Hickory Mertsching

Painter, Portland / Oregon // June 2014
Sitting around a campfire and watching the darkness take hold in the night sky...Catching a glimpse of a red tail hawk glide and dive. I take in these observations and it directly provides source material for how I arrange and format my paintings.

Somehow, just based on his paintings I imagined that Hickory would be rather sardonic— the kind of person that playfully jabs at the world with grim but humorous observations and who finds a bit of subtext and irony in almost everything. I came to this assumption because when I first saw his still life oil paintings I thought that despite their meticulous, almost orderly compositions they very purposefully teetered on the brink of kitsch. They seemed too much like something you would stumble across at a dusty thrift store in Montana or in some great Aunti’s outmoded living room in Wisconsin— they are so American, evoking a sense of wilderness, freedom and sport, but also full of myth and squandered innocence. I figured some heavy irony had to be at work in Hickory’s paintings, that he had to be poking fun at cultural trends that elevate kitsch and laude what was once passé as now übercool. But that’s actually not the case at all, in fact Hickory told me, “I don’t pursue irony as a goal.”

After spending a few minutes with Hickory at his home in Portland, I quickly realized he is quite earnest and genuine. Rather than being tongue-in-cheek as I originally supposed, his work more plainly considers themes related to the natural world and as he further explained, “the passing of seasons…sustenance and survival, and human influence and presence.” While chatting with Hickory in his basement studio he showed us the many props he has collected, such as beer bottles, deer antlers, and oil cans which are key to his process. He works best from observation, so after coming up with a general plan he tries to find objects and materials that best illustrate the idea. So this propped set up acts as a preliminary sketch and evolves as he move things around, tweaking formal qualities to find balance and harmony.

I liked how much Hickory and his intentions surprised me— that they didn’t match up with my assumptions and that what I found instead was someone just being himself, making strong work that in the plainest and most straighforward of fashions, considers Americana and nostalgia, impermanance, and loss.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Probably in the most general sense Americana, on the surface anyway. But the underlying themes are really the circle of life, the passing of seasons, like a flower or bulb next to decayed leaves or rust. I’ve been using a lot of animal/bird imagery in the past couple years to illustrate the drive for sustenance and survival, and then infused with manmade elements to symbolize the human influence and presence. Lately, I have been utilizing the vessel as that timeless symbol of human presence in my paintings. Usually in the form of a beer can, the new clay pot. The beer can shows up everywhere. You know, being out in the National Forest and running across an empty six-pack…. that is very American, or the empty oil can.

What mediums do you work with?
Oil on Canvas. All the standard materials that go with it: linseed oil, turpentine, mineral spirits, gesso. The two colors I’ve used the most in the past few years are titanium white and raw umber. Raw umber is my favorite tube of paint, it just screams earth and soil. I use it as the base of the paintings, it makes a excellent color binder of the palette. I build my own canvases and frames so I’m always scavenging for lumber. Old 2” x 4” s milled out make great stretcher bars. Last summer I scored a 30’ fence of cedar at 6’ height so all my paintings have been framed in cedar since.

How do you go about setting up the compositions for your still lifes?
I work from observation, so I think of the actual set up as building or sculpting. I come up with a general plan/theme in my head and then try and find the objects/materials to best illustrate the idea. I really like this because I can work it all out prior to even touching the canvas. The set up becomes the preliminary sketch and slowly evolves to its finished composition as I move things around, back off, and push and pull with the surface plane. I’m always on the lookout for props, collecting visually appealing pieces of wood, old cans, books on wildlife. I have a few good friends that do a lot of garage/estate sales and keep their eyes out for ephemera I may be interested in. I find working from observation really helps. I never get caught up in any arbitrary visual second-guessing as I do when working from memory or photographs. The objects are solid as they are sitting directly in front of me.

