Nelson Sandgren

(American, born Canada, 1917-2006)

Image not available

“Nelson Sandgren painting north of Depoe Bay, Oregon,” ca. 1938. Photograph by William Lesher. Courtesy of the Sandgren family collection.


Nelson Sandgren, of Scandinavian descent, was born in Manitoba, Canada, and moved with his family to Chicago in the 1920s. His parents were devout Baptists, and during long church services Nelson’s father gave him pencils and paper so that he could occupy himself with drawing. This established his enduring devotion to art, and when his fourth-grade teacher told him he should consider art school, he determined that he would, in fact, become an artist.

In the 1930s, the family relocated to Portland, Oregon, where Nelson made the all-city varsity baseball team, representing Washington High School. He attended Linfield College in McMinnville on a baseball scholarship. There he studied art with Fred Hillman, and through Hillman met the artist-priest Bernard Geiser, who became an important early mentor.

Sandgren transferred to the University of Oregon for his junior and senior years to study with David McCosh, Andrew Vincent, and Jack Wilkinson. By this time, Sandgren had married Olive Palm, who became his lifelong partner and staunch supporter.

During World War II, Sandgren served in the Philippines, returning to the University of Oregon to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree on the GI Bill. He and Olive spent two extended periods in Mexico, where Sandgren studied with the muralist Alfredo Zalce, immersed himself in Mexican culture, learned to speak Spanish, and played baseball on a semi-pro team. Meanwhile, he had been hired by Gordon Gilkey to teach art at Oregon State College (Oregon State University) in Corvallis, a position he took up in 1948 and held for the next thirty-eight years.

Sandgren was represented in the first juried Artists of Oregon show at the Portland Art Museum in 1949. After years of non-juried annuals, this was a highly competitive exhibition, and the fact that three of the fifty pieces juried into the show were Sandgren’s made for an auspicious debut on the Oregon art scene.

Roger Hull, exhibition curator and Professor Emeritus of Art History at Willamette University says, "Sandgren came of age as an artist as the American art world debated the relative merits of representational and nonrepresentational art. The New York school was forging Abstract Expressionism, while many artists in the Pacific Northwest looked for ways to merge modernism with references to the lush and rugged natural beauty of the region. It was finding his place in this realm of naturalistic abstraction that Sandgren made his lifelong artistic project."