We customize our lives and the environment that surrounds us every day — from things as big as shaping our own boards to the smallest ones, like adding that little bit of extra milk to our coffee.
In our Custom Spotlight series, we’re exploring the process of some of our favorite artists, musicians, and creatives to learn how they see their world and to find out what drives them to get their hands dirty and bring their ideas to life. We also give them free reign to create their own custom, one-of-a-kind Birdwell gear, and to bring their unique vision of our California tradition into the world.
Though surfer and artistic polymath Julian Smith is partial to pseudonyms—he’s released music as Don Froth, Jane In Palma, and Bato Bato—his freewheeling artistic imprint remains easy to spot in any medium. Once based in Venice, Smith began life anew in Mallorca after a storage fire wiped out most of his earthly belongings, and his output since has only grown more voluminous. From music to painting to drawing to pottery to surfboards, and even a line of French swimwear, his work remains raw, dynamic, and distinctly Californian.
How did you get started?
Being around my family naturally led me to art and music. My Dad is a printmaker, photographer and was a jazz (double) bassist, he also worked internationally with schools as an art teacher and academic advisor so we were always surrounded by different cultures and lifestyles. With that I grew up between San Diego and England - I started playing the drums in ’87 and listening to anything I could get my hands on from the UK and US. Around the same time surfing came in to my life - huge impact there - that opened me up to a new crew of freeform thinkers, the original source of inspiration came from Chris Lundy - mentor and friend, he would send me photos of Slater and Carroll signed; “keep ripping Julian” etc - Chris is truly missed. My Mom is a retired librarian, bookbinder (Booksmith) and writer, my brothers were into art, design, music, playing in bands, camping, climbing etc. I was always looking at their sketch books, drawing and listening to their music. Into high school my dad had a darkroom in the garage - he showed me how to develop film and print my own photos, as well as pulling dry point prints on the press in his studio. Those years I also got in to recording our band with 4 tracks etc and diving in to sound edit 1.0! It was a continuous creative workshop, I am very thankful for the opportunity to experience those things - that momentum is hard to shake - especially when I see my parents — 70+ / 80+ — still working in their studios.
Tell us about your artistic process.
For me “art” is a celebration of risk, expression and originality - I want to find ways to continue to be inspired from those things - I try my best to document my observations and ideas daily through sketches, writings, photography and music. It is a form of discovery within a creative process.
The start of my process has more to do with managing my physical / mental balance by making decisions in my day that optimise my creative energy. Eating the right things, getting enough sleep, staying active, hitting when the iron is hot, resting when it’s not. I also find that staying away from too many modern comforts and conveniences keeps me on the look out. “Easy” is a trap in modern terms, so finding creative ways to live more simply without the need of any outside system to manage my day allows me to keep my motivations guided in a positive direction. If I didn’t have that motivation I would not be able to creatively express anything I believe in.
After that it’s just medium exploration and refinement.
Is your work a collaborative or solo process?
I tend to go to both ends of that spectrum. When painting I go it alone, same when working on music with this new project Jane in Palma or past releases but I am equally keen on working with others as well. A few weeks ago I met up with a Basque band The Chiwox in Hossegor, we played some wall of sound psych noise drone sounds for 50 mins - live - without ever meeting each other before. On the other side of sound is Bato Bato, a record I just finished with my friend Henrik (releases 11.1.18) Those are the moments I can count on to make sure I am still alive. Same story with these image making sessions working with other artists making prints / paintings etc. We work in a sort of call and receive style, interpreting each other's gestures with various mediums. I am always interested to see how others think and express themselves in different ways.
Describe your workplace/studio.
My studio is located down a dirt road on the outskirts of a Mediterranean port village with 9 hours of poor light, 4 hours of great light (summer hours), a few plants, music equipment, art supplies and a variety of things I have found and collected over the years.
Describe your ideal workplace/studio.
Read above. I'll work pretty much anywhere as long as I can set up a few materials - I find spending my time learning how to work with the things that I have gives me more personal / creative freedom rather than wishing for something I don’t have.
What does a working day look like for you?
At home I’m up early, smoothie with frozen grapes, melon, ginger, turmeric, banana, rice milk, peanut butter, chia seeds, squeeze of lemon, and an apple. Walk Libby. Short garden workout. Coffee. Studio mode. Eat. Rest. Short garden workout. Bike / Swim. Studio. Libby Walk. Cook. Studio. Sleep. If there is surf, slot that in at any point above. And giving thanks for being around another day…
Artists/Musicians that inspire you ______.
So many… Ill just do a grab hat selection of a few - Johnny Clarke, Eden Ahbez, Jah Shaka, Aba Shanti I, Domingo Cura, Galicia, Michael Jaques, Lynch, Crumb, Louis Malle, Eliana Pittman, Aris San, Michael Palmer, The King Shiloh family, Di Melo, Barry Brown, Derek Hynd, Kompact label, R&S, Chet Baker, Nicola Conté, early Phat Wreck Chords, Jorge Ben, Peter Doig, Woo, Steve Roach, Chris Lundy, Wax (series) Lonnie Donegan, The Jersey sound, Bohren & Der Club Der Gore, Alan Watts, early Metalheadz, Strike Anywhere, Bad Brains, Orlandivo, Sadar Bahar, Al Campbell, Jason, WNCL, De Ambassador, Mood II Swing, Mountain People, Satie, Andres Segovia, Perc, Ellis-D……………. Family & friends.
What does Southern California mean to you?
How important is the outdoors/surf/beach to your work?
Integral and non-negotiable.
I gain a lot of energy from environmental immersion — improvising and adapting to an unpredictable force of nature with variable surfaces, tides, currents, wind etc etc is directly linked to staying limber within any work process. When I am in the water I am dealing with patience. I can’t force, pause or text back later any part of that moment. It requires full attention. It’s given me the opportunity to approach creation in much the same way, if I didn’t have that in the water, I’d be lost out of water, it means everything to me to have that experience. Patience is the single most important tool I have found I can rely on to ensure the longevity of any creative vision.
How important is a connection to the past/classics to your work?
Very important, very connected to the past, probably more connected than the current state of affairs as far as work pace and timing expectations. It is so important to have access to time - it’s essential to any creative process - the past had limitations inherently granting you more time. I believe in working with limitations.
That is generally why I find my self attracted to classic motives / themes. There you have a sense of formal resolve - I get to see process and technique - structure and / or rule breaking. Of course you have that today but unfortunately we are bombarded with a constant onslaught of media / middle of the road “creative” that it seems like everything is curated.
One quick example on this topic: Today’s creatives are Apple, Canon, Sony etc etc. A lot of content out there seems to have been forgotten to be visually considered. And I’m not talking about formal art direction in terms of working with a big team and budget, I am just talking about putting in time to consider an interesting way to deliver visual information - the creative exploration seems to end at the quality of the equipment / filter - which is usually just one step in a creative process - it is easy to fool people that way because everything looks good… But it doesn’t. The ease of getting content in front of people hinders quality control. Marshall Mcluhan talks about this (much better than my ramblings) in his book ‘Understanding Media’. Every era goes through these growing pains of communication - this is just one example of what I see happening today in regards to digital / analogue technique linking to the past / present / classics discussion.
Can you tell us one rule that governs yourself/your art?
Working with limitations. :^]
To see more of Julian's work go here.