalt rim.

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photo by Art Blauvelt

Erik has managed to chronicle many ways people interact with rural settings of the Pacific Northwest. His blend of bygone artistic dialects and present day colloquialisms has formed a unique creative language to stand the test of time.You have to spend time in a place to really get an accurate sense of its character and a person has to be aware. You won’t gain intimate knowledge of a landscape by thumbing a handheld electronic device. I’m not sure there are many serious artists who do this anymore, nor am I certain people take root in the way they once did. It takes time and commitment. Erik obviously has a long-standing passion for his community and the region as a whole, which is admirable.

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