Sandgren- Painter of the Harbor

by Jason Sobottka


I was first introduced to Erik Sandgren and his work in 1992 by my father,Thomas Sobottka, who was his colleague at Grays Harbor College. As a high school student I sat in on one of Sandgren’s drawing classes. After hours of life-drawing, Sandgren suggested I might attend the college, embrace the art curriculum and possibly work as a departmental work-study student. Since then and for the last twenty-four years I have considered both Sandgren and his partner, Kathryn Cotnoir to be mentors and friends. We have nurtured relationships as fellow-professional artists and teachers.


Sandgren and Cotnoir are both painters. Their work extends a pictorial tradition fueled by art historical awareness and carried forward as a legacy of the elder painter/printmaker Nelson Sandgren and his teachers. They have drawn, painted, and printed similarly powerful and essence-based images from the Oregon coast to Europe. They have traveled widely and observed keenly. Great attention to landscape, color, and light are strong throughout their work, and no more so than in Sandgren’s work of the Harbor that we see here.


His work takes stock of the particular way light channels through the fog over the Chehalis River. Or how, on a stormy coastal day, thunderheads will darken the sky and focus intense warm light onto distant hills. The light that interests Sandgren upsets the atmospheric perspective phenomenon – typically faded and cooled with vapor and dust it can become brilliant fiery orange, yellow, and red. Sandgren looks for the landscape to fold in on itself surrealistically – in an entirely Pacific Northwest manner.


Painters who are intimately committed to deeply truthful representations of a subject intuitively know which aspects of the scene they take license to exaggerate and which aspects to tone down. The Impressionists, for example, simplified their detail in favor of emphasis on light and color. Portrait artists skillfully exaggerate prominent facial features to push a likeness into the hyper-real. Caricaturists, in principle, do the same thing for very different ends.


Sandgren’s rough and ready paintings operate on the same principles. The greatest gift Erik Sandgren has given to his community are his convincing lightscapes of Grays Harbor.

Artists are some of the few who can sense the invisible: the currents, breezes, shadows, and spirits. The artist taps into the intangible, the overlooked, or the ignored and forgotten. Aberdeen is no stranger to great artists, despite the community’s seeming discomfort with this fact. The great Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen and his first exposure to an artist was the Aberdonian painter Lance Hart.

Motherwell’s graphic juxtapositions of intense red pigment against black and white figures and ground surely connect to the light of the Harbor. Later, the serigrapher Elton Bennet printed historical landscapes evoking the surrounding area – often featuring brilliant color
against misty, tonal environments. Aberdeen’s gritty industrial environments certainly influenced the stark shadow and highlight the world-renowned photographs of Lee Friedlander. Sandgren’s work occupies a midway point on this continuum from realism to abstraction.


Sandgren’s years of teaching visual art, design, and art history have touched generations of Grays Harbor College students. His work designing sets for the Bishop Center were multi-media sharings with the community. However, the Nirvana and Aberdeen mural is the capstone legacy.

For me it seems to encompass all of the aspects of Sandgren’s relationship to the Harbor. I was fortunate to be involved in this tremendous project. Sandgren was the lead artist on a project funded by Our Aberdeen to celebrate that most notorious group of great Harbor-area artists. He assembled a highly skilled team of younger Harbor-connected artists and former students to work as assisting artists.


At the very first mention of the project Sandgren saw the significance of Aberdeen’s relationship to the music. He succeeded in expanding the focus of the mural from Cobain himself to the band and Aberdeen. The project was Nothing short of exhaustively researched narratives and historically accurate depiction of details.. The connections, inspirations, and collaborators to he band were included in the mural. The process was reviewed in progress and encouraged by Nirvana bassist, Krist Novoselic. Its mash-ups of portraits, logos , instruments, local landscapes and gritty imagery could never be mistaken for a raving fan mural.

It specifically depicts the geography of Aberdeen as the essential context of grunge..

Quite literally, behind the music, are exquisite renderings of Think of Me Hill, clear-
cut hillsides spiked with individual trees, log truck, saw blade, clear-cut ridge tops, river pilings, pulp mill stacks and plumes, a lumber mill cyclone, fishermen’s boats, and the rain soaked towers of Satsop’s nuclear plant cooling towers. Perhaps, much like Aberdeen’s self-conscious and self-deprecating acknowledgement of its surroundings these details are easily (or purposefully) overlooked. I invite you to get out of your vehicle, really look at the mural and then look around at the town flanked by hillsides and waterways.

After you have seen the place itself go to and spend some time in the completely different format of the digital environment. There also you will see the light, the fog, and the spirits and personalities of Grays Harbor – not as a setting, but as the shining, underlying inspiration for the creation of its visual and musical arts.

Look at the “grunger” kneeling down on the left hand side – raining jellybeans out of a guitar. While this figure alludes to the young Kurt Cobain, it could be any lost child of Aberdeen. This figure is powerful, clumsy and sad: turning his back on the Harbor. Perhaps this figure is planting the seeds of creativity, perhaps raining tears, possibly leaving the Harbor in pursuit of a personal obsession, perhaps an addict choosing a chemical experience over reality. In fact, This could be any child of a home in the late eighties with a sign on the front porch proclaiming “This Family Supported By Timber Dollars.”


This figure’s relationship to the landscape as a whole is certainly at the heart of creative interiority – tapping into the grit and somehow transforming it into a place of unsuspected beauty. All of Sandgren’s paintings evoke some version of that basic story.