On a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon in Battle Ground, Washington, sculptor James Lee Hansen is headed out to his workshop. At age 97, he doesn’t make the trip as often as he used to. But as he walks around the sculptures scattered throughout the massive building, he’s pleased. “I like the way they’re getting patinas,” he says. “I haven’t seen them for a while.” He smiles as he runs his hand across the aged surface of a bronze sculpture. “People think I do it, but it’s time that’s doing it. I started it, but time is finishing it.”
Hansen is “one of the most inventive and productive sculptors we’ve seen” according to Portland curator Bruce Guenther. He helped define what sculpture looks like in the Northwest, Guenther says. “He gave it a vocabulary and national notice.”
Hansen estimates he’s created more than 600 sculptures in his lifetime. And though you may not know his name, you’ve likely seen his work. Dozens of his sculptures are featured in public spaces across the region. (See map below for Hansen’s public works in the Portland/Vancouver area).
After leaving the Navy in 1946, at the end of WWII, Hansen used the GI Bill to attend the Museum Art School at the Portland Art Museum. While most of his friends were becoming painters, Hansen says “I found myself leaving other classes and going into the empty sculpture room to start making some sculpture.” He joined a group that would become a who’s who of Northwest sculptors, including Lee Kelly, Manuel Izquierdo and instructor Frederic Littman.
And though he had no training in art history, he quickly found his own voice. “One of the Portland painters at the museum art school said that I had ‘dumb originality,’” Hansen laughingly recalls. “I haven’t seen enough art to have something that I was going to emulate. So perhaps that was true – dumb originality!”
Soon after graduating, Hansen entered work in the prestigious San Francisco Art Association’s annual competition – and he won the first-place purchase award in sculpture. “It was a surprise because he was just out of school,” says Guenther. “But his vision was unique, and his craftsmanship was excellent.”
“All of a sudden I’m a rock star of some ilk,” Hansen remembers. “And so things started happening after that.” Hansen created his own foundry, a massive undertaking. “I made my own kilns, made my own furnace. And things got bigger and bigger. First thing you knew I’d built scaffolding to get up high enough to pour the molds.”
Over the next several decades Hansen made his mark, winning public commissions and refining a personal style that took his work as far as the Whitney Museum in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as galleries and museums throughout the Northwest.
Today, reflecting on over six decades as a sculptor, he appreciates the solidity and permanence of his work. “I have a lot of work that could survive for thousands of years. And I’m proud of almost all of it. And so it’s a legacy. And I think everybody wants to have a legacy. Everybody.”