LONG BEACH — Watercolorist Wes Moehnke paints planes, trains and automobiles. His works are unique and often evoke a sense of nostalgia in the minds of viewers. Perhaps that’s because he likes to render images of what he calls “Old stuff. If it’s rusty, I’m in love with it.”
An Ocean Park resident, Moehnke often drives a little south to spread out his art supplies and work on the large, high table at The Picture Attic in Long Beach. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was doing just that. Shop owner Jean Nitzel was also painting a watercolor, across from him.
He was working on a small painting of a steam tractor, something he had seen at Camp 18, in Elsie, Ore., “on Highway 26, about 25 miles from Seaside.” He went on and explained, “There’s a lot of old stuff [equipment] there.”
At age 83, he can easily think back at what a colorful life he’s had and draw from his many experiences. And when he first started watercolor about 1990, he said, “My goal was to paint things that our younger generation has never seen.”
The quip that followed said it all. “How about the guy that was going to steal a pickup, but it had a stick shift and he couldn’t drive it.”
One of his paintings is of an old seemingly forgotten pickup with a screech owl perched in the window. There are other paintings of vintage vehicles. And his trains look alive, as thought they’re getting ready to chug around a bend.
“I don’t do just trains, I do geared trains,” he explained. “Logging trains have low gears. They’re slow, but powerful, because they have to climb around hills. In fact, they’re so powerful that a lot of times when they had a curved trestle, the cars would have to be pushed across, because if they pulled them, they’d pull right off the track. That’s how much power they had.”
Moehnke’s interest in the rails came early. “I was raised on the Willamette River and right across the river was the Daylight Pacific, so I knew trains. When I was three, four or five years old, my dad worked in the woods on a steam donkey. I wanted to learn more them. And of course, he knew a lot about it.”
His dad was also an influence, indirectly, on a painting Moehnke rendered that showed an airplane. He used an old photograph for reference. “It was of my father, when he was about seven years old, sitting on a porch,” with a bi-wing plane that his uncle had given him.
“I’d like to paint more airplanes,” Moehnke said, but admits his air experiences have been a bit different. For many years, he was an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. “I spent a lot of time in a helicopter, actually.”
Surrounded by art supplies
Whatever he paints, Moehnke is sure to have what he needs to get the job done. When he walked into the Picture Attic that day, he brought an arsenal of supplies, all neatly stored and easily carried to any location. He opened one black carrying case to access about 30 brushes. An eight-compartment plastic storage tray held tubes of paint. And there were more supplies at his arm’s reach, in his stash settled atop a tall stool. He explained about his extensive supply collection.
“You see, with artists, here’s the thing. Even if they don’t need it, if it’s neat, they buy it,” he said with a matter-of-fact smile, adding that even if it’s a tube of paint in a color he’s never seen before, and whether or not he’s going to use it anytime soon, he adds it to his stash. This had to make one wonder if he felt like a kid in a candy store, sitting there with so many shelves full of paint tubes and other supplies for sale on the wall behind him.
For this steam tractor painting, he dipped a small brush into a dab of Quinacridone Rust, a color produced by M Graham and Co., an outfit that uses Northwest blackberry honey as a base for all it’s watercolors. Both Moehnke and Nitzel are fond of how fluid these paints go onto the paper. The company is environmentally committed, not surprising, since they’re in Oregon.
Moehnke put down the brush with the rust color and picked up a detail brush with a tiny, fine point. He dipped it into black paint and started work on the straight lines of the steam tractor’s wheel spokes. The steadiness of his hand, as he glided the brush over the pencil sketch, seemed amazing for a person his age. And more than likely, this ability is a holdover from years of drafting.
It’s drafty in here
He’d probably say it was “way back when” that he got started making those steady, straight lines.
“I went to school at OTI — Oregon Technical Institute. Now it’s OIT. But when I went, it was a school set up mainly to teach veterans that were coming back from the Korean War. I took diesel there, but I also had to take a drafting class. I’ve not seen one like it since. The instructor wanted you to learn 3D, the dimensions. Not only did you draw a gear, but you also cut one out of paper and it gave us a whole different perspective. I enjoyed it. That was a neat time.”
He used his drafting skills for decades. “I was an engineer and managed construction contracts for the government. I did a lot of design — road design, recreation areas and so forth. It was a very precise job. It was drafting that had to be right.”
And then he retired
When he retired about 1990, he realized that he really did like to draw, but he “wanted freedom.” He no longer wished to be restrained by all the rules of drafting. The first step was to sign up for art classes. “So, I went to Clark Community College in Vancouver and asked them what they offered in the way of art,” he recalled.
They told him they had classes in acrylics, in oils, “and different things.” Then, like an afterthought, they said they also had watercolor, but told him, “You don’t want to do that because it’s too hard and you never know what you’re going to get.”
They were barking up the wrong tree, with a man that loved challenges. After all, as part of his previous career, he had been at Mount St. Helen’s when it blew in 1980 and spent the next five years with the Forest Service “going over what we were and weren’t going to put back and how.”
You can’t scare a man like that off with threats of how a paint brush might not be easy to use. He signed up for the watercolor class. “That’s for me,” he announced. “That was the one I wanted to do.”
He bonded with watercolor from the beginning. The college was a good starting point. Then, he left the Vancouver area. “I moved down here to the Peninsula about 17 years ago and I met Dr. [John] Campiche and took lessons from him. He was excellent. He knew his art.” Campiche, a career-long family medicine physician on the Peninsula, became a noted watercolorist in his own lengthy retirement in Seaview.
Other experiences continued to shape him
A man who works with Boy Scouts for years, took troops on 50-mile hikes and was presented with the prestigious Silver Beaver Award has many a good memory. He also spent time as a docent on tour buses going from Astoria to Mount St. Helens. He would tell the tourists, “I was there when they surveyed the road and built it. There’s a volcanologist up there that has all the technical information you would ever want, but I’m going to tell you the stuff nobody knows.”
He always seemed to connect with the great outdoors. “I spent a lot of time with the Willapa Wildlife group. Nice people. When the school buses would come in, we’d give the kids a tour and explain to them the cycle of things.”
After he had extensive cancer surgery, he felt he could no longer wrangle bus loads of children, so he had to quit.
Looking back, he considers himself a “Jack of all trades, and master of none.”
Some of his experiences have possibly been a little scary, but it hasn’t caused him to lose his sense of humor. He’s quick with a quip and has a lot of fun stories to tell. He worked with a lot of loggers over the years and despite their sometimes dangerous jobs, he recalled that they all had great senses of humor and weren’t at all cranky. Moehnke professes that, “Humor is like the high tide. It raises all ships.”
The joys of paintings
Whether he’s working on a painting of an old pickup like the ones abandoned in farm fields for decades, or depicting a train or maybe in the future, more airplanes, he is at home now with a skill that the college people once told him he shouldn’t attempt. He has a soothing demeanor and when he works, seems incredibly relaxed and almost transformed. He doesn’t feel any pressure to be perfect at this. He said he sometimes signs off as “artist-in-practice.”
He encourages others to give art a shot. “I talk to a lot of people and try to encourage them to paint. They’ll say, ‘On no, I can’t do that.’ But I think the real reason they don’t try is because they’re afraid somebody will make fun of them.”
But once they take the plunge, as Moehnke did all those years ago, he said their art will be no laughing matter. “It’s pretty hard to insult a real painter.”