Russell Crotty Interview by Jamie Brisick

Artist Russell Crotty’s oeuvre includes many themes, but he is best known for his surf drawings. Pen on paper, raw and stripped-down like a cave painting, they contain an urgency and forward momentum—you can almost feel your hair blowing back. I first encountered them in the mid-’90s. There was plenty of surf art out there, but what Russell did with just a few strokes of the ball-point pen captured the experience much more than any gobs of paint on canvas I’d ever seen.
            Russell grew up on the Mendocino coast. A loner, he surfed grey, empty waves and observed 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, lived for many years in a modest home on a Malibu hilltop with a spectacular view over the sea. They lived simply and ascetically. Russell’s work flourished. He kept digging into the surf drawings. And he ascented obsessively into astronomy, built a small observatory, and recorded the stars and planets.
            In 2010, Russell and Laura moved to Ojai. Their view is nothing like the one from their Malibu place, but the stargazing is good, and it’s only a short drive to Ventura and Santa Barbara for surf. 
On a recent Tuesday, I met Russell at his Ventura studio. Tall and wiry, clad in T-shirt and shorts, his mien is heavy and light. His brow furrows—he laughs easily. Surrounded by his work (globes that resembled looking skyward on a clear night, surfers streaking across waves), we talked surfing, artmaking, gentrification, California wildfires, and much more. Russell’s work hangs in the Whitney and MOMA in NY, MOCA in LA, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. And it will hang from September 10th to October 8th at the Over Under Room at Pilgrim Surf Supply in Williamsburg. Come check it out!

 Russell Crotty in his studio in Ventura, CA

JB: I’ve been a fan of our surf sketches for decades. They’re so gestural and visceral and alive. When did you start doing them?

RC: When I was about 14.

JB: Was it a doodling-on-Pee-Chee-folders kind of thing?

RC: Yeah. In the margins. And then I started doing them in little notebooks. Actually, 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.

JB: They look the way surfing feels. 

RC: Yeah. The gesture and the movement. 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.


Selections from the California Homegrounds sketchbook series.

JB: The captions are funny and evocative. Fictional, right?

RC: Yeah, most of them are fictional. I’ll give a nod to Craig Stecyk, because when he was doing the skateboard articles in the ‘70s, he used aliases all the time. And I thought that was really cool. So I’d make up these names. Whatever popped into my head, I’d just do it.

Detail from Surf Drawing Blue, 1990

JB: Do the pseudonyms loosen you up and make you more relaxed—you’re more a persona than an actual you?

RC: Yeah. And it’s also somebody I could never be. They surf way better than I ever could. So it’s that sort of desire. Because I’ve always been a little on the fringe, I’ve never been full-on immersed in the art world, and the same in the surf world. I just I love empty waves, and I was able to experience that when I was younger.

JB: How’d you get into the space stuff?

RC: I was into that when I was a kid, about 12 or 13. And then I stopped when I went to the Art Institute in San Francisco. I started living in urban settings and sort of gave that up and thought, ‘Oh, yeah. Now I’m going to be an artist, blah, blah, blah. I don’t need that.’ And then we moved to Malibu in 1992, into a place up Latigo. We looked out over Point Dume, out that way towards the ocean, and it was pitch black. You could see the Milky Way. I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is the perfect spot to jump into that.’ And at that time, I was sort of winding down on the surf stuff a little bit. Also, I had a show of the surf work at Cabinet Gallery in London in 1993, and while we were there we went to the British Museum, and I saw these giant atlas books on these giant bookshelves that they had there, and I was like, ‘You know, it would be really cool to have a book binder, make some giant books, and start recording the heavens into these books.’ So then I built an observatory up there on the peak, kind of up from the house, got a really good telescope and got really into it. I’m still really into it.

Striations of text on "Around the Vast Blue" are the writings of Mark Twain from "Roughing It," describing his first journey to Lake Tahoe

JB: How do your days typically go?

RC: Walk the dogs. Come down here and work. Sometimes in the afternoons, if there’s not a lot of wind, I’ll go surf. If there’s a lot of wind, I’ll just go bodysurf. At night, I observe. I don’t observe every night like I used to, but I do the astronomy thing. And then a lot of business stuff, lots of the typical stuff we all deal with.

JB: Who were your inspirations when you were growing up, artists or otherwise?

RC: Well, obviously Greenough, of course, in the surf realm. And Rabbit, Michael Peterson. And then, of course, Curren. I’ve been accused by younger people: “Your surf drawings, they all look like Curren.” And I take it as a compliment. But maybe it’s dated to them or something.

Installation in the 2011 exhibition “Aligned with the Coast” at Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve, Paris, France

JB: Tell me about the work in the show.

RC: Well, there’s a globe that’s actually about Vandenberg Air Force Base, so it’s got text. And there’s a little place on the map at Vandenberg, which is off-limits to everybody, hence it hasn’t been developed, except for launch towers and stuff like that. There’s a little place on the map there called Narlon, and it’s like there’s no town there. There’s nothing there. So it might have been a place where the train stopped, I don’t know. So I used that as a way to interject some of the language of high-tech space world, kind of set in a chaparral landscape of just empty bluffs and coves. And I’ve been through there on training. There’re good waves in there. But you can’t get to them. So the language in that is sort of repetitive language about high-tech space, military, and how that’s a part of California, the coast. So that’s one aspect. And then I had these panoramic prints that were based off my living in Northern California. So just Cape Vizcaino, which is right where Highway 1 turns inland, north of Fort Bragg, and then you have the Lost Coast, basically, and Cape Vizcaino is the first cape that sticks out. There are sea stacks, and it’s real minimal, really beautiful monotype. And then there’s another one when I was living in Lake County. The beauty of that place is amazing. But the culture was like living in a Tom Waits song. I mean, it was pretty gnarly. And then the “California Homegrounds” books are my own writing, sort of my own surf mag, because I actually learned how to read reading surf magazines.

JB: What should the viewer know before taking in the show?

RC: California is sort of a gloomy place right now with the fires, and drought, and COVID. But there’s still beauty out there, and I think the show touches on some of the things that inspire me to stay [here] and benefit from. I mean, there’s places near where we live where we can park the car, hike a mile and a half, and be in giant sandstone formations that are just unbelievable. So there’s that, and then there’s these hyperactive, adolescent, nervy surf books that have all that kind of chatter going on. Whereas the panoramas in the show and the drawings are more contemplative. So there’s a double-edged sword, right? And it’s sort of how it is right now. Here and everywhere, really.