Nolan Haan, contemporary art

"Who I really am

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new modern artIt is difficult to edit one's life, to sift through the myriad events, feelings, and friendships that make a person who he is, and then to choose what is of interest to a reader. Perhaps I can summarize my first twenty-one years by saying, "I got C's in art." As a biology major in college, my only drawings were of cat entrails and shark livers.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and a longing for adventure. Within months, I was sitting in a thatched hut surrounded by Samoans, wondering why I had ever joined the Peace Corps.

My Peace Corps tour was significant, for that is where I learned to paint. I was assigned to a remote village school on Savai'i, deep in the south Pacific. My job was to teach the locals about molecular bonding and other indispensable shards of knowledge. My real job, it turned out, was to survive. As culture shock set in, as my body, mind, stomach, and bowels wrestled with this foreign land, I turned to brush and turpentine to save my sanity          

Before leaving the states, I asked an art supplier to outfit me with the essentials for oil painting. "Time weighs heavily in Samoa," our training manual advised. I decided to learn a new hobby.   My first painting was quite ambitious:  a Samoan student dressed in a lavalava. Oil paint was as foreign to him as it was to me, so there was no pressure to produce something grand. That first portrait-shades of Rembrandt at the time, but pure embarrassment today-gave me a direction: the love of character and face.

I painted only people  in those days. It never occurred to me to do landscapes or wildlife (or cinderblock walls!) The Samoans were frightened of my work. To see a face emerge from the canvas confused them. They sat for hours as I sketched, and they kept a respectful distance from the paintings as they dried.
Old Lady Smoking by Nolan Haan

My palette was mostly earth tones: the umbers, ocres, siennas, burnt green earth, and ultramarine deep. Since the nearest art store was 2,500 miles away, I was forced to experiment with what I had. And because I had no instructor or fellow students to influence me, my style and techniques evolved uniquely. I approached each subject without the limitations imposed by a knowledge of "accepted practices."

After two years in Samoa, I thought I'd try "being an artist" in Hawaii. The most prestigious gallery in Honolulu accepted my work, as well as seventy percent commission. My art, unfortunately, proved rather noncommercial. Paintings of aged Samoan ladies were not a hot ticket item. Within months I was on welfare, and soon after that I gave up my career in art.  Several teaching jobs followed-Pago Pago, Iran, and Pennsylvania, but I longed to resume my art. I decided to take a couple years off, go to an exotic land, and paint. 

Indonesia was my choice, for it met my number one prerequisite: CHEAP.   My sister joined me, and together we bicycled through the lush rice paddies and villages of central Java, seeking a site for our Bamboo Dream House.Bamboo dreamhouse  We found a lovely plot of land, shrouded with coconut, banana, and breadfruit trees. It was fed by a small stream and boasted a view of a distant volcano.  Best of all, the rent was only one dollar per month.

For eight weeks we beguiled the villagers with our building prowess.  As dozens of children watched our every hammer blow, a forest of bamboo slowly became our home. We slept under mosquito nets, read by kerosene lamps, and bathed in rain water collected into barrels from the roof. Our only connection with American culture was Skippy Peanut Butter.

Tomato Lady portrait innovations

Painting in Indonesia was an audienced event, and it cured me forever of being shy about painting in public.  Indonesians are intense watchers (one child actually watched me read for two hours.)   Again, I painted character studies of the villagers, my favorite being "The Tomato Lady." I began experimenting with glazes, using a medium of stand oil, damar varnish, and turpentine.  An occasional sale to expatriates enabled us to travel to Bali, Singapore, and Hong Kong .

After two years in Indonesia, I needed to be revaccinated with American culture. My $3/week lifestyle, unfortunately, did not translate well in America. I was forced to put art aside and earn some money again. For three years, art became an occasional thing.

One afternoon, while I was painting at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., a man asked if I had ever painted a duck.  I chuckled to myself, thinking, "Who would ever..." When he told me about the Federal Duck Stamp competition and the million dollar prize, however, I found myself suddenly passionate for waterfowl. With only a month before the entry deadline, I decided to go for it.

I was acutely aware of a severe limitation: absolutely no knowledge of birds. Also, in late August, the ducks at the National Zoo were molting, so I was forced to paint from a stuffed bird. Having read that the king eider is strikingly handsome, I searched the local museums for a mount. Unfortunately, the eider at the Smithsonian is distressingly ugly.  Desperation prevailed, however, and I rationalized that with a cosmetic overhaul, it just might work.

