See more art by Erik Abel on the new Club of the Waves

Urban contemporary & surf art

Erik Abel interview

Erik Abel is a celebrated artist from California. His work has been referred to as 'Urban Contemporary' and of course 'Surf Art'. He has a background in graphic design and art direction within the board sport industries, but now concentrates mainly on his art. He works either in his home studio in Oregon or more recently around the globe on his travels. He's recently setup an online store too where you can purchase his work…

Erik, thanks for doing this interview and for sharing your work with us…

EA: Thanks for the opportunity! And thank you for creating Club Of The Waves!

What's your background, where are you from?

EA: I'm originally from Ventura County, California, from an iddy biddy village called Somis. I grew up surfing all the great waves in the area, my dad owned a fly fishing company and had a boat so we always went out to the Channel Islands fishing and exploring… and puking over the side. The ocean has always been a big part of my life. And growing up 15 minutes from one of the best beach breaks on the west coast was pretty cool too! Nope… can't tell you where.

When did you first find your passion for art?

EA: Maybe when I was in 5th grade. I drew a girl in a bikini off of a shirt I had and made a bunch of copies. I sold them to all the boys for 25 cents a piece. That's when I discovered I could draw things and sell them to buy candy. Or… getting friends to laugh at dirty cartoons of all our teachers… or of other friends. I would kill to see some of the drawings I did in the backs of people's highschool yearbooks. Or… when I finally started painting and could recreate what I saw in my head… that was a sense of total freedom… still is, can't beat it. I guess you develop a passion more than find it. It becomes a passion when you can look back over your life and see that it has been the biggest influence of all, when it has made you who you are.

You use a mixture of different mediums and tools to create your art, creating a cool, unique and fresh look… described by some as 'Urban Contemporary' art, how would you describe your art/style/approach…?

EA: Well thanks. I think my style reflects my approach to making art. I work fairly quickly and I use mediums that help me achieve that way of working. I first started with acrylics, but in college I used oils a lot and soon realized I didn't like waiting for them to dry… always waiting. With acrylics, a hairdryer is a wonderful friend, you can have 3 or 4 layers down in a few minutes and continue with the vision. I need to see things materialize pretty quickly or I get sidetracked and move on to the next idea. My sketchbooks are filled with a million orphan sketches that will never graduate to see the canvas. Mostly because by the time I make it into the studio I've already drawn something else I want to paint. I think the way I work has greatly been affected is by doing graphic design, where at the click of a button, you can change a color, add things, take them away etc… it's very instant. I just wish real life had the UNDO command sometimes.

What inspires your art?

EA: Inspirations are always changing. I'm inspired by other artists, the way they work, and the way they brand their art. I'm inspired by the ocean and surfing, ancient cultures/art, science, biology, the universe, visual balance, mid-century modern design etc… Is inspiration just an idea that makes you want to create something? A primal urge to express yourself? It's a weird thing that makes a person want to go to the store and buy paint and wood and brushes and just spend hours or days making something that doesn't really matter to anybody else. People that make stuff are weirdooooo's.

And what is it about surfing and/or surf culture that inspires your art?

EA: Surfing is my favourite thing to do. It inspires the way I live my life so it's only natural for it to inspire the things I make. The ocean is worth my time and my thoughts. It's dictated my lifestyle and it's a large influence and helpful with most of the big decisions I make in life. i.e. Where to live, where to travel… I can look back at my art and see times when I had my head in other things or in other places, when the ocean was not in my everyday life, when other interests started to show through more.

You have worked as a freelance Graphic Designer and an Art Director, doing work for the various 'board sports industries', before focussing on your art?

EA: Yep. It was just natural to start doing graphics for companies in the industries I loved, like snowboarding and surfing. When I was just out of high school I was fortunate enough to fall in line with the snowboard manufacturing company Five Axis Mfg. out of Huntington Beach. They really kick-started my design career. I got some valuable experience as well as some insight to the industry and was able to work with some other companies through them. If it wasn't for the outstanding individuals at Five Axis I'm not sure I'd even be doing graphic design right now, they were the reason I started learning all the Adobe programs way back in the day and I soon realized I could make some money with it. Strange to think about that… how one little decision to work with a company can have such a big affect on the rest of your life. They have recently merged with Signal Snowboards to create The Lodge Mfg. and still make boards for several companies.

At the same time I was airbrushing boards for Roberts Surfboards in Ventura, which gave me more of a natural, hands-on outlet for being creative along with my painting. For me, it's so important to have a balance between the two. Graphic design is able to influence the artwork and the artwork is able to influence the graphic design. I think it's good to cross-pollinate… makes for a more interesting approach to creating work. I found that it's valuable as an artist to be savvy with web and design programs… it just makes it easier to market yourself and it opens more doors.

All through college up in Oregon, I focused on both fine art and graphic design and was able to freelance with some different companies along the way as well as explore my personal artwork. After college I freelanced my way into an Art Director/Sr.Designer position with a start-up nutritional company in LA, where I eventually moved to work with them full time. The company took off like a rocket and I got tons of priceless experience and education. But I was staring at a screen for too many hours a week, surfing only in my dreams, driving in traffic, and I started to paint a lot at home just to stay sane. Nathan Cartwright at the Hive Gallery in downtown LA saw some of my work and invited me to show there, from that I got shows at Cannibal Flower, Thinkspace and so on, I discovered that I could actually make some cash from my art too. Then it just hit me one day at work when I read this quote… "The worst day of those who love what they do is still far better than the best day of those who don't." …there I was, in slacks and a tucked in button-up shirt, gazing through the smog at the big ugly "Hollywood" sign out the window of a 14th floor office in the middle of Los Angeles, wearing shoes on a hot, sunny, Southern Californian day… and decided this was not what I wanted to be doing anymore. So I left and moved back to Portland to focus on making art, doing freelance design, surfing and cracking the whip as my own boss.

