Tana Hakanson: The Artist’s journey home (Part I)

The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.  – Robert Henri, American painter and teacher

I’ve known Tana Hakanson going on eight years this autumn, when our first-born sons entered kindergarten. Thus began years of volunteering at our children’s elementary school and seemingly endless, idyllic afternoons on the playground, our homes and other friends’ homes, and at various child-centered venues for playdates – while we worked outside of the home full-time. As we got to know one another, we developed a special kinship centered in the arts: Tana is an artist, a painter, and I am a fiction writer. Our bond was deepened by our love of paint and words, respectively, and the shared frustration of not having the time or energy to explore our craft and nourish our souls. Through the years, we commiserated with one another, offered encouraging words, and congratulated the incremental victories of finishing a painting and completing a revision of the novel.

Two-thousand thirteen promises to be an important year for the both of us, as we dive deep and make headway into living our creative lives: My novel, after a 16-year journey, will finally be completed later this year, and Tana, who launched her art studio website earlier this year, is preparing for her second open studio.

Tana Hakanson works on a painting at her home studio in the Richmond Annex.

Tana Hakanson works on a painting at her home studio in the Richmond Annex.

The Artist emerges
This time, last year Tana Hakanson reluctantly signed up to participate in Pro Arts’ East Bay Open Studio last June, at the urging of her husband Mauricio Monsalve. She had returned to painting a year and a half ago, when Mauricio suggested that she reduce her hours as a systems specialist for an adventure travel company to four days a week. But at the time, she felt she didn’t have enough work to present, even though her free Fridays allowed her the block of time she needed to paint. Mauricio knew she was ready, but just needed a push. By the end of the open studio, she had sold 21 paintings and was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to her work. As Tana sets up for her second open studio next month, she is better prepared with more work to show and more inspired. More importantly, she has grown so much as an artist.

Tana as a child and budding artist.

Tana as a child and budding artist.

Artistic beginnings, hiatus, and return
As a child, Tana loved to draw. When she went to college, however, she studied music under scholarship. She switched majors and graduated with a degree in English and a minor in music, although she managed to take a lot of drawing and painting classes. When she went on an overseas study program in Indonesia, she fell in love with the local art and was inspired by the colors and how art is part of everyday life in Bali. She studied traditional Balinese art and stayed on after the program ended, painting and selling her work to individual art patrons and in a local art gallery in Bali.

After graduation, Tana tried her hand at commercial art, attempting to combine her love of art with earning a living. She did illustrations of books on dogs and cats. “It was really fun, but I realized it wasn’t exactly what I was trying to get out of art,” she recalled. For Tana, art is “personal and spiritual.” She applied to graduate school, hoping to explore that aspect of art. Most of the programs out there, according to Tana, were more conceptual, socially driven, and intellectual, and not focused on the spiritual or philosophical experience of art. The arts and consciousness program at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley stressed the process of art over art itself and the transformative aspects of art making. Many graduates of the program become art therapists; but Hakanson said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it [the degree], but I knew it was what I wanted to study.”

Getting her masters jump-started her to develop her art further. When she gave birth to her son Marcelo in 2000 and then her son Mateo in 2003, however, Hakanson focused on motherhood, which she describes as a “deep and ongoing experience.” Although she continued sketching – taking her sketchbooks on family road trips – she stopped painting altogether. Working at Wilderness Travel (1102 9th Street, Berkeley, 94710, 800.368.2794) and taking care of her sons after school didn’t leave any time, especially big blocks of time, for painting.

Tana and her family on a recent trip.

Tana and her family on a recent trip.

She carved out a little time to take up dance, specifically flamenco, which was a different medium for releasing her creativity. “I love the body and I love movement,” she said. “Movement is a way to connect to nature and that energy of life, and it’s transformative in the same way art is.” When her Fridays were freed up, she contemplated dropping flamenco to focus completely on painting. But the movement aspect of dance and dance’s ability to fuel her art and give her energy were important enough to keep both going. “For me, a big aspect of my work is movement,” she said.

Tana's sketch of a dancer.

Tana’s sketch of a dancer.

Abstract painting: Freedom to experiment
Tana is devoting the next two years to developing her painting, and then marketing her work. For now, with Fridays as her only day for painting, she has just enough pieces for next month’s open studio. Tana feels that she’s learned so much in the last year in terms of working with the materials. “The more I paint, the more I understand how to use the material for what I want to do,” she said. One of her many goals this year is to work with disparity in the tones to create more contrast, which creates depth. “I tend to avoid contrast, because this kind of boldness doesn’t come naturally to me – in painting or in real life,” she explained. “But just like in any aspect of life, you have to face it and keep trying if you want to grow. I have a vision of where I want my art to be, but it’s not something I can really pinpoint.”

An abstract painting from Tana's series of water paintings.

An abstract painting from Tana’s series of water paintings.

Experimenting with “liquidy” paint gives her the sense of movement that she is seeking, in both the process itself and the work. “As the paint settles, you can see the energy and flow of movement,” she said. “For me, it’s about freedom to try new things, seeing where it takes me, the unexpected, and surprises along the way,” she said. “The process is the thing for me – then something interesting comes out of it that eventually becomes a painting. Sometimes it just happens naturally – like magic. Sometimes it involves some working and struggling along the way. Mostly it’s some of both, and that interplay makes it compelling.”

Tana Hakanson will show her new work at this year’s East Bay Open Studio, sponsored by Pro Arts the first two weekends in June (1-2 and 8-9), from 11am to 6pm, at her home at 1633 Mariposa Street, Richmond, CA 94804. You can also see her work at Tana Hakanson Studio. Support the arts! Let Tana know that you read about her work here.

Editor’s Note: Part II of Tana Hakanson: The Artist’s Journey Home will be posted on Monday, May 27.

The artist's studio.

A painting dries at the artist’s studio.