Since my forte was portraiture, I decided to compete from a position of strength by doing a head shot. I sketched and photographed the eider from many angles, but it was only when I sat on the floor to rest did I discover THE angle. I drew a detailed sketch and excitedly showed it to my family.

They laughed. "A loser," they all advised.

Without time enough to explore other options, I had to make the best of this design. The work progressed surprisingly fast. The five inch by seven inch format was so small that I finished the head in a few days. The background, however, was more challenging. To be competitive, I felt I needed to give the judges more that a bird's head, so I decided to put the bird in its natural habitat. To paint icebergs and snow convincingly, I needed to do some field research, so with camera in hand I journeyed to...the Library of Congress.

king eider by Nolan Haan The finished painting received mixed reviews from my friends.  Most found it striking, yet odd. From a competitive standpoint (I learned later), it had three major strikes against it: a single bird, a head shot, and a king eider.  Not one of these had ever prevailed in the fifty years of Federal Duck Stamp Competitions.   Although my entry drew considerable comment at the judging, few thought it a serous contender. A typical comment was made by Russell Fink, an art dealer from Virginia: "I never knew why they called it a king eider, until I saw your painting. But it will not win."

It didn't.

The eider received a perfect score of ten from four of the five judges, enough to place it second (behind Phil Scholer's pintails) in a field of 1567 entries. (P.S. There was no money for second place.)

Suddenly I was at the center of an art field I knew nothing about. When told that people actually count primary feathers, panic set in. "What," I asked, "are primary feathers?" Thanks to the guidance of Russ Fink, my education began. Together we traveled to Montana, Wisconsin, Canada, and Maryland shore points, seeking birds, habitat, and bird experts.  We shivered in duck blinds and took thousands of photos. I spent so much time at the National Zoo, they considered providing me with a cage to sleep in. With Russ grooming me, my beginner's luck continued. After placing second in Maryland's competition, I won the Delaware and Nevada contests (twice.) In 1985, New York's Ducks Unlimited named me "Artist of the Year."

After three years of painting miniatures, I felt it was time for a new challenge. I put aside my tiny brushes and magnifying glass and stretched a canvas five by six feet. On this surface I painted the head and shoulders of a red-tailed hawk.              

red tailed hawk

The hawk was first displayed at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. To be absolutely modest, it brought the house down. It received the attention every artist dreams of and gave me the courage to begin (with my sister) our own publishing company. We wanted to print, advertise, and market my images. Again I entered a field knowing absolutely nothing. The hawk was a success, however, and gave our newly formed Terfli Higgins Publishing Company a running start. In our first year, we released "Red-tailed Hawk," "Woodies," "Golden Eagle," as well as the 1986 Nevada Duck Stamp Print and "On Golden Pond."

Alas, the pressures and time consumption of print marketing grew old very quickly. The decision to be either an artist or a publisher was finally confronted. I simply wanted to paint without the pressure to print or sell anything.  I wanted to experiment with several ideas that had been put aside for too long.


Inspired by my artist friend, Carlos Cobos, I longed to enter the contemporary art scene.  What I needed was a concept, something that hadn't been done before. One day, while sitting in my basement studio, staring at the paint-spattered cinderblock walls, I thought, "If you could somehow take that wall and hang it in a modern art gallery, it would fit right in. Why not paint a picture of a cinderblock wall?" I had found my muse.

The challenge to paint a convincing, fool-the-eye wall took me six months of experimenting to solve, so please forgive me for keeping my techniques secret.  Silk charmeuse is my substrate. Because its surface is smooth, the illusion is not compromised by the texture of fabric.  I incorporate brushes, rubbing, and spray paint to transform the luxurious fabric into cement. No computer, printing, silk screen, or photographic techniques are used.  And no magic paint from Home Depot. 

modern art, art online, contemporary artist, artist, Nolan Haan, Nolan Hahn, fool the eye art, concrete block

Cinder block walls are the ideal subjects. They have stories to tell, but they don’t fidget and ask for a coffee break. With some coaxing, they evoke sadness, tell jokes, or comment on the human condition. Some pay homage to early masters; others display contemporary graffiti or prehistoric cave art. Each endeavors to elicit a reaction, initiate a conversation, and establish a relationship with the viewer.

