Former Washington State University professor Gaylen Hansen has lived and worked in the Palouse region for more than 30 years. During the 1960s and 1970s he was instrumental in putting–and keeping–WSU’s fine arts department on the map. And yet, as a recent coffee-table book of his work would seem to attest, he was never compelled to record his impressions of the area in landscapes. There is nothing in Gaylen Hansen so recognizable as Steptoe Butte, or the sinuous curve of a highway through voluptuous rolling hillsides. Neither are there forests, farmhouses, or small-town Main Streets. There are, however, fish, creeks, and dogs. There are also the colors–the deep honeyed gold of harvested wheat, the pewter gray of the sky in November, even the dark red of twilight during burning season–that will always mean “home” to anyone who has loved the Palouse. And there are knights, cowboys, bison, and horse-sized grasshoppers that initially have nothing to do with the immediate vicinity but have everything to do with the artist’s interior landscape.
“I don’t directly paint the Palouse, but my work is undoubtedly influenced by my life here. It’s a process of imagination; it’s not a direct interpretation,” said the 82-year-old artist in an interview last August. “This area is good for a painter this time of the year.”
Published September 2001 by the Linda Hodges Gallery in association with the University of Washington Press, Gaylen Hansen offers both an extensive color catalogue of his works, and also an insightful look at his career and life. Halper’s engaging prose draws us into the story of a pragmatic young man who could drive six horses on a plow at the age of nine, who began painting by copying Saturday Evening Post covers and who came to WSU to develop an arts department he could be proud of.
“I was offered a job. And I needed one,” he remembers, with a chuckle. “I was teaching at Yakima Valley Junior College at the time, so it seemed to be an improvement.”
Halper describes how Hansen helped WSU’s Department of Fine Arts become a vital and surprisingly connected arts community, and also how his work evolved with such distinct style and subject matter. His years of working as an abstract painter and of studying composition lend themselves to his visual tall tales, in which humor and menace keep cautious company. Hansen’s alter ego, the Kernal, is a stoic wanderer on horseback who encounters dogs, wolves, enormous insects, and even larger fish. In other compositions, for instance, “Bison and Sleeping Person,” Hansen explores the often fine line between the hilarious–the large dark bulk of a bison hiding behind a twin bed–and the subtly ominous.
Honored in 2001 with a grant from the Flintridge Foundation, Hansen continues to work but is less interested in running in regional contemporary art circles than he is in simply making art.
“I’m just doing my own thing right now. I’m pleasing myself, and fortunately, it does seem to please other people.”
Sheri Boggs is arts and culture editor of The Pacific Northwest Inlander.