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Artist Henk Pander Brings an Element of the Documentary to His Paintings

Courtesy of Henk Pander

For an artist whose career has spanned eight decades, you would think that it would be difficult to draw a connective thread through his work. But when you look at the body of paintings amassed by Henk Pander you can see how his childhood experiences play a central role.

Born in the Netherlands in the 1930s, Pander was a child when the Nazi’s occupied his homeland during World War II. In a recent one-on-one interview, he reflected on what he calls “the darkest period of the war” in the winter between 1944 and 1945.

“It was a massive famine and the Nazis were losing. It was just an incredibly cruel period. I was the eldest of this little family of five, forcing me to grow up before my years. Because of the stresses and the drama of that time, I ended up remembering a great deal of it and that period of time, being six or seven years old... I equated my childhood and the war in a sense.”

Fortunately, he also was surrounded by great beauty as a boy. His father was a well-known artist and as Pander recalled, “I’d be sitting next to my dad in the dunes in Haarlem making drawings… We were exposed to making drawings and paintings. We’d create this painted portraits and still lifes and doing narrative works our whole lives. So, it was an incredibly inspiring environment.”

This inspiration was eventually manifested in many of Pander’s paintings, like his pieces The Floor, The Kitchen and Ruse (Razzia), where the horrors of war are brilliantly crafted on massive canvas. His pieces radiate with truth, clarity and a spine-chilling emotion that is impossible to shake. Pander seems to have unlimited sources, such as impressive schooling and tremendous personal experience, where he could cite his skills.

After studying at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (State Academy of Visual Arts) in Amsterdam and winning the silver medallion in the Prix de Rome, Pander moved to Portland, Oregon, to be with his American born wife and newborn son. Since that move in the early ‘60s, Pander has been a professor, a poster maker and a set designer — but always a painter first and foremost.

And his own vibrant work has often reflected the sense of conflict and drama, not only of his youth, but of the early days when he first arrived in the United States in the ‘60s. “I became conscious that this country was at war and has been at war ever since,” recounted Henk. “It brought back that echo that the world is not there to be taken for granted and that this world’s dangerous and it made me more aware.”

“I started not only making drawings, but I could draw pretty well, so I could recall things and reconstruct moments of the time,” he reflected on that period, using his artwork to reconnect to the home he had left behind. “I started feeling like drawing the little things I remembered. It turned out I remembered quite a lot.”

His creative expression helped him put the past events in context. “I started to look for remnants of that time,” Pander acknowledged. “I started looking at areas of conflict, battlefield like settings, about how war had imprinted itself into the landscape of conflict… So, in a sense, it turned out to be a rather profound influence that gradually happened over time.”

Pander brings a documentary style to his work, not only reflecting on his own experiences but touching upon important current events throughout his 78 years. As he described what inspires him to work on a piece he cited “that conjunction of my own experience, my own feelings and how that responds to the world at large, in which I live, to my time. Those things together are a motivating force.” This documentary-esque style puts Pander in a place that is artistically enchanting but also reliable. His paintings are timeless works of art, that amongst the thousands of them, all emit his matchless talent.

A prolific artist who paints constantly, his influences are varied. “Sometimes things are happening to me personally in my personal life, things which affect me. And other times it’s things that I either identify with or move me or feel empathy to. So, the world and life is filled with paintings.”

One recent event struck Henk on both a global and personal level. Pander’s sister frequently traveled the route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 to visit her son, daughter in-law and their newborn child in Brunei in Borneo. Pander recalled that his sister had taken the journey just two days before the plane was shot down in 2014. “It was the same route – exactly over it. Not only that, my nephew could have been in it. His wife could have been it. Their whole family could have been on it.”

The tragedy also struck Pander on a more global level. “There was a deep sense of mourning in the Netherlands. And over the years, airplanes seem to be so archetypal for who we are as a civilization… because they basically change time. You fly from Europe to America and you fly and the sun doesn’t set or you fly against it and the sun rises and sets extremely fast. You go basically to the edge of space.”

And, once again, the incident drew him back to his childhood, “At the same time, [air travel] makes the world ‘smaller’ but it’s also a world of huge waves of airplanes flying over homes and they’re ready to bomb Germany. Airplanes play an incredible role in contemporary warfare.”

But through it all Henk Pander’s pieces continue to add beauty to an often somber reality. His work has been included in collections at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Portland Art Museum, the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and many other locations. To learn more about him, visit his official website.

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