You recently 'did' a shirt for Billabong USA for their Fall 2009 line… nice one! Tell us more about this?

EA: This was my first time working with Billabong. I'm pretty pumped on how the shirt came out. I recently finished up another graphic coming out in the Winter '09 line and I'm currently working on a few more concepts for the future. A special thanks to the legend who is Phil Roberts for the connection and suggestion that I contact Billabong and share some of my work. Which leads to another big shout out to COTW where Phil saw my work and contacted me. You gotta love how this stuff works out sometimes.

You also recently designed some graphics for Oxbow, as one of their artists for the "Oxbow Artworks line"…?

EA: Oxbow has been great to work with too. Although hard to understand over the phone as my French is not up to par. I've ended up doing several designs for them over the last year and a half or so, not sure when many of them are coming out though. The cool thing about this collaboration is that they contacted me out of the blue and asked me to be one of their selected artists for the Oxbow Artworks line. Each artist gets their own section on the website as well as a personal hangtag on each piece of clothing with name, website and short bio. They are definitely supporting and plugging the artists they work with which is awesome.

You scored a cool little video documentary short on Current TV, what great exposure, certainly a first in the 'surf art realm' - how did you land that gig?

EA: This was great exposure for sure! I remember getting a call from a guy that just caught the tail end of it on TV, looked me up online and ended up getting a commissioned piece. I didn't even know it was airing yet. Stoked!

Last year while I was in Washington DC setting up the "Ripple: Art Affecting Oceans" show at Art Whino Gallery, I was told I was going to be doing an interview… something the gallery lined up. Mr. Director, Brandon Bloch, came in with a cameraman and some questions, we did our thing, he ended up being my first sale of the show and that was that, we got a sweet little video out of it. I sound like such a knucklehead in it though.

In the piece on Current, you mentioned: "Art that's affordable is a great thing"…?

EA: Yeah, that was the whole premise of these interviews he was doing for Current. I do think affordable art is a great thing because it opens up the doors for people who can buy and appreciate art. It's not out of touch. Of course it would be nice to have my artwork selling for 100 G's a pop but it's also nice to have normal everyday people come to your show and pick up a piece because they really like it and can afford it… not because some dealer told them it would be a good investment and that the artist is "soooo hot" right now… and don't even get me started on this bullshit aspect of the "Fine Art" world.

You recently launched a new online store for your art on ARTSPROJEKT… Tell us more about this, it sounds cool!?

EA: ARTSPROJEKT is pretty cool. Founder, Artist and former pro-skater Andy Howell invited me to come on board as one of the selected artists and brands to create a wide range of products from prints to shirts to buttons to skateboard decks. It's definitely humbling to be among some of my favourite artists like Shepard Fairy/Obey, Mars-1, Erik Otto, DALEK, Jim Phillips, and Ekundayo. All the products are print-on-demand and dealt with by ARTSPROJEKT via Zazzle (the parent company). Which means the artists don't have to deal with upfront capital, inventory, production, overhead, shipping etc… and can offer as many products as they like. Artists can choose to let customers customize most of the products like print size, paper type and framing or shirt color and style. It's wide open.

I figure this is something new and unique. It's also like my art laboratory. If I've got a little sketch I think would look cool on a shirt, I can scan it in, load it in my store and somebody on the other side of the world can be wearing it in a few days. Pretty sweet. It's another stream of income and a great outlet for creativity.

You recently spent a good deal of time 'on the road' travelling around New Zealand?

EA: New Zealand is amazing!!! I came to a point where I realised life is waaaay to short not to be doing exactly what I want to be doing or at least actively pursuing it. I decided to work my ass off for a few months and get a one-way ticket to The Land of the Long White Cloud and hit the road with a backpack and a board bag. Not sure where I'll end up or when I'll come back and that's a good feeling. There is so much to see on this planet! And I'm pretty lucky to be able to earn some money while travelling, a laptop is like an ATM machine if you can figure out how to use it. I'm still trying to figure out how to get $100 bills out of it instead of change though. So my travel funds might run dry sooner than expected… I could be surfing on your couch sooner than you think!

Clearly travel is something you care a great deal about (and I don't blame you!)… You are about to call Tonga your home "for an unknown amount of time"…?

EA: Man… I suffered through way too many Oregon Winters to travel halfway around the world only to put on a cold, wet 5/3 with hood and booties and freeze my ass off. I'm ditching this cold southern hemi winter crap until it warms back up. Tonga here I come! I got a gig on a small fishing lodge on a remote island, gonna go play castaway for a few months. My plan is to crew on a sailboat or yacht from Tonga back to New Zealand when this place thaws out a bit… I still need to explore the entire South Island on NZ… I've seen pictures of mysto-spots I absolutely must surf! So until then, I'll be working on my Hawaiian sling skills, sniffing out warm barrels and discovering what flip-flops feel like again.

So finally, what does the future hold for Erik Abel?

EA: Goooood question! Hold on while I grab my crystal ball… Ahh yes, here we are… I see… myself deep inside a big, warm, perfect right hander, putting together a book/zine while in Tonga, me holding a couple of giant, brown, milk filled… umm… coconuts, burying treasure, lots of paint, a large sum of money randomly being deposited in my bank account. (I know you're out there nice person!) An art show in Oz sometime in 2010, loads of publicity (thanks COTW!) and design/illustration work, West Oz madness, Indo perfection, learning to sail, eating fresh sushi for the next 3 months, my recently stolen Mac Book Pro showing up on my door step… I could go on, there's a lot in this thing.

Thanks again Erik, and good luck getting your laptop back, that random large sum of money and have fun in Tonga!

Thanks Andrew! Cheers!

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