Sonoma locals might be familiar with the name Peter Hassen.
Images of his striking bronze sculptures—which sat in the Sonoma Plaza as part of a collaborative installation between the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and The City of Sonoma in 2021—may come to mind. For those who don’t know him or his work, Hassen is a multimedia artist, whose art localizes themes of science, nature and spirituality. From large-scale sculpture to painting to video to printmaking, Hassen’s work is an invitation to consider the human relationship with, well, everything else.
Lucky for those who love art and the nature of inquiry, Hassen has an upcoming solo show, “Indicators: Nature in Flux,” which opens on Sept. 17 at Modern Art West gallery in downtown Sonoma.
“Indicators: Nature in Flux” features prints, mixed media and sculpture work, all of which explore such themes as speculative future outcomes based on current climate crisis, the magnificent footage of space captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, work inspired by David Attenborough’s documentary, A Life On This Planet, and more.
Viewers can mine Hassen’s work for insights into spirituality, scientific discovery, cultural phenomena and environmental observations.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hassen in 2021 during the installation of the aforementioned sculptures—at 5am, leveraged into place by giant cranes—and he struck me as a cool, kind man. Upon learning of his solo show, I was excited to more deeply acquaint myself with him. I invite readers to do so also, and get to know the man behind the art prior to the show’s opening.
Who is Peter Hassen?
Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Hassen graduated from University of Colorado with a BFA in studio arts and a minor in religious studies. His involvement in conceptual and public art projects began in the 1990s and hasn’t stopped.
Over the past few years, he has been a resident at the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation, and had his work featured at the Marin Civic Center, Bolinas Art Museum, Bedford Gallery, Marin Art and Garden Center and AXIS Gallery.
Dedicated to exploring social and environmental circumstances in his work, Hassen creates to invite curiosity and spark thought. Inspired by street artists, he will both place his work publicly in collaboration with a city or nonprofit, and renegade establish it in a wilderness location. The works are messages, meant to be seen by all.
Unbeknownst to me in our initial meeting, I learned over the course of this interview that Hassen has Parkinson’s disease, which has progressed in the last few years. For a man with such artistic talent and so much to express, the disease presents a poignant and pressing challenge.
“As Parkinson’s progresses, I find that the nature of my fabrication is changing to incorporate more digital collage and large format printing. I find that I’m in a race. Parkinson’s works to shut down one’s ability to express oneself— to ‘be’ in the world. It stifles your voice, activity, desire, intellect, facial expressions, mobility, balance and more—essentially robbing you of your personality. My art making is more important than ever as a personal expression of my life’s passion. I gotta keep making it—while I still can!”
Despite the increasingly present nature of his disease, Hassen’s work and Parkinson’s are separate. Though it affects him, it does not define him, and his larger focus on humanity remains paramount. Hassen anticipates that at some point, Parkinson’s will inhibit him physically to a significant degree. But he recalls Matisse, who, with crippling arthritis, continued to make art with only a pair of scissors.
“I wonder about the ways I’ll be able to work a computer trackpad in the future?” he mused.
Hassen is greatly inspired by history in his work, citing one of his favorite quotes as “Be humble; a lot happened before you were born.” He sees great value in revisiting historical narrative, culling the accounts for the correlations evident between then and now.
“History is a rich field to mine, because while it doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes,” said Hassen. “It’s hard not to see and exploit the narratives.”
Hassen’s work, for the last several years, has been inspired by the ongoing climate crisis. I need hardly say that while I write this, we are in a dangerous heatwave. But rather than fear-monger or otherwise add to the cacophony of distraught voices, Hassen seeks, with his art, to transmute the overtly bad situation into a more complicated, multi-faceted one, worth exploring.
In other words, rather than viewing humanity as in a fight with nature, Hassen invites us to view humanity as a participating part of nature. He seeks to create work that invites viewers to consider more of a balanced perspective of themselves and their role—a yin and yang sense of both our generative and our destructive tendencies, as a species.
“The trick,” said Hassen, “is to not come across as didactic, but to give the viewer enough clues that let them pull the pieces together. We’re all adults here, and it’s not my job to lead the viewer by the nose to a conclusion. I use layers of information that give hope and meaning, if one is willing to keep digging. Mostly I use beauty as a tool—portraying beautiful flowers that are also medicinal, or using elemental and sacred geometry as a background pattern, or creating a fascinating latticework pattern that is made of frog skeletons, or candy-colored climate gasses.”
Never pedantic, and neither overly hopeful nor overtly pessimistic, Hassen’s exhibition is a powerful entity. The rich history present, the layers of symbolism and the beauty with which each piece conveys its message, result in mysterious artworks that seem to be in a language we once knew but have forgotten. The work stirs a memory in us, shaking us and waking us up.
“Hope is difficult to peddle these days,” said Hassen. “And there are no easy answers. My hope is that the beauty in my work can inspire people to get off the mark and start making that transformative change.”
‘Indicators: Nature in Flux’ is on view Sept. 17-Nov. 10 at Modern Art West, 521 Broadway, Sonoma. www.modernartwest.com