Roger Saydack curated the exhibition of Nelson Sandgren's watercolors of the Oregon Coast in 2003 for the Karin Clarke Gallery, Eugene, OR
The Oregon Coast Watercolors of Nelson Sandgren
By Roger Saydack
"The very second I have the impulse, I put it down on paper. I paint what I feel at that instant, without any thought of the past, without any concern for the future."
In the hands of a master, watercolor painting is the soul in action - a perfect reflection of thought and feeling - it is the world and the painter as one. It is the medium most suited to capture direct emotion, immediate impressions. When the painter uses watercolors, we know that he must have a special relationship with his subject. Like many of us who came here from the Midwest, Nelson Sandgren has a bond with the coast. We dreamed about this ocean for years before we ever saw it. And it seems now as if we live at some higher level when we are there. Each painting in this group was made entirely on site at the coast, and the wind, weather, blowing sand, and rain of the day is in them - sometimes quite literally. The coast is the place where Sandgren most wants to paint - it is his wellspring of shapes, colors, light, and most of all movement.
"Movement, the ways things flow out there… The wind echoed in the rocks, the trees, the waves, working through the big shapes. Some days I can see it, I can feel it in everything out there."
But big things like movement have to be captured with broad gestures and ideas; they can't be finessed with fine painting technique. In fact, Sandgren worries that technical considerations tighten painters up - they become cautious, concerned about losing control, and they miss what they've come to the coast to find. Yet Sandgren has the technique of a virtuoso - the soft tonalities in "Bandon Quietude," the intensity of feeling in "Bandon Storm," the unfailingly accurate gray light in "Bandon Green," could only have been achieved by a master of his means. The choices and judgments that created these qualities may have come from instinctive aesthetic impulses, but this is instinct that has been mastered. And part of Sandgren's fascination with the coast must be that he finds the qualities there that enable him to assert that mastery.
"Sometimes I revolt against what I did the previous day. I deliberately overstep in the direction of carelessness - in order to break through to the form of the thing out there."
Art at this level battles what came before it. In each painting, the artist works for a more complete realization - a better set of relationships, a more truthful statement of what he set out to achieve. "In order to create," one of Sandgren's mentors said, "you must first destroy." Destroy the art that came before you, the painting you did the day before, the year before, destroy the stroke you just put down if it is not true. Painting like this never rests. It is never satisfied. The painter is always "trying to learn how to paint," always working to create forms that reflect in some unique way a simple statement of truth. The forces of color, mass and movement at play at the coast haunt Sandgren. His vocation, his calling is to create a new order in his paintings, a new set of relationships that more fully, more truthfully, reveal what his finds at the coast.
Art is the soul of history. It is the spirit of the artist speaking to us across time, across all the boundaries that separate us. These paintings by Nelson Sandgren of our coast take us there, yes. And they take us to those places we dream of and have yet to discover.
Born in Dauphin, Manitoba, Nelson came west with parents Beulah and Sam to Portland during the Great Depression after a boyhood in Chicago. Throughout his life he treasured both his early urban experiences and the bounteous, healthful nature he found on the west coast.
He began college at Linfield where he played baseball, sang in an a capella quartet, and met father Bernard Geiser who became for him a great influence toward the arts. Transferring to University of Oregon, Nelson lettered again in baseball and graduated while enrolled in the ROTC. Nelson married Olive Palm of Portland in November 1941. During World War II he did basic infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, then served as a lieutenant at various posts stateside and in the Philippines.
After the war Nelson returned to University of Oregon on the GI Bill for graduate work in painting with professors Jack Wilkinson, Andrew Vincent, and David McCosh. Their influence extended throughout his career as artist and instructor. Nelson particularly valued his lifelong friendships with the creative group of architects that began there. Nelson also did post-graduate work on the GI Bil, in Morelia, Michoacan with the notable Mexican painter Alfredo Zalce.
Subsequently he accepted a position with Oregon State College in the art department then chaired by Gordon Gilkey. On leave from OSU, he returned to Mexico for a year to play semi-pro baseball and for more post graduate work. These experiences solidified a lifelong engagement with Mexican culture and Spanish, which he read and spoke with great fluency.