NEWPORT — When celebrated Portland artist Henk Pander opens his show here Friday, July 6, it will mark not only his first exhibit in this coastal town, but also the first time nearly all of the watercolors have been out of his studio.
Times of Our Lives: Selected Watercolors by Henk Pander will run from July 6 through Sept. 2 in the Runyan Gallery at the Newport Visual Arts Center. The show, presented by the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, will feature large-scale watercolors and works from Pander’s recent series, War Memories, Liberty Ships and the Climate Refugees of Vanport.
Pander said he painted the watercolors for the Vanport Mosaic project, which commemorates the city north of Portland that was wiped out on Memorial Day 1948, when a dike broke, flooding the town in less than an hour and displacing 40,000 people. Many of the residents worked in the shipyards and included African Americans who were not welcome in Portland.
The Vanport watercolors were shown briefly this spring as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival in Portland, Pander noted, but never in a gallery. His previous work on Vanport felt dated, he said.
“When I was invited to participate in the Vanport Mosaic, I decided, let’s look at this again. Maybe I can make some watercolors. All the rest — 11 of 14 paintings — have never been out of the studio at all.”
Pander said he painted eight or nine watercolors within a month. “I have been thinking of making watercolors — usually I work in landscape and still lifes — as a way to get out of the studio, keep my skill level up,” he said. “I’ve been thinking of moving into entirely different realms. So it’s also a breakthrough in that direction. The whole show has a kind of freshness.”
Pander was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1937. The son of an artist, Pander accompanied his father to draw and paint in the Haarlem Dunes. When he enrolled in Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie in 1956, he was already an accomplished artist. He arrived in Portland in 1965 after marrying an art student from Oregon. Although the marriage didn’t work out, Pander stayed on.
His work is informed by his childhood in occupied Holland, as well as other historical events, and while he is perhaps better known for his oil paintings, he has always worked with watercolors.
“My father was a watercolorist and I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” Pander said. “And they’ve gotten better. They are more imaginary. Ever since I was super young, like 10 years old, I’ve been working outdoors. I do so here. The landscapes here are so incredible. This country is so striking. When I came to Oregon, I thought, I can’t make watercolors the way I did before.”
He challenged himself by making far larger paintings – for example, “Buildings Are Floating,” a Vanport structure adrift on a boiling tide, is 40 by 60 inches – that are what he calls “pure watercolors, no pencil sketches, nothing. They have a fresh spontaneity to them.”
Pander said the head of the department of prints and drawing at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which acquired 27 of the large pieces, said the paintings “give me the cold shivers.”
Tom Webb, director of the Newport Visual Arts Center, invited Pander to bring his work to Newport after seeing an online post about the Portland show. “His stature as an Oregon painter is really pretty incredible,” Webb said.
He added that Pander has “created a body of work that is incredibly substantial. He is known for his historical narrative paintings, where he may paint a landscape, but there is much more behind the painting than the viewer may realize, until they understand the history behind the place or location.”
Stories behind the place echo in the Times of Our Lives show. Pander’s attraction to Liberty ships and the Vanport flood as subject matter provide an opportunity for him to reflect not only on his childhood, but on racism and war.
Pander noted that Vanport was constructed in 1942 as part of the war effort. “Hitler was stopping all the cargo, and the war would be lost if there would be no cargo coming across the Atlantic,” he said. In response, the United States started building freighters called Liberty ships. “Without these Liberty ships, I would not be sitting here talking to you, because the war would be lost.
“The sea and ships and sailing have a long history in Dutch art,” he said. “I’ve been working on it for some years. I wanted to do the Liberty ships in the Atlantic.” A number of these watercolors are in the show, he said.
“The flooding of Vanport reminded me of the flooding of the Netherlands and the dikes breaking there,” he said, adding, “Vanport has a poignancy to it. A lot of minorities were moving to find work there. They were working day and night to build ships and when the town flooded, the black population moved to Portland.”
Pander added, “It became a very determining element for the black community here in Portland. It is just an extremely rich subject.”
As part of the Henk Pander exhibition in the Runyan Gallery, documentary films about the artist by his son, Jacob Pander, will screen in the Media Room. A First Friday opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. July 6, with a short artist talk at 5:45 p.m. Pander will present an extended artist talk at 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, in the Runyan Gallery.