My recent paintings explore the sculptural potential of individual cinder blocks, rendered larger-than-life. The painted silk is affixed to hardboard, which is cut to the exact shape of the cinder block, giving the illusion of floating blocks of cement. The effect is minimal, tactile. To see more paintings from my cinder block series, please click HERE.


I have been exploring the range of my cinderblock work for many years, and still I am intrigued. I love to experiment with the subtleties of surface texture, of mortar and stucco. The variations seem endless. Whether I adorn them with portraiture, narratives, or simply abstract fields of color, what draws people in is the “cinderblock” itself. This common building material has something more to say....  

My family was less than thrilled with my new "modern art kick." In fact, they thought I had gone completely mad.  After a while, my entire home was draped in cinderblock silk paintings. Slowly my family came to accept them.  One afternoon, while walking down the street with my mother, she pointed and said, "Now there's an interesting wall." Maybe I was making headway after all.

Graffiti tag art competes with Lascaux prehistoric Art in this trompe l’oeil wall art painting by international artist Nolan Haan

Paintings of cinderblock walls became my obsession, but in 1989 my life took a major turn. David Williams, my long time partner, was diagnosed with AIDS. For three years we struggled with his illness, until he passed away at the age of thirty-five. My art career, no longer important to me, sputtered to a halt.

Ignoring the advise of friends against doing anything drastic, I put a down payment on a sixteen unit historic apartment building in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I became a landlord. Located in a neglected area of town, the price was low, the building was a mess, but my resolve was high. Armed with a one percentile mechanical aptitude, I began renovating the "Half Moon Inn." The next five years brought numerous evictions of crack heads and prostitutes, an arson fire, death threats, and burglaries. But slowly, apartment by apartment, the building was transformed.

Half Moon Inn

One day, while I was sweeping the front porch, a friend pulled up and said that a historic house was to be demolished, and did I want to check it out? Thinking I could salvage some door knobs, I said, "OK." That morning marked yet another life-altering moment. The buzz was that the house would be given to anyone willing to remove it from the site. Since I owned a vacant lot across the street from my "hotel," (bought for an insanely cheap price,) I was eligible. The city of Fort Lauderdale owned the house and put it up for bid. After some quick research on house moving, I put in a negative bid. Everyone thought I was crazy, that the city commission would laugh at me. But guess what? I got the house plus $50,000 in cash, enough to pay for the move and the foundation. Do you hate me yet?

The house, a two story colonial, weighed too much to traverse the bridges to get to my neighborhood, so I was forced to find an alternative route. There was really only one option: we floated it up the river on a barge.

Official Website of artist Nolan Haan. Addicted to Walls. Discover the amazing fool-the-eye contemporary art paintings and new modern art by contemporary artist Nolan Haan, presenting his fine art online

I won't go into all the details--that will cost you a dinner--but suffice it to say that the three day journey was the most amazing weekend of my life. Getting it on and off the barge, up the streets, and positioned on the lot was miraculous. I still can't believe it happened. There were helicopters, television crews, reporters, and crowds of onlookers. Telephone/tv cable/electric crews were taking down their lines as the house inched up the street. Tree limbs were being cut; streets were blocked. Oh, Nolan, what have you done?

With the house on its foundation, my real work began. I decided to make this a life project by learning all the trades, pulling owner/builder permits, and doing all the renovation work with a single helper, my best friend Mitchell Lambert. I went to the library and got books like "How to wire a House" and "Installing Tile." We scrapped every piece of molding to the bare wood. We refinished all the hard wood floors, installed all new plumbing and electric, installed toilets, sinks, and showers, did faux finishes, reglazed the windows, landscaped the property, and yes, I'm bragging.

Nolan Haan art paintings

Voila. My masterpiece. An over-achievement. Serendipity (what if I hadn't been sweeping the porch?) I often think that it was my Peace Corps experience, where we had to face the fear of the unknown, that gave me the guts to take on this project. I never really thought I knew what I was doing. I always felt out of my element. But I did it anyway. That's what I'm most proud of.

The historic renovation career continues, but at a slower pace. We are presently restoring two cottages and preparing to move another house, which will be Mitchell's home (his reward for years of loyal putting-up-with me.) As this phase of my life comes to a close, I again feel drawn to the art world. I converted one of the apartments into a studio and have resumed my cinderblock series. It feels like a new beginning, and I am curious where it will take me.

Nolan Haan contemporary art paintings

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