I first saw Roll Hardy’s work some years ago while sitting at the Produce Row restaurant, located in Portland’s east side waterfront industrial area. The small paintings hung on dark wood walls in a dimly lit room surrounded by deep green booths.
They appeared like windows with views to the surrounding industrial area, each image depicting the nearby aging buildings, train tracks, graffiti-blasted walls and overpasses, rendered with a bold and precise hand.
Hardy has always been drawn to these kinds of spaces.
“I like the sense of solitude that they provide,” he said. “Kind of a sense of being outside of the regular world. You can kind of imagine almost anything happening there … There’s sort of a lawlessness that exists in those spaces.
“I really got interested in the idea of being an artist when I got interested in skateboard culture and graffiti art and stuff when I was a teenager,” Hardy said. “I’m from the East Coast, so I was living in New York City at the time. I was obsessed with doing graffiti art. Out all night painting trains and abandoned buildings and getting into trouble.”
Hardy decided that going to college was not for him at the time: “Schools weren’t really embracing street art or the things that are focused on or taught now.”
It wasn’t until Hardy moved to Portland in the late ‘90s that he decided to enroll in the Pacific Northwest Collage of Art, which in November voted to merge with the Oregon College of Art and Craft.
“I took the painting program there,” Hardy said. “And I was kind of an older student at the time — in my mid-20s and I was pretty serious about making it happen for me. And then it did.”
Hard work paid off and Hardy found early local success when he was invited to show at the Laura Russo Gallery in the 2002’s Young Artists Exhibition. He was offered representation in 2005 and now shows regularly at the Russo Lee Gallery, selling out his most recent exhibition last fall.
Hardy often scouts locations for new work on his bike. A means of transportation that lends itself well to quietly exploring the backroads and outskirts of the city.
“It’s a great way to discover things at a slower pace,” he said.
“I can get into areas relatively unnoticed. Once I get there I usually take photos, sketch things of utility and will oftentimes write down what the space is evoking for me. And then I take all of that information back into the studio.”
“I find that I always introduce stuff, like it’s not interesting to me if I don’t,” Hardy said of his process. “If I’m only painting what’s there then it doesn’t have as much point for me to do it. So, whether I’m putting graffiti on a wall where there wasn’t any, like I have to find a way to get my own hand in there and make something new.”
“The Portland that I moved to,” Hardy said, “was quiet and sleepy. There wasn’t a lot going on here. There was a great underground music scene and lots of great underground culture.
“Portland kinda had like a grittiness to it. There were a lot of abandoned industrial areas in the city. Now I only mostly seek them out as a purpose for making work, and there’s very little of it around. You have to go farther afield. All that stuff has gotten torn down. Everything looks really modern.”
After years of painting his urban muse, Hardy’s images of Portland have taken on a new meaning as they’ve become a chronicle of a rapidly changing landscape.
“I wasn’t necessarily trying to historically be documenting these things and that’s just sort of occurred as I’ve kept doing it over time,” he said.
At the Russo Lee Gallery, Hardy pointed out one of his paintings on the wall. A dark interior of a large abandoned warehouse, where a a partially collapsed roof lets in muted gray light from the sky outside.
“It’s been six months since the painting was made and it’s gone,” Hardy said. “Knocked down and excavated. I was thinking about that a lot when I was making that work. Times are changing. The city is changing for sure.”
Hardy’s work documents parts of Portland that are slowly disappearing. When he reflects upon that, Hardy’s motivations seem to become more personal and internal.
“I’m not really trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia in people,” he said. “I’m exploring time and the physical landscape, but I’m also exploring my sense of place in the world. It makes me grounded, and that’s just important for me personally. I’m just painting what I’ve always been interested in.”