The following article, by Richard Waugh, is reprinted from the Winter 2002/2003 issue of Magazin Art courtesy of the publisher.
Niels Petersen: West Coast Magic
From the window in Niels Petersen’s studio in his 700 square foot cottage nestled among the bluffs of White Rock, British Columbia there is a spectacular view of Semiahmoo Bay. Paradoxically, the artist’s living room is not adorned with coastal and wilderness landscapes, or urban and village scenes from British Columbia’s West Coast and Interior. Instead, Petersen’s eclectic taste is evident from the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist images. Danish abstractionist paintings by Kirsten Antonie Sorensen and the Picasso-style art by Zbignew Kupczynski that hang on the walls.
The artist lives a simple, almost monastic existence. His disciplined approach to art requires him to adhere to a rigid schedule that involves uninterrupted solitude for up to 22 hours day. “I enjoy the solitude because it forces me to get closer to the source.”
Petersen was born in Vancouver in 1963 to Danish immigrant parents. His father was an intensely passionate art collector. Art was seen as something special and worth having. Renowned West Coast artists like Kupczynski, Robert Genn and Nancy O’Toole were often houseguests. He acknowledges his father as his main inspiration to become an artist. He also credits his mother Anna, who studied at the Vancouver School of Art, for teaching him to strive for technical expertise in his paintings.
“I was always the kid in school who drew well and I received a Fine Arts Scholarship from the West Vancouver School District in 1981.” After graduating from high school, Petersen was inexplicably rejected by the Emily Carr School of Fine Art. His first job at a framing gallery was the beginning of his informal art education. “It was there that I became absorbed in a parade of images, where my education was non-verbal, purely visual without the prejudices of context or idea.”
After framing reproductions of Impressionists, Abstractionists and the Group of Seven for six years, Petersen decided to travel for a year. His travels included a cycling journey to explore the Canadian landscape from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and a globetrotting adventure across Europe, India and Nepal. When he returned to Vancouver he was still uncertain what direction his career would take. “I couldn’t decide on a career as a journalist or artist,” he says. “I remember sitting in a café on Denman Street, and it was a toss-up between the two.” He worried that he might not be able to earning a living as an artist. “I couldn’t have faced that kind of failure,” he confesses. He ultimately decided to compromise by pursuing journalism full-time while continuing to paint on the side. “I thought that if I still liked painting and still had a passion for it, I could always try it again later.”
Petersen enrolled in a two-year journalism program at Langara College in Vancouver and began working for The Peach Arch News, a community newspaper based in White Rock. He worked as a full-time journalist and editorial cartoonist for five years before he began dividing his time equally between journalism and painting. He held his first solo exhibition, Bright Life in the Slow Lane at the Ferry Building in West Vancouver in 1993, which was followed by group shows at the Federation of Canadian Artists’ Gallery in Vancouver, Recent Works (1995) and Brushspoke (1997). “The fact that people I didn’t know actually purchased my paintings gave me the biggest high of my life,” he says. The success of these shows encouraged him to leave his secure job nearly five years ago to pursue his passion for painting on a full-time basis.
The four empty canvasses on his living room walls, which Petersen refers to as his ‘potential art,’ are covered with a layer of Raw Sienna Gold. He observed a similar gold colour in the backgrounds of many Group of Seven paintings earlier in his career. He relates to the Group of Seven’s heartfelt appreciation for the Canadian landscape, which he describes as “tranquil and serene, while at the same time powerful and majestic. You are at once at its mercy and at its favour. It is perfectly natural and uncontrived.” He describes his style as a cross between Edward Hopper and E.J. Hughes. His bold and vivid paintings of single masses, stylized shapes and images of hometown scenes evoke a sense of sentimental nostalgia. “My paintings are the way I see the world, not literally,” he explains, “They must have something to do with my experiences, which I get to relive in my paintings.”
As a former associate member of the Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA), Petersen credits two senior members of the FCA, Mike Svob and Alan Wylie, for teaching him the techniques of painting. He took his first class in watercolours in 1990 from Svob, whom he refers to as “one of my favourite living Canadian artists” and in oils from Wylie in 1995. He credits his decision to learn to paint exclusively with watercolours at the beginning of his career with forcing him to use his artistic vision to plan and compose the light, dark and medium values of his paintings.
Petersen uses photographs as reference material and intensifies the colours with patterns of shapes, shadows and light. “My photographs are guidelines for detail and my colour is mostly pumped up and intensified by my imagination. I try to shoot for a sense of magic. Maybe that’s why I like a certain surrealism. I try to boil down the photograph to what is essentially beautiful and that essential beauty requires a calm mind.” Perspective is clearly one of his strengths. He utilizes a combination of perspective and colour to represent a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional plane. “The world is so beautiful, it’s worth celebrating and wondering about,” he explains, “The challenge is to extract and accentuate the essential hope that as time goes by that essence – whatever that essential beauty is – will shine through more and more.”
Petersen is uncertain how his style will develop in the future. He likes the way Marc Chagall’s paintings are dream narratives and is intrigued by the possibility that his work may evolve into what he describes as a “Chagall-esque mythological style from a Tibetan Buddhist point of view. I really don’t know where my art is going,” he explains, “I don’t know ahead of time how a painting will turn out because the painting evolves by itself.”
Over time Petersen hopes that he will be recognized for having developed and maintained his own signature style. It appears he already has. He held a one-man show, Ten Years Down the Road at the White Rock Gallery last November to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his first solo exhibition. It was his first exhibit since Perceptions in Colour a group show held at White Rock Gallery two year ago, which may explain why collectors lined up outside the gallery hours before the opening to see his new paintings. All but one of his paintings sold before the end of the first day.