Passionate and prolific Petaluma artist Hans Skalagard loves tall-masted sailing ships, and not in the idealized and imaginary way that a young boy might.
This talkative old salt knows ships as only a tried seaman and progeny of generations of Vikings could. The magnificent oil paintings that fill his and wife Mignon's little ranch home and that grace galleries and private collections around the world honor the ships through accuracy and detail that presents them as they really are, or were.
“That's the only five-mast full-rigged ship that ever was,” Skalagard, 86, said in his Scandinavian-tinged English while standing in the living room before his painting of the German windjammer, the Preussen.
He rattled off her impressive measurements: 408 feet long, 200-foot-tall masts, 11,000 tons displacement and 60,000 square feet of canvas in her sails.
Since 1943, when Skalagard created his first nautical painting while serving as a World War II merchant marine, he has produced about 3,500 oils that nearly exude the scent of salt spray and the song of creaking timbers.
He paints pictures of great ships — square-riggers, mostly, but also the USS Constitution and other fighting ships, galleons, down Easters, clippers, American Cup racers, even cruise ships. He portrays them not only because he loves them but to stimulate and sustain public interest in their historical significance.
“Every piece of ground was discovered by sailing ships,” he effused. “The square-rigger ruled the earth for 600 years.”
Even today, he continued, “This country could not last for two months without (the goods moved by) ships.”
As a kid, he didn't chose a seafaring life any more than he chose the color of his hair or his lanky build. Taking work on a ship was simply the life that came to a male born with Viking blood on the North Atlantic's Faroe Islands, a self-governing protectorate of Denmark located about midway between Scotland and Iceland.