Steve Hanks | Celebrating Humanity

By Sally Eauclaire

Leaving in the Rain [1997], watercolor, 26 x 52., painting, southwest art.
Leaving in the Rain [1997], watercolor, 26 x 52.

Whether the subject is a baby nestled in its mother’s arms, a nude reclining on a sun-drenched bed, or an aging cowboy saddling his horse, Steve Hanks is interested in people. “I paint my family, neighbors, and friends,” says Hanks. “My goal has always been to paint people of our time in a way that transcends time.”

And so he has, as viewers can see in a retrospective exhibition of his works opening this month at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK [See Page 102].

Beginning [1997], watercolor, 315⁄8 x 225⁄8., painting, southwest art.
Beginning [1997], watercolor, 315⁄8 x 225⁄8.

The show includes 35 new paintings in addition to 20 works spanning some 30 years. But while Hanks’ images are timeless, they are also highly personal, an intimate chronicle of the emotions and events of his own life.

“I look at the work in this show and see the passage of time,” says Hanks [b 1949]. Among them are numerous paintings of his children, now 17, 10, and 5. “My kids have had a huge influence on my life,” he says. “Seeing them grow up, I relive my own life. By painting them, I paint the stages of my life.”

Although Hanks doesn’t paint self-portraits, “every time I do a painting, I paint a part of myself,” he says. Thus, his portraits of nudes are a vehicle for expressing his emotions. “Men aren’t seen as having a sensitive side, but they do,” he says. “I use my paintings of women to communicate that side of myself.”

Reclining nudes in a panoramic format are a frequent subject for Hanks. “By closing in on the figure, I create a landscape,” he says of the hill-like contours of a shoulder, the angled

Statuesque [1990], watercolor, 401⁄2 x 201⁄2., painting, southwest art.
Statuesque [1990], watercolor, 401⁄2 x 201⁄2

underside of a chin, the bumpy path of a spine. “When the impact of the figure is strong, I think it should be respected.”

Respect matters to Hanks, who is quick to respond to suggestions that his paintings of children are too sweet or his nudes too titillating. “When I studied art in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s, we thought we could improve the world by creating symbolic art with ‘deep’ meaning,” Hanks says. Since then, however, he’s changed his mind. “Real depth and meaning in art comes not necessarily from symbolism but from trusting your senses and laying out your thoughts in the most honest way you can.” Thus Hanks’ son dressed up for Halloween holding out a sack for treats is an opportunity to make a statement about the plight of the homeless who rely on the charity of others. And his idyllic view of a mother and daughter sitting on a bridge dangling their feet into a trout stream carries a subtle message about the importance of the relationship between parent and child.

“I compare my approach to that of the Beatles. They made radical statements about life and philosophy after first touching people with the beauty of their melodies, much the way I hope to touch people with my paintings.”

Regarding his nudes, Hanks says, “Why is it that so many Americans are embarrassed or titillated by nudity rather than being proud of the human body? In Florence, for example, nude paintings and sculpture are everywhere—they are viewed as a celebration of humanity.”

My Father, My Daughter [1997], watercolor, 151⁄4 x 103⁄8., painting, southwest art.
My Father, My Daughter [1997], watercolor, 151⁄4 x 103⁄8.

While Hanks speaks freely about the meanings underlying his paintings, he is less inclined to talk about his technique. “When you define your work verbally, it limits you because you then have to work within that definition,” he says. “I like to go into the studio and start painting without worrying about following a prescribed technique. I’m a workhorse, doing one painting after another. I’ve developed my style through hard work—not in classes or by emulating someone else.”

Hanks primarily paints large-scale, highly detailed watercolors, his medium for more than a decade. “Twelve years ago I became very allergic to oil paint,” says Hanks. Consequently he has found ways to adapt the finished techniques of oil painting to the more spontaneous medium of watercolor. “I have a background in oil painting, so when I switched to watercolors I applied some of the same thinking.” Hanks is not interested in the transparent washes that many watercolorists prefer, though. To get the earthy colors he likes, he lays down layer upon layer of color, building from light to dark.

Recently, Hanks has been working on several series of paintings with subjects ranging from

Room for Herself [1998], watercolor, 201⁄2 x 303⁄4., painting, southwest art.
Room for Herself [1998], watercolor, 201⁄2 x 303⁄4.

mischievous little girls dressed in angel costumes to his teenage daughter preparing to leave home. “I used to feel that one painting of a subject was enough; I’d lose interest in doing any more than that.” says Hanks. “But lately I’ve found myself in the middle of a painting thinking about other possibilities a subject has to offer. If I can’t decide on one pose, I do several.”

Leaving in the Rain, for example, is part of a series Hanks did recently of his teenage daughter. The painting is one of Hanks’ favorites in the Gilcrease show. It expresses his emotional turmoil as a parent watching his child move toward

The Newest Angel [1998], watercolor, 581⁄2 x 321⁄4., painting, southwest art.
The Newest Angel [1998], watercolor, 581⁄2 x 321⁄4.

adulthood. “The rain evokes the sadness and tumultuous transitions parents go through when their child leaves home,” he says. The next painting in the series, Waiting for the Train, shows the same scene from the opposite direction. “The rain is letting up and the sun is beginning to break through the clouds, offering a feeling of hope for her future,” says Hanks.

His new angel series also looks at children finding their place in the adult world. “Children at this age are the closest thing we have to angels in our lives,” says Hanks. “It’s difficult to watch them step out into the world knowing how much it will change them.”

Hanks was taught in art school to “paint what you know.” Though he initially thought his own life was of little aesthetic interest, he has come to realize that there is much to be found close to home. Indeed, he has made a career finding meaning in images that might have been overlooked. From a portrait of his youngest child to one of his retired dad on his cattle ranch, Hanks’ works celebrate humanity in a timeless fashion.

Photos courtesy the Artist and E.S. Lawrence Gallery, Aspen, CO.

Featured in June 1998

Steve Hanks. southwest art.
Steve Hanks.