Henk Pander and Tom McCall (Part 1)

The great Dutch/Oregon painter Henk Pander died a week ago. The tributes poured in as they should have,

I knew Henk. We collaborated. One of his paintings of an Eastern Oregon landscape adorns the cover of my Oregon sesquicentennial anthology, Citadel of the Spirit. I ended up buying the painting. Henk also contributed a wonderful essay to that project. I wish I still owned that painting but unfortunately I gave it away in a moment of crisis.

Henk is well known for may artistic achievements, but my favorite painting is the super-sized, monumental, psychedelic, antediluvian portrait of legendary Oregon Governor Tom McCall on display in the Capitol. There undoubtedly isn’t another official portrait like it in all America.

I had seen the portrait several years before I met Henk. It staggered me so much at the initial viewing that I researched the painting and wrote a two-part column about it for a magazine. Part of that research included visiting Henk’s studio in Portland, which I rate as one of the highlights of my writing career. It was there that I saw the painting that was the cover of the anthology a couple years later.

Sadly, the story of the portrait was typed on a computer that gave up the ghost a long time ago and the file was partially corrupted. I was only able to retrieve the first part of the piece. It is below and I haven’t done any retouching, and the includes leaving in a significant historical error. I will rewrite the second part from memory in a completely different writing style, correct the error from part 1, and post it soon.


The Portrait

On a sunny August morning in 2005, as I drove east across the Willamette River in Salem on the way to Portland, I caught a glimpse of the Oregon Pioneer, the 23-foot gold leafed statute that stands atop the state capitol. Seeing it instantly compelled me to change my itinerary, as I knew I wanted to observe the proceedings of the Oregon Legislature, then nearing the farcical end of one of its longest and most inept biannual sessions in state history.

Some 30 years ago I had ridden a bus to the capitol for a grade school field trip. I can’t remember if I actually observed the Oregon Legislature create part of 1970s Stone Oregon Era, but it seems highly likely. I’ve returned since then, as a teacher leading my own students on a fantastic field trip and as a citizen lobbying ineffectively to protect the Oregon Coast.

On this visit, however, I had no official mission. Rather, I simply felt an intense desire to sit in the balcony of the House or Senate as a true Oregonian and angrily observe the partisan demise of the Stone Oregon Era as an ecologist might angrily observe a wetland being filled with concrete detritus in preparation for the construction of an automobile dealership.

I parked near the capitol, hustled up the steps, pushed through the revolving doors, turned right at the bronze state seal embedded in the floor, shook my head in despair on seeing the mural of Lewis and Clark at the now-drowned Celilo Falls, walked up the stairs, and emerged into a spacious and ornate lobby in front of the chamber of the House of Representatives. Approximately 75 people, some elected, most not, and at least three former Republican Speakers of the House, congregated in the area, conversing, cajoling, talking on cell phones, emailing from laptops, flirting, seducing, negotiating, text messaging and lobbying. All waited for the doors to be swung open and the debate on this bill or that bill to begin.

As I wondered if any part of this mise en scene had anything to do with serving Oregon’s public interest, the appointed time for the House to convene had come and gone. I overheard the reason was because the party in power remained in secret caucus, which undoubtedly meant they were plotting to exert some political advantage that would in some way debase life in Oregon and enrich some interest group.

I milled about, took a few notes purely out of reportorial habit, and scanned some other governor’s portraits that hung grouped together on a far wall.

Then, turning around, I saw across the lobby something hanging on another wall, quite large, colorful, and what appeared from a distance to be a work of art, possibly a mural. Immediately, caught in trance, if indeed trance is the word, I moved toward the attraction, oblivious to the crowd I had to part rudely to get at it. In seconds I stood before, or should I say under, an immense and luminous oil painting of a colossal Tom McCall standing in a beach landscape.

“What the fuck is this?” I heard myself say aloud.

