Last summer, artist Erik Sandgren stood at a vantage point on Crater Lake, overlooking Umpqua National Forest as swaths of old growth trees, fields and familiar hiking trails went up in flames. He’d spent the last week on a painting trip with his wife, painter Kathryn Cotnoir, along the Umpqua River, capturing his native Oregon landscape in sketches and acrylics. Now he watched as many of the sacred scenes he’d painted were reduced to char.
Throughout his more than 50-year career, Sandgren has strived to encapsulate the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. His current exhibit at the Karin Clarke Gallery — Observed, Imagined and Remembered: the Northwest Landscape, a collection of acrylic paintings and woodcut prints — brings to life a mystical vision of of the Northwest, one in which humanity is less at odds with nature than a part of it.
In “Sea Perch Hunters,” a group of loose, dream-like figures peer into the water from a scarlet outcrop of rock holding fishing poles. In “N. Umpqua,” a sheer rock cliff, surrounded by forests, is punctuated by a string of telephone wires. Sandgren’s pieces juxtapose the ancient power of the natural world with the decades-long history of industrialization that threatens it.
“When we think about the spirit of the landscape, I think there’s something to be garnered from the old stories, and remembering our place there,” Sandgren says. He looks to the history of Indigenous peoples in the Northwest, and how a reverence for the outdoors can be passed generationally. “It’s a relationship that we have to keep renewing, and it’s that renewal that many of us are missing now.”
A reverence for nature, as well as art, runs in Sandgren’s blood. His father, the late Nelson Sandgren, was an influential painter and professor at Oregon State University. Sandgren spent his childhood on trips with his dad, packing with them a tin of watercolors where other fathers and sons might have brought a fishing pole.
“I went painting with my father the way some kids went hunting,” Sandgren says. “I picked it up pretty quickly, and also learned quickly not to spill the paints everywhere.”
The father and son duo continued to work together throughout their respective art careers. In 1989, Sandgren was living in Wye Mills, Maryland with his wife and young daughter Kate, when his father called him home to collaborate on a 4,600-square-foot mural of Oregon landscapes at the Eugene Airport.
Returning to the Pacific Northwest that summer, Sandgren was reminded of the beauty of his home state. He soon accepted a position as the head and sole professor of a one-man art department — or as he jokingly refers to it, a “compartment” — at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Sandgren says. Aberdeen, best known as the birthplace of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, has one of the state’s highest poverty rates. He was surprised by the dedication of his students, many of whom had difficult home lives. “I was the only art professor, which certainly isn’t ideal. But these students produced amazing work.”
Sandgren taught for 28 years before leaving Grays Harbor in 2017. Now retired and living in Portland, he still finds ways to share his love of the landscape with others.
Each year Sandgren hosts the Sandgren Coast PaintOut, a longstanding tradition birthed from a yearly class his father taught, starting in 1978, in which a group of students traveled to the Oregon coast for a two-week painting intensive. When Nelson Sandgren retired in 1986, students and friends rallied to keep the event alive — they missed the camaraderie, the ocean air and the spirit of artistic collaboration.
The pilgrimage continues more than four decades later, now hosted by Erik. A paid workshop is followed by a free event, in which members, paying or not, can join for 10 days of outdoor painting.
“It’s a very special environment,” Sandgren says. “The workshop serves to keep it open for the rest of the painters. Not every good thing needs to cost money.”
This year, the artists are collaborating with OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative, a group of oceanographers who aim to “help sustain healthy oceans and ensure wellness, environmental health and economic prosperity for future generations” to bring publicity to their research.
“Research is good for everyone, but if the fishermen and public don’t believe in it, it runs into adversaries that it doesn’t need to have,” Sandgren says.
The project represents a lifelong passion of Sandgren’s: to examine our relationship with nature and the ways we shape our landscape as it shapes us. His exhibit at the Clarke Gallery reminds the viewer of a living, breathing natural world, one of which we are an integral part. ν
Observed, Imagined and Remembered: the Northwest Landscape runs through Feb. 27 at Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette. Hours are noon to 5:30 pm Wednesday through Friday and 10 am to 4 pm Saturday, or by appointment. Masks required. Sandgren will present an artist talk at 11 am Feb. 5 on Facebook Live.