The Artist and the Sea
Seafarer Hans Skalagard shares, through his historical paintings of ships, the dynamic reality of the sea in The Artist’s Magazine (October 2011).
By Shawn Buckenmeyer
A temperamental beauty with a long and fascinating history, the sea serves as inspiration for countless artists. Hans Skalagard has had a love affair with the sea his entire life. Born in 1924 on the Faroe Islands, located between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, Skalagard followed his forefathers into the seafaring life at the age of 13 as an apprentice aboard a large square-rigger bound for Australia. Since the age of 8, Skalagard has had his hands in the arts as well, winning his first art prize at the age of 10—for his drawings of ships.
“My whole life is about seafaring,” says Skalagard. “My whole life is about the sea. When I die I want them to bury me in the Pacific.”
Ironically, while Skalagard was still at sea in 1954, his first one-man show was held in New York, with many others to follow during the course of a career spanning more than 50 years. Skalagard’s media include oil, watercolor, pencil, and pen and ink.
“Ever since I was a child, I had a pencil in my hand,” Skalagard says. When he once asked his mother if there were any other artists in the family, his mother replied no, he was “the only odd ball.”
While some artists who paint the sea imbue their artwork with imagined colors, Skalagard seeks to paint the truth about the sea, including its dark and turbulent moods. Well-known for his historically accurate paintings filled with realistic detail, Skalagard spends endless hours pouring over past ship logs, building plans and sketches created during his years at sea. Among his subjects are galleons and other square-rigged ships—including naval ships like the USS Constitution and other battleships, and clippers and cruiser ships as well.
It’s his fascination with details that resonates so well with viewers. Giving meticulous treatment to rigging, sails and the character of the ships, he painstakingly captures events at sea.
Skalagard has served aboard more than 50 ships, survived the sinking of three naval ships during World War II and crossed the North Atlantic 33 times during the course of a 22-year career with the United States Merchant Marine.
Skalagard continues his current life in the same active vein: painting every day in his studio in Petaluma, California, and lecturing about the history of seafaring. In addition he’s an active member of the Sons of Norway, an organization that focuses on preserving Norwegian heritage and culture.
Skalagard prides himself on accurate representation in the approximately 3,500 pieces in his body of work. “I want your readers to know that there are still some old timers around who are painting representational art,” Skalagard says. “When you look at something in my paintings, you know it’s actually there. Like the old sailors said, ‘Paint me a ship that looks like a ship if that’s what it’s supposed to be.’”
Skalagard’s paintings of ships and the sea hang in many maritime museums and historical buildings, including the Naval Postgraduate School, the House of Four Winds in Monterey (recently reopened as the Museum of Monterey), the Monterey Maritime and History Museum, and the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.
Shawn Buckenmeyer is an artist, a freelance writer for UrbanCincy and a filmmaker with a focus on artists. Visit her blog at shawndaniell.blogspot.com.
Read more about other artists’ lives in the October 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Looking for more seascapes? Check out this gallery of seascapes by Astrid Volquardsen.
Not sure you have your sea legs yet? Then check out this gallery of landscape paintings by four different pastelists!
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