A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

River art: One man’s work to make us smile

Written July 27th, 2021 by Hasso Hering

Nate Vanek with his latest three works of stick art on the gravel bar below.

Nate Vanek has been busy, creating art to entertain and amuse the people in Albany who happen to catch a glimpse of it.

Last week he put together pieces of wood and created two figures who looked like they were angling off a gravel bar in the Willamette River. Monday night he added a third. Tuesday night, before he talked to me, he had been trying to find wood for more.

Last spring, he painted a blank concrete wall at the Albany skatepark to make it look like the scene of a river or coastline. Before that, he fashioned a big dog out of pieces of wood and bark along one of the walkways in Waverly Park. And in October last year, he made people smile with a stick figures he set up in Bowman Park.

“For me,” he told me Tuesday, “making something out of nothing, that does something for me.” And then there’s the kick he gets out of seeing the enjoyment people get out of seeing his creations.

At 48, Vanek lives downtown and has been bouncing around various jobs. He once aimed to become a professional competitive fisherman. He also was a milkman, he says, one of the last of their kind. I first learned about him last spring at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, where people praised him as a helpful volunteer. That’s where over one weekend he had painted the mural on the skatepark wall.

He’s an artist specializing in oil paintings of fish, paintings that are for sale. You won’t be surprised that some of his paintings feature fish in whimsical scenes, like sitting at schoolroom desks — or talking to a reporter on the Broadalbin Street pier.  (He whipped that one up after I arranged in the afternoon to meet him there at 6.)

Wading out to the gravel bar in the river has been kind of tricky. The shallow river flows fast in places, digging a deeper channel. On Monday night, he says, the current almost swept him away.

He keeps at it, though. The harder it is to reach that island of gravel, he figures, the longer his wooden creations are likely to stick around. (hh)

Nate gave me this scene he had painted just before I met him on that pier.


22 responses to “River art: One man’s work to make us smile”

  1. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Somewhere a government bureaucrat with a deeply pessimistic view of human nature is not smiling.

    The bureaucrat runs on rules and demands compliance, even for whimsical stick art that was created on a public gravel bar without government approval.

    The bureaucrat exists to save us from ourselves. Wipe that smile from your face.

  2. Ernie and Lindell Johnson says:

    We have enjoyed the art on the gravel bar ever since it appeared. Thought the newspaper would do an article, but thank goodness you have highlighted it, Hasso. It always makes us smile!!!

  3. Rdjourney says:

    Love the wonderful creativity and touch of whimsy his creations bring to the river walk area.

  4. Cindy says:

    I love this!! Hopefully the city leaves his creations alone this time!

  5. Ken says:

    Nate’s creativity keeps me smiling.
    I trust most folks who find his treasures
    along the banks and bars of the Willamette River enjoy his gift.

  6. Leroy says:

    I haven’t seen it, but i will make it a point to go look. Thanks for sharing HH

  7. David Cross says:

    Would love to see Nate Vanek’s work in an Albany gallery.

  8. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    The same bureaucrat referenced above is now losing patience with the hoi polloi expressing their support for Mr. Vanek and his stick art.

    The city has an Arts Commission. It is the Commission’s duty to regulate and approve art. That is not the role of the proletariat.

    Mr. Vanek needs to take his stick art and get it officially incorporated in the Art Master Plan. Then he must obtain the Commission’s blessing and the City Council’s approval before displaying the art out for public consumption. This should only take about a year.

    This is how bureaucracy works. Mr. Vanek needs to learn to follow the rules. It’s for the common good.

    • Bob Woods says:

      Well Gordon, you’re left behind by the good people of Albany.
      And Again.
      And Again……

      • Bill Kapaun says:

        The “good people of Albany” are showing they can produce art without having to send k$’s out of state for crap that malfunctions. That isn’t going to sit well with the city elitists. It’s making them look TOO STUPID!

    • Janis Franklin says:

      As usual, WTF are you talking about Shadle? It must take a lot of work to be this angry about a town you no longer live in.

  9. Rene' says:

    We were lucky enough to see a piece of the original wood that he harvested from a very dead old tree that was laying around ! Nice to see the finished project! Thanks Nate!

  10. Shirley says:

    That bureaucrat shouldn’t fret too much. Someday the rains will return, the river will rise and Mr. Vanek’s artwork will float away. In the meantime just let us enjoy it.

  11. Jenni Lorenzen says:

    What’s next Gordon? Should we regulate the building of sandcastles at the beach or the use of sidewalk chalk?

    • Gordon L. Shadle says:

      My comments are sarcasm, Jenni.

      But I am giving serious consideration to your excellent suggestions to regulate sandcastles and sidewalk chalk art.

      It’s never too early to teach pesky kids about public property and its proper governance.

      • hj.anony1 says:

        oh I think you have been drawn outside the lines “no shade”. Funny.
        Get back to the taxation without representation issues please. That is your home base.

        And new post soon HH. Please…..

  12. Scott Bruslind says:

    Thank you for connecting the dots of Mr. Vanek’s eclectic talents and cultural contributions.
    We might surprise/win Mr. Shadle over by coming together to support Mr. Vanek in wherever his genius takes him.
    Perhaps sidewalk chalk art?
    Let’s hope he’s our own Dick Van Dyke’s character, Bert, from Mary Poppins.

  13. Bob Woods says:

    Kudo’s Mr. Vanek. Oregon loves artists and people with vision.

  14. Susan says:

    Love, love, love his creativity and him for taking the time to make others smile without expecting anything in return. Thank you Nate!

  15. Jeff Lehr says:

    I am happy to see something different good job Nate
    Keep it up

  16. John Klock says:

    It is nice to see an artist and artistry that looks at the world differently and challenges us to see the broader world in a different light. Albany needs more artists.


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