You aesthetic seems to be playing with what is expected from a still life, would you say your work has any sense of irony?
Well I certainly don’t consider myself a genre or academic painter. My formal arts education was in sculpture. We did a lot of modeling from the figure and extensive figure drawing. So when I started this I had know idea how to make a painting, I could render and all that stuff, but I had no idea how to build out the illusion or even how to work the paint itself. I knew what I wanted to express, so I decided that the “still life” was more or less a great vehicle/point of reference to develop from. I spent a lot of time working in a vertical pedestal format, but now I’m starting to work into more of a horizontal arrangement. Irony, maybe somewhat in the posturing of the animals/birds but I don’t pursue irony as a goal. I’m also really fond of kitchen still lifes, the subtle quiet honesty, and at times, naivety in the painting process. Sometimes I just want to try and achieve that perfect reflective arrangement of objects and watch the painting become an object of its own. The formal qualities of balance, harmony, and color are difficult to master.

Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your art?
Absolutely, I figure we pretty much express what we know. I draw extensively from my upbringing, places I’ve resided, people I’ve come into contact with. One’s work and life should ideally become one, sounds good anyway, like that is some kind of enlightenment.

What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
Certainly gardening and long walks down a trail or logging road, or watching the rise and fall of a plant over the coarse of a year, those are great sources. Catching a glimpse of a red tail hawk glide and dive. I take in these observations and it directly provides source material for how I arrange and format my paintings. Sitting around a campfire and watching the darkness take hold in the night sky is always nice. Literature, a lot of the classics: Grapes of Wrath, Hemingway, One Hundred Years of Solitude… I always get a kick out of Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume. Lately, I’ve enjoyed the southern literature revival of Donald Pollack, Daniel Woodward… I love the stoic honesty. I gather a lot of influence from industrial DIY types and ideas, fellow crafts people making furniture, creating products… anyone with a drive, passion and work ethic is a huge inspiration, that and a good song that comes out of the speakers at the right moment.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It means everything. It is the vortex of my current existence… the place of my work. I don’t know how I could do this in all its elements without my space. Table saw, easels, stacks of wood, boxes of paints, boxes of props, sometimes I feel like the stuff is just closing in around me. My studio is my home. I’m a single parent with two young children, so the basement studio works within the confines of my daily life. Keeping it all under one roof has its pros and cons, I can work in between raising my children, rising at four or five drinking coffee and painting until it is time to get them off to school and then back to work. The studio time can get very solitary with NPR and Pandora as the only outside connection, so late nights easily happen when I hit a zone and paint for hours just to get back up and start again without having to leave and transition into another space. Life is hectic but having my studio in my home keeps it somewhat manageable. I can put the bread in the oven and go back to the brushes.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I have a show coming up next year and the proprietor of the gallery has requested that a few paintings are larger than the sizes I’ve been working with. Along with that, he has asked that I infuse the human figure into these paintings. This is a great challenge, I’m glad to shake things up, rearrange bad habits in my work and come at this work from a new angle. So, I’m excited about this because I know it is time for some growth. I also want to concentrate a little more on painting plants that are in the early stage of their lives, alive and not all dried out in decay. I’ve started this by getting some pots and planting some simple woodland ground covers, they’ve made it through the winter and are now really vibrant. The problem I’ve been running into is a lot of the paintings take on the season of autumn, because the flora is dried out. I really like the decay, but want to explore a more vibrant palette.

How do you navigate the art world?
First, by just working, everyday constantly in the studio, forcing myself to be there all week during business hours. Always answering the phone and responding to inquiries and keeping the website active. The art world is always in flux, so I try and keep an open mind to all of it. Artists are always coming and going, venues opening and closing, once you realize there is no certainty or security to any of it, it is easier to move forward mentally and stay focused one your own goals. I’ve shown in white wall galleries, coffee houses, bars, and out of my truck during street fairs when I was starting out. I’ve met great people and have connected to collectors/clients in all of these venues. So, I never underestimate potential opportunities.

Words of wisdom?… a motto, favorite quote?
“You have to dance with who you came to the dance with” Craig Finn, The Hold Steady. I like that line, it’s like, yeah, accept and work with what you have. Thick skin is definitely necessary, everyone has an opinion and they love to share it when you’ve put ten paintings on a wall in front of them.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I am currently preparing for a dual show in August 2014 with sculptor Brooke Weston called “Constructed Landscapes” at Gallery @ The Jupiter. Then a spring a solo show in 2015 at Ampersand Gallery here in Portland, Ampersand really pushes and challenges me for risk taking, which I find great and enjoy

To see more of Hickory’s work: