Portrait of an artist: Peter Hassen
Peter Hassen was born wearing congenital art goggles. He sees the world differently than most people do.
Where others see wildlands, Hassen sees the potential for guerrilla art installations. Where some see beach, Hassen sees a template for spreading delight. A local multimedia artist whose “Cycles 1, 2, and 3” sculptures are featured in the public art program on display in the Sonoma Plaza this summer, Hassen sees the ordinary things around him through his uniquely stylized prism, and has done since he was a very small boy.
“My parents didn’t know what to make of me,” Hassen, 58, said. “They wondered what planet I came from and why.”
As a 10-year old boy, Hassen was already thinking about how to reinterpret the objects he encountered. “It was my dream since I was a child to see these monumental sculptures I saw in natural history museums from ancient civilizations—cheek to jowl with each other inside stuffy rooms—out in the wilderness,” Hassen said.
So as an adult, Hassen made it happen. He went to England to learn how to cast stone and then made facsimiles of iconic sculptures to install on public lands across five states. Under cover of darkness over a period of a few years, he and his team dragged the six-hundred pound pieces to remote corners of national forests and installed them to surprise passers-by.
“The objective was to trigger delight,” Hassen said. “That was the whole payback.” Those stately sculptures keep watch still at the edge of deep canyons and among ancient trees, astonishing passing backcountry trekkers.
Hassen’s “Discovery Project” was similarly inspired. On beaches stretching from Canada to Mexico, Hassen buried 100 stone castings of Buddha heads. “We buried them on the beach at the high tide line knowing that the winter storms would churn them up,” he said. Hassen’s name was nowhere on the work, and he sought no attention for the project.
Why do it? “The wonder,” Hassen said. “To create that sense of discovery and wonder. That’s absolutely payment enough.”
One might assume Hassen is some kind of gilt-pocketed Brahmin, born to the kind of wealth that allows patronage with no strings. But Hassen made middle-class money as a carpenter through his first career, while faithfully practicing on his way to the second. Art, and art-making, are lifelong seductions, and provide Hassen now with a comfortable living.
Like most artists, Hassen has long been in thrall to particular muses. “Reverence for nature, science, and religion, it’s part of my DNA,” he said. His fascinations are foundational to the steel “Cycles” sculptures, comprised of three patterned disks interlocked into a spherical whole.
The first, representing religion, shows symbols from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. “They’re often at odds with one another, as we’ve seen lately in Palestine and Israel,” Hassen said. “But these religions are joined at the hip. They kind of hold each other in stasis, they hold each other together.”
The second sphere represents Hassen’s fascination with science. It includes references to the “miracle spiral” found abundantly in nature—the logarithmic twist of the Milky Way galaxy, for example, or the perfect spiral found on a nautilus shell.
“The three disks each represent one of the three epochs in the history of science: the natural, the classical, and the modern eras,” Hassen said. “It’s a historical view of the origins of science.”
Hassen chatters on happily about Platonic solids, tetrahedrons and geometry for a moment, before remembering his audience. “I don’t want to beat people over the head or sound didactic,” Hassen said, smiling ruefully. Again, Hassen sees ordinary things a bit differently than most.
The third sphere in Hassen’s Plaza display stands eight feet tall and is a statement on nature, specifically the way in which mankind’s command over it has threatened its very continuance. Made of solid steel cut cleanly with a quarter-million-dollar water-jet cutter Hassen rents access to, the third sculpture’s three disks portray birds, bees and frogs.
“They are indicator species, canaries in a coal mine. They represent a clarion call to action,” Hassen said. “God gave us dominion over nature, and we’ve just mucked it up.”
The pieces of “Cycles 1, 2 and 3” are intricate and beautiful, a complex narrative from an original mind. How the plates of each sphere fit together is a mystery, and part of Hassen’s proprietary process. “I can’t tell you how they’re put together. That’s the secret sauce,” he said, smiling. “It’s intended to look complicated.”
Sort of like life itself.
Hassen was born with essential tremor. “My mom used to call me Little Shaky,” he said. But ten years ago he was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disorder that affects movement. The disease has forced the artist to pivot, as drawing and painting require a steady hand. “I use Illustrator and Photoshop because I really can’t draw now,” Hassen said. “I start with conceptual ideas, and iterate them. I’ve always been a very precise, very specific person, drawn to cleanliness and the plasticity to render things the way that I want them.”
In his pristine, sun-struck Sonoma studio, Hassen does not represent the trope of the unrestrained artist. There is no mess, no chaos in his milieu. Everywhere, the observer sees portraits in self-control—including in the artist himself, with his buttoned-down restraint.
Hassen’s work has been showcased in galleries and museums all over, and he is particularly committed to public art. With his work rooted in fact rather than fiction, however, he feels a responsibility to execute it very carefully. “Working from reality, I feel a responsibility to history to get things right,” he said. Getting things right is sort of Hassen’s calling card, but he is not the type of man to crow or gloat. “My favorite expression is ‘be humble, a lot happened before you were born.’”
In the case of Peter Hassen, a lot’s happened since, too.
Contact Kate Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org