A Life’s Work

Eugene’s Mike Van has been making and showing art for half a century

Eugene artist Mike Van doesn’t want to call his new exhibition at White Lotus a “retrospective,” even though the title of the show refers to “A Life’s Work.”

He’s still working, he says, and he points out there are some recent pieces in the exhibit. He’s also not one to give off airs. He says some people have called his drawings “surreal,” but he just draws what’s around: trees, birds, water. 

The Innovative Eye: A Life’s Work by Mike Van is at White Lotus Gallery through Oct. 3.

“As for how people can visit the show, we’re kind of in a gray area,” gallery manager Jen Huang says. The front door has been open since July, but the gallery still keeps a “by appointment” sign on it to help monitor social distancing. 

In place of the traditional art opening, the artist and his daughter Kim Still, who curated his work for the show, are to create a talk and gallery tour that will be available for viewing online.

How did they select the art for this show? After all, Van’s been making art for a long time. He says he held up a work and his daughter, who studied art history and was the Saturday Market manager for years, told him, “That goes, this doesn’t.”

Talking to Van you get the idea the use of the word “innovative”’ in the show’s title relates to his habit of working off the top of his head. A pencil drawing from 2011 selected for the show titled “Tiara” illustrates this tendency perfectly: The drawing is of a woman who has a tree growing out the top of her head with birds on the branches.

His ocean watercolors done in the studio, mostly without source material, are strong. “Beach Geometry” is a 6-by-10-inch watercolor that flows but also depicts the hard lines and contrast of dark shadows you see on the sand in full sunlight.

He always sketches when he goes to the ocean. Drawing driftwood, rocks and sand, he also likes the wide open beach as a place in which to place figures. In the black and white  “Beach Drift with Figures,” done in sumi ink and watercolor, large pieces of wood come up out of the ocean, dwarfing the figures in their boats. 

Van has been spending time at the Oregon coast since he was first married to his wife, Maron, when they rented a house north of Newport that had a path to the water. His first show, in 1960, was at the Yaquina Art Center in Newport. In Eugene he has exhibited at Maude Kerns Art Center for five decades. And he’s been showing art in group shows at White Lotus Gallery since 2006. 

He says when he got his B.A. degree from the University of Idaho in 1953 there were basically two things a person could do after graduating with an art degree: teach or become a graphic artist. Van’s  degree was in education and art. He then came west and earned his MFA in drawing and painting from the University of Oregon in 1957. For the first four years of his professional life he taught K-12 and then he worked roughly 30 years as a high school art teacher at South Eugene High School. 

I asked if he had to choose — which he totally doesn’t — would he identify himself as an artist or a teacher? He said probably as an artist first, but the two have overlapped. And though he hasn’t taught in a long while — he retired from teaching in 1988 — he continues to paint.

Getting up in the morning, he thinks, “What am I going to do today?” Probably going to pick up a pencil, he says, even though sometimes he should be doing yard work.

The Innovative Eye: A Life’s Work by Mike Van is at White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette St., through Oct. 3. Viewing is by appointment; call or email 541-345-3276 or

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