Stephen Hansen Captures Great Moments in Art History -
Paper mâché art by Stephen Hansen showing two small painters on a Jackson Pollock painting.

I’m not sure when I first realized having a parent who works at home, creating art, is not the norm. Growing up in Las Cruces, I often played in the studio of my father, Stephen Hansen, and took it for granted that there were always good art supplies around, and a dad who was usually available. There was so much I didn’t know about him — and much I still don’t — so I recently asked him about the origin of his creativity, and how he got started making things.

“I can’t recall ever not making things,” he said, though somewhere along the line, “I got better at it — that is to say, more capable of having the result match the expectation of my vision.” Supported by his parents, materially if not otherwise — “The paints and tools came from somewhere; at 5 I wouldn’t have had the purchasing power or transportation,” he said — Stephen “at age 6 became ‘self-reliant,’ though ‘self-reliance’ could mean I quit bothering them.” Growing up in and around Seattle in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dad said, “most of the art I saw was Asian or Northwest Native, which taught me a sense of composition, figurative abstraction, and the use of icons and iconic figures.” All of these influences are found in his work today, his colorful characters almost totemic. As a boy, he worked primarily with wood, “because I was surprisingly good at it.” This medium also allowed Dad to unknowingly carry on a long and proud tradition of Hansen men with missing and/or reattached fingers. “There were lots of stitches involved,” he recalls, though “at 10 you heal quickly.”

Artist Stephen Hansen sculpting in his studio.When Dad was in high school, the family moved from Washington to Michigan where, through an art fair, he was picked up by a local gallery; the owners also provided him his own loft studio space. He was 15, “overappreciated and over-paid at a young age.” In college, the young artist began working with paper-mache, which “allows me to make something conspicuously large without significant investment of equipment, material, or time,” Dad said, “the importance being that if there is too much time or money in a piece, it is harder to realize it sucks and should be destroyed.” Aside from the commitment-free nature of paper-mache, the newspaper-and-paste medium is “a material so inherently humble that I can claim to make ‘cultural icons’ or ‘distilled social observations’ without feeling too pretentious.” In his early 20s, Dad was approached by U.K.-based gallery London Arts, with transatlantic branches in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Showing with them, he said, “made art seem economically plausible.”

“As an artist,” he said, “I am not an explorer of the human condition, so much as a hapless tourist, making snapshots of whatever strikes my fancy. Stylistically, I think of my work as lifelike, rather than realistic, a choice made out of a desire to represent ideas rather than individuals. “I make sculpture with the idea that it should both attract and communicate,” he says in an artist statement. “Towards that end, I try to make art that is intellectually accessible and aesthetically seductive. I approach my workday as though I were the director of a small repertory company, with a group of actors that I costume and coerce into the characters of the story I want to tell. They tend toward overacting.”

Today, Stephen Hansen’s work is known and seen worldwide, displayed in museums, as well as corporate, private, and government collections. He’s had one-man shows in commercial galleries and art museums in Detroit, Chicago, Santa Fe, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. You can also find his work in farther-flung locales, including the New Mexico Capitol Art Collection in Santa Fe, the Federal Reserve and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and United States Embassies in Naples,Italy, and Caracas, Venezuela. Following his eventual break with papermache — “I got tired of my hands being sticky” — he spent a few years working in metal, which “started to seem colorless.” He began to think about painting “and the idea that paintings were done by painters: iconically paint-splattered guys in white coveralls — which would describe me at this very moment.” His Great Moments in Art series was born with a playful, paint-splattered jab at a least-favorite artist, titled You Just Can’t Ruin a Pollock. “While I started it with a bit of mockery,” Dad said, “I have become increasingly respectful. I have developed late life art appreciation.” He’s not the only one appreciating the work; Great Moments quickly became some of his most popular work. In the six years since that first volley lobbed in Pollock’s direction, he’s completed a dizzying 488 pieces in the series.

The project has taken him from some of art’s earliest moments to its contemporary sacred cows, each lovingly tipped with my father’s iconic wit. His favorites have been “those where a decision was made — a ‘moment in art’.” Take the apple in Magritte’s Son of Man — maybe he just couldn’t paint faces — “or the question of Picasso’s women: is it abstract, or did she actually look like that? Or, Dali’s clocks: maybe everything just started melting.”

As far as least favorite entries? “I have a closet full of things I lost affection for,” Dad said, which “doesn’t include those that I have destroyed — or sold and wish I could destroy.” Those spectres of early work notwithstanding, my father has remained humble, bristling at praise and avoiding as much as possible pretentious discussions on “the meaning of art.” Rather, his work speaks for itself, a snapshot of a story in progress, narratives, and characters extending past the borders of the work. “I would describe my work as figurative and narrative; that is, I would like it to indicate a bit of a story, before and after the specific moment represented. “I think the success of this project, and much of my life, is based on dumb luck and hard work,” he said. “I limit myself to those ideas that please me and work hard to realize them. I am lucky that what pleases me is shared by galleries and collectors. And I’m lucky to have a wife who manages [the business] so I am free to frolic/toil in the studio.” I’m pretty damn lucky, too.

Written by Zak Hansen; photos courtesy Stephen Hansen
Originally published in Neighbors magazine

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