Artist Russell Crotty’s surf drawings are visceral, gestural, and alive. They move forward with such kinetic force that your hair nearly blows back just looking at them.
“I’ve always been an obsessive drawer,” he told me. “I started doing the surf stuff when I was in high school like most kids do, daydreaming, drawing in the margins. So one day I was sitting in Scowley’s in Bolinas having some coffee, and one of the locals came up and said, ‘Whoa, those are really great.’ And so I had that kind of encouragement, like, ‘Oh, maybe I can do something with this.’ But it was a lot of nervous energy too, because I’ve always been kind of a nervy type.”
We stood at a worktable in Russell’s Ventura studio, his surf drawings spread out before us. Some were on paper; many were in books. There were grids that suggested total obsession, hundreds of tiny, chicken-scratch images. And there were sequences that reminded me of the animated fantasy scenes in ‘70s surf films.
I told him that his drawings look the way surfing feels.
“Yeah, I get that,” said Russell, a tall and wiry man. He wore T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. His mien was both heavy and light. “When I draw an off the lip and do the rooster tail, I almost feel it, you know? So there’s a weird engagement that way. When I worked on the really big ones where I did the 40,000 cells, people would go, ‘Wow, you must be really Zen?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I was drinking coffee, listening to really crappy talk radio or something.’ Because it’s all this nervous energy.”
Russell grew up on the Mendocino coast surfing grey, empty waves. He was fascinated by the raw, jagged seascapes. He got his MFA from University of California Irvine, shuffled between the art scenes of San Francisco and Los Angeles. He and his wife, the art director Laura Gruenther, live in Ojai. Russell’s work hangs in the Whitney and MOMA in NY, MOCA in LA, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
“In the mid-‘80s I started doing these books called “California Homegrounds,” said Russell, pulling out one of the books. He flipped through it, showed me a spread with a sequence of firing waves and flying surfers. The caption read: “The Shack!—it’s a spooky place, but the waves are the ultimate day off. I’ve camped there a lot . . . but never by the shack. I think something happened there, something really BAD!”
“A lot of the spots are imaginary places that I’d make up,” explained Russell. “More based in Northern California. With imaginary locals, too. Guys that fit the archetype, like ‘The Bearded Hippie’. I look at the books as one continuous drawing, and I’ll probably do them until I’m an old fart living in a rest home. I can’t give ‘em up. They’re just too much a part of my personality, and who I am, and where I grew up.”
For more Russell Crotty go to www.russellcrotty.comFollow him at @russellcrottystudio and @chwavetroll