Posted on October 20 2014
I stumbled upon Hickory Mertsching's work a little over a year ago on my first buying trip down in Portland. I was immediately struck by his work that simultaneously evoked a spirit of raw freedom and wilderness tempered with a sense of somber neglect and a touch of humor.
Before meeting him, I had already painted my own picture of the person who would create such work. I expected someone a bit acidic, eccentric, possibly verging on reclusive. My myth shattered when we agreed to meet and his response - Anytime after 9:00 AM would work (dropping kids off at school prior). What?! Kids? School? Family? Yes, Hickory is a father with a lovely wife, a dog, and a sweet little bungalow in SE Portland where he creates his work in a basement studio. He is by all accounts genuine and sincere in his craft and damn it, just a chill guy. More someone you would hang around a campfire and drink beers with than someone you would only agree to meet in the daylight and in public.
We recently had the pleasure of meeting up with Hickory again, bringing his work back to Hammer + Awl to commemorate our one year anniversary of the shop. He was the very first artist I featured in the store and to this day is still one of my favorites.
He graciously agreed to answer some of our burning questions in our artist's interview.
H+A: Were you always interested in art (and specifically painting) or was there a pivotal moment you recall that got you started?
HM: I’ve always been interested, spent a childhood drawing and copying comic books. My high school art instructor gave me an old tackle box of oil paints and a few brushes. I cracked that first tube of paint and the scent of oil hit me, I knew I had to run with it.
H+A: Your work incorporates a fair amount of wildlife and outdoor elements. Where did you grow up and do you feel like that has played a part in your choice of subject matter or is there more of an influence from your current home of Portland?
HM: I grew up back and forth between Northern Wisconsin and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, these areas have had a definite role in my subject matter. I tend to think of the wildlife elements more as symbols of various human conditions: survival, sustenance, passing of time, etc.
Portland is the old adage: “you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a painter”. There are a lot of people working in the arts here. Influential in that it keeps you on your toes and ups the competitive drive factor, when the scene is so vibrant.
H+A: In addition to being an artist, do you have another past or current professional life/lives?
HM: I was a bronze foundry worker for a decade prior. I assisted artists in producing bronze statuary/sculpture. I was a mold-maker, welder, all around lost-wax casting foundry-man.
H+A: How would you describe the style and/or content of your work?
HM: Observational naturalism? Sounds good... I don’t necessarily strive to make the content appear real, more of my interpretation, so I might not fall into the representational realist category. Content is fairly basic, Americana, the American West, detritus of humans in these environments, changing seasons.
H+A: Who or what do you look to for inspiration in your work?
HM: I was surf-casting this past labor day weekend at Netarts Bay, I spent about twenty minutes watching the crabbing action at the mouth of the bay. About fifty people had staked out their spots on the beach, complete with lawn chairs, coolers, and gear. The sun was blazing, the surf was crashing, and a jovial vibe full of excitement had hold on everyone as the crabs were targeted. Men were strutting their machismo trying to toss the crab rings out as far as possible. The children would flock to the rings as they were pulled in, and facial reactions gave hints to the success or failure of the ring harvest. Everyone was living in the moment. Worries were clearly put aside. I find amazing amounts of inspiration in moments like that, where there is a timeless quality. I felt like the scene could have occurred at any point in the past century.
H+A: Any big (or small) projects or upcoming shows on the horizon you are excited about that you can share?
HM: I have a May 2015 show with Ampersand Gallery here in Portland, it is always exciting to produce a new body of work, it becomes all consuming.
H+A: What’s the hardest part of being a painter?
HM: Like any small business making it work on all levels, plus post-show depression, and keeping the wolves of self-doubt at bay.
H+A: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
HM: Realistically, probably some type of carpentry/woodworking/house remodel thing. Romantically, maybe a fisherman.
H+A: Coffee or tea?
HM: French-Press black.
H+A: Wine, Beer or Whiskey?
HM: Beer. Lately, the variety of IPA’s are wicked good.
H+A: Favorite Bill Murray movie?
HM: I’ve only seen a few. Ghostbusters or Caddy Shack, I think it is a tie.
A selection of Hickory's work is on display at the shop through early November. If you missed our one year anniversary party or the Madrona Artwalk or just need one more excuse to drop by, his work is truly worth checking out in person.
Goodnight - H+A