To say the least it was unlike any portrait of any American or European political figure I had ever seen. In fact, it was quite unlike any painting I had ever experienced in person, and as it mesmerized me, I couldn’t decide which one of its characteristics ranked number one in rendering it so utterly spectacular: Was it the far out artistic quality that I recognized as expressionism, perhaps even surrealism? Was it that it seemed removed from time? Was it that it was actually on display in a capitol building? Was it that the subject was a former governor of Oregon whose political vision and leadership has had such a remarkable and lasting influence on me? Was it that everything he accomplished was being proudly undone or left to whither by a cabal of zealots, mountebanks and parasites just a few feet away from me, and the acute awareness of this obscenity began a bilious fury within me? Was it that the dominating position of this portrait surveying the entrance to the House chamber as it did, acted as a kind of totem or monolith, vibrating a power that suggested any representative would be turned to stone if she gazed upon McCall while selling out Oregon’s public interest? Was it that it bore no resemblance in style or aura whatsoever to the other portraits of Oregon governors? Was it that it depicted McCall at the Oregon Coast where I live and thrive? Was it that I was looking at the greatest painting in Oregon history? Was it that until a few seconds ago I didn’t know this portrait even existed?

In the portrait, which I estimated to be approximately 7′ by 6′ in size, McCall is wearing a gray three-piece suit curiously unbuttoned at the last button, a blue, brown and white striped tie, and brown dress shoes. His face is haggard, aged, suggestive of a malady within, but also paradoxically, pulses with a kind of primal wisdom. His hair is white, tousled, and Founding Fatherish. He is extending his right hand as if trying to shake hands or welcome someone to join him or perform an act of transmutation. He is standing on a beach, with his right shoe in the aqua-colored ocean and his left on dry sand. Boulders and rocks are strewn about. His body casts a long shadow. Out in the ocean, to McCall’s right, a red and white colored pole is suspended vertically, barely submerged into the water, and is attached to a line or string that runs left to right downward at an angle, presumably touching land at some point.

In the short distance behind McCall’s left, is a towering piece of driftwood, pointing into the sky, guarding the shore like a giant sentinel. It obviously has been cut from a coastal watershed many years ago by a saw of some kind, conveyed to the ocean via a great flood, drifted at sea for generations, and finally come to rest as its gnarly root wad lies buried in the sand in such a way that nothing in nature short of a tsunami could dislodge it. Flying behind the driftwood is a red and white helicopter. Below the helicopter is a headland, slightly eroding, dotted with snags and misshapen, unfamiliar conifer-like trees that appear ancient, as if from the Permian Era, 270 million years ago, when conifers first originated. In the far background, obscured in a fog or cloud bank, there exists a landscape that seems to be a separate world all unto its own.

I recognized loosely the story contained within the painting, as I’m sure many other older Oregonians would have as well if they had stood beside me. But our memory of this story is different, more concrete, more journalistic than the scene depicted in the painting, and derives almost solely from photographs. These images, now iconic, derive from the legendary 1967 episode when Governor McCall landed by helicopter on five Oregon beaches as a spectacular tactic in support of a bill determining what would control the future of Oregon’s coastal beaches: the public or private interest? McCall had flown west to the sea, accompanied by oceanographers and the media, to show Oregonians he favored the former.

In these photographs, McCall appears sometimes as a scientist, peering though a transit to measure angle, holding a surveying stake, taking notes, and more famously, as a viceroy, alone, eyeing a motel, whose petulant owner had fenced off the beach in front of his establishment and kicked off an elderly couple picnicking there, thereby igniting an unprecedented and unique Oregon controversy that ultimately ended with a near unanimous bipartisan passage of what was then called, and is still called, the Beach Bill.

That landmark law defined and protected the public’s right to freely recreate in, and access, the dry sand areas of Oregon’s ocean beaches, thus prohibiting development there, even on private property, forever.

I sat down on a cheap metal and vinyl couch a few feet from the portrait that positioned a sitter to stare directly up at McCall. I turned around. Not a single other person in the lobby was looking at the painting. Suddenly, as clamor arose when the doors to the House chamber opened, I lost all interest in observing legislative proceedings.

Returning my attention to the portrait, I was drawn to its bottom, specifically the rocks and boulders. In the lower right corner, I read: Henk Pander 1982.

As in Henk Pander, the renowned Dutch-born, expressionist/surrealist artist living in Portland whose work I knew and admired? He painted this portrait? How was that possible? As in 1982, the year I graduated from Oregon City High School?

Something about the rocks and boulders haunted me. They appeared fluid, primeval, alive, as if they had existed since the dawn of creation. And then it struck me: I was looking at a religious and secular masterpiece of art where Henk Pander had captured the exact creation myth and Big Bang explosion moments of the Stone Oregon Era.

As I exited the capitol, I knew I must discover how this painting came to be, and what, if anything, this story meant for Oregon or me.