If you’ve been to Cirque du Soleil, Broadway, or any number of Macy’s parades, you might know Paul Polson’s work — a massive King Kong topping the Empire State Building, a 25-foot eagle soaring over the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium, oversized ornaments dangling from ceilings in malls all over the world.
Back in the day, Polson was, largely by chance, a pioneer in the world of inflatables. Big inflatables.
These days, you’re more likely to encounter him closer to earth, his oil depictions of coastal scenes hanging on gallery walls. This month, Polson is one of three artists showcased in The Gallery Presents at the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita.
Polson is fairly new to Oregon. The Wyoming native worked in a studio in Seattle’s Pioneer Square for three decades, then spent another five in Kitsap County. Seeking a fresh landscape, in 2018 he settled in Astoria, where he was lucky enough to land a downtown storefront on the river. He arrived with 2,000 pieces of artwork, including 600 large pieces, and his dog, Joey, who has attracted a following in her own right.
“It is a small town,” Polson said. “It was a good opportunity to go ahead and hang my stuff. I’ve had a really good response and have found that I get along really well with all the artists here.”
He added that Joey, an elderly Vizsla, hangs out at the window. “She puts a grin on people’s faces when they pass by. I put a cartoon bubble right where she stands: ‘Hi! My name is Joey.’ One day, there was a cruise ship in town, and I came home and people were just crowded around the door with their cameras. Everyone says, ‘Oh, Joey’s your dog.’
“I am totally in love with Astoria.”
Initially, Polson wasn’t sure how he felt about painting Astoria. He favors landscapes and is taken by the beauty of the Oregon coastline, but he wasn’t so sure about the iconic scenes that often show up in depictions of the riverfront, history-rich city.
“When I first moved down here and saw the galleries, I was thinking the tankers, scenery, and bridge, that’s all really amazing,” Polson recalled. “But I don’t want to do that. Everyone is doing that. I thought I really need to do my version of how this place looks to me. I really wanted to do landscapes.
“Then, I started doing tankers and the bridge. Once you are here for a while, you start narrowing your vision. I like to feel every place l go, I learn from it. That’s another reason for coming here, I have all these visual opportunities to learn from.”
Polson’s not one to shy away from a learning experience, which is how he ended up a leader in the world of mega-sized inflatables. An artist since the age of 12, Polson finished his arts education at the University of Wyoming in the late ‘60s, then signed up for active duty with the U.S. Army. When he got out, he found himself lured by the idea of city life and wound up in San Diego.
He rented a ballroom dance studio where he could paint. In 1983, he hosted an opening and met an artist who had a commission to create an inflatable King Kong for the top of the Empire State Building to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movie, as well as the famous Art Deco building. Polson agreed to help him and suddenly found himself at the center of a great deal of publicity.
“It was quite the process,” Polson said. “I did the sculptures and the clay; I learned to sew. I moved to Seattle, and the next thing I know, I’m getting calls from Cirque du Soleil, rock bands … I did the set for the Broadway production of Cats. It ran for 10 years. I did all the floats — about 25 each — for the Macy’s parades in Portland and Seattle. I did one for a New York artist and it ended up being in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For 20 years, I focused on inflatable sculptures. It was really lucrative. It was a really good experience for me. I enjoyed the challenge.”
It certainly was all of that. When Polson needed a blower to inflate the pieces, he had to assemble it himself, working with motors, fans, blades, and whatever else was needed. Likewise, fabric. “I had to go to places that made awnings, or sail shops to find the best fabric to use. It was all experimental, but really a fun thing. I had a real busy 20 years. But I was really anxious to get out after a while. I really wanted to get back to my paintings.”
And so he has. About the Hoffman exhibit, Polson says:
“For this show at the Hoffman Center for the Arts, I want to present the sights that have most influenced me in this beautiful area. This opportunity will allow me to share it with the community. There are many amazing artists here, and I hope to present a view and choice of subject matter that is unique to my style and vision.”