Inspired by the Sea: The art of Odd Andersen
Odd Andersen is the son of a Norwegian merchant sailor. Like many emigrants from Norway, Andersen’s family settled in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and that is where he was raised. Somewhat following in his father’s footsteps he headed to the harbor on this side of the Atlantic for work, where he was employed for almost 30 years as a dock builder.
What he saw and experienced inspired him to articulate these images through paint and canvas. Mostly self-taught, he has created remarkably complex paintings of the relationships that develop on the waterfront between nature, watercraft, and the folks who maneuver them. In his work, the people remain nearly invisible, yet one feels their presence and adept skills.
There is a moody romanticism to his work that harks back to an earlier time, when the New York waterfront was filled with docks, sailors, and tugs that needed to handle the abundance of cargo, rather than today’s increasing number of glass towers that separate rather than connect our communities to the shore. With this disconnect, we have lost the perspective that Andersen so generously shares. His work is more than artistic; it is historical, a visual oral history.
One of his recent exhibits was titled A Life on the Water, perfect for a man who has the tales of his Norwegian merchant marine father, his visits to Norway, and his decades of employment as a dock builder to inspire. Andersen resides in New Jersey. I had a chance to ask him about his work and life.
Victoria Hofmo: Could you speak a little about your experience growing up in Bay Ridge?
Odd Andersen: As I look back growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I feel that I wouldn’t trade it for the world. As a youngster on 57th Street, we had the opportunity to play a variety of sports in the streets, including stick ball, roller hockey, touch football, etc. The fact that all efforts were directed to the war effort those days, there were not many cars on the street, allowing all of us kids in the neighborhood freedom to play right outside our houses.
Jumping ahead to my teen years, I was involved with the Bay Ridge Church League playing basketball for about three years, for the 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church. I was also active in the church, attending Junior League and enjoying hanging out at the local ice cream parlor, Dodenhoffs, afterward.
VH: What drew you to the water?
OA: Before I was born, my father, Herman, sailed for 20 years on sailing vessels and steamships all over the world, so I was able to hear stories growing up of his adventures. As a young boy, my dad worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so boats and the sea were just part of growing up. My parents were both born in Norway—Mom in Kristiansand and Pop in Fredrikstad, both sea coast cities.
VH: How did you become a dock builder?
OA: In 1953, I found work on the first Tappan Zee Bridge, working with the dock builders. From there, I worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, after which I started on the extension of the LaGuardia Airport runway. I also worked on the Niagara Falls Power House, Newburg-Beacon Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge, and many piers in the New York harbor and Port Elizabeth in New Jersey.
At the age of 21, I was assigned to the Harbor Defense Unit in Lewes, Del., with the Navy. My job was to patrol the Delaware Bay area in three small 64-foot boats, together with 50 sailors and 50 soldiers looking for mines left after the war. We accidently did come across a mine that we quickly brought back to safety.
VH: How did you get interested in art?
OA: In my early years, 6 or 7, I started to draw my favorite cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Elmer Fudd. Eventually, at age 12, my parents enrolled me in art lessons from Mr. Norheim, who had an art store and studio on 61st Street and 8th Avenue. Mr. Norheim was a very accomplished artist, working mostly in an oil medium, thereby teaching me at an early age how to construct a painting. In fact, I still have a painting done in 1948 from that one-year experience with his studio.
In around 1961/1962, my father asked me if I could paint a picture of a photo he had of a square rigger. This was my introduction to marine painting, with emphasis on bridges, piers, all types of boats, and harbors and scenes that included the sea. I continued to paint in oil as, in my opinion, I feel a painting becomes more dramatic and bold and I liked the consistency of working with it, compared to water and acrylic paint.
I never strayed far from the sea, thereby giving me an interest that I have relished all these years—what I love—marine-inspired work. After retiring, I was finally able to paint in a more serious manner. I also found time to study at the Ridgewood, N.J., Barn, working with many other artists from New Jersey.
VH: Where has your work been exhibited?
OA: I have displayed my art in various interesting galleries in the New York area—Norwegian Seaman’s Church and Swedish Seaman’s Church, as well as the Mellville Gallery at the South Street Seaport and The Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center in Brooklyn. My latest exhibit was in January 2018 at the Ridgewood, New Jersey, Stable where I exhibited 77 paintings.
Andersen’s journey between dock building and painting reminds me of another Norwegian-American artist, Bernhard Berntsen, who was a Brooklyn resident employed as an ironworker and an artist who became a painter with the WPA. We often delineate between those who do manual labor and artists. But I have found that in the Norwegian community, labor and the arts are integrated. You don’t choose one over the other; you did both.
As Andersen says, “Since I work in my studio over the garage, I have only to walk a few feet from my house where I have found a hobby I so enjoy. To me there is no better way of life than doing something that fulfills you… Life is good!”
This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.