In the great American novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes his ode to California’s Salinas Valley, describing the Gabilan Mountains as being “full of sun and loveliness” to the east and of the “dark and brooding” Santa Lucia Mountains to the west. Russ Pope, an artist and cultural champion of skateboarding, like Steinbeck, grew up in Salinas.
Pope has art in his bloodline, his uncle was a painter and sculptor, and school days were spent doodling and sharing drawings with fellow skaters and punkers. Pope still draws daily, and posts his work on his Instagram account (@russpope). His artwork makes appearances in books and galleries, as murals, in skateparks, on t-shirts, and in a manifestation of his own skateboard brand, Transportation Unit.
The skate scene is major catalyst to Pope’s artistic instincts. He’s been riding skateboards for as long as he’s been making art, and has worked with brands like Converse and Vans as a liaison between the skateboarding community and brand marketing.
Pope's art reimagines social scenarios with sense of humor. His personas lurch and slouch, and much like his hometown, they often give off a feeling of both lightness and darkness. I got a chance to speak with Pope over the phone before he jumped on a flight to Japan. He was on his way to show twenty-six portrait paintings in our Pilgrim Tokyo location, paired with a special limited release of his artwork on Pilgrim t-shirts and hats.
Chelsea Burcz: Tell me about the new book you have out.
Russ Pope: The book is called Life Lines. I get up every day and have a cup of coffee and I start drawing. I usually share those drawings on Instagram. I basically took 162 of my favorites over the course of the last two years and put them all into a small, hard bound book on nice coated pages. It was printed just outside of Detroit, Michigan.
CB: Are you a morning creative type?
RP: No, I wouldn’t say that I’m more creative in the morning. I’m usually creative all day. I try to have a small sketch pad in my pocket at all times so that if I see something on the train I can make a quick sketch of it and then I’ll make a better drawing of it when I get home. If it’s a drawing that I like enough to become a painting then it becomes a painting.
[Russ's artwork featured at Pilgrim Surf + Supply Tokyo]
[Russ painting the window at Pilgrim Surf + Supply Tokyo.]
CB: Is there any kind of medium that you gravitate towards?
RP: I spend a lot time making drawings because it’s where everything starts for me. I love painting. Painting happens in buckled down spurts for me. Usually I’ll make a collection of drawings I’m really passionate about before I get really into a painting. I spend more time with pen and ink, and I’ll edit the drawings down so that they tell some kind of story, because usually the shows I have tell some sort of story. Like in my show about moving from the west to the east, the paintings were about Boston -- architecture, boats, Walden Pond, people showing up in Polos and the different types of dress. It is either drawing with pen and ink, like with a classic, old school nib pen, or painting.
CB: Where are your characters in your art coming from?
RP: Mostly nonfiction, but I give myself full creative license to fiction them up as I see fit. I’ll be on a train or at a coffee shop and hear something ridiculous and I’ll make a drawing of those two people, sometimes I think it would more funny if the one person was bald or wearing an Aloha shirt. Most of the time it’s social commentary, capturing things or ideas that I've experienced or heard in real life and reporting on them.
CB: It feels like there’s a layer of sadness added to the comical aspect in your work.
RP: I had a show coming up in Italy and the art critic who did the release described it as “faces of anguish.” I can see there's a look of distress in the eyes and the mouth, it happens often but I’m not sure why that is. There are times with eyes and facial expressions where it’s absolutely intentional, but there are other times where it’s just the way I draw, where there’s heavier black lines around the eyes. It could be taken as distress but it’s not necessarily intended to be that way.
[Life Lines, a book of drawings by Russ Pope.]
CB: Where did your impulses for making art come from?
RP: I had an uncle that was a painter, so I was around art a lot. He made sculptures and paintings. I’ve just always been drawn to colors and shapes. Art and skateboarding have been the two constant threads through my life. I absolutely adored Dr. Seuss, and as time progressed I never stopped liking him.
CB: What was the typical surf/skate scene like as a kid in Salinas?
RP: I was aggressively passionate about the skateboard aspect of it. I traveled a bunch and competitively rode my skateboard. I did every summer in a tour van for a long time, doing demos in my teenage years. There was art attached to that, that’s when zine culture had first started. We all made zines, wrote to each other, and drew things onto t-shirts and skateboards -- it was creative. It was a much smaller group of people than is involved with skateboarding today. There’s definitely elements of skateboarding that’s pretty jocked out, they participate in the X Games and do tours and street league, and soon they're going to be in the Olympics. They’re athletes, whereas when I started it was a creative outlet. I started to draw and I rode my skateboard. My skateboard was cool because I could ride through areas and see new things and meet new people, I made friendships all over the world with skateboarding and art, some of them going back multiple decades. It was a vehicle to feed my brain and add to my friend base, my global community. Whereas now, those people still exist in skateboarding but there’s a big portion of skateboarding that feels like just another sport.
CB: Was art and skateboarding always intermixing?
RP: I think of them as two separate things that live harmoniously. I’ve owned skateboard companies where I’ve hired artists to do the art. I’ve tried to keep my art out of the production art realm, I’ll do occasional small runs of art boards here and there. Not to contradict myself, but I do have my own small skateboard brand now that is all my own art, but I just make what I want when I want. It’s intentionally been kept very small so I don’t have to deal with any massive demands as an artist. I want to make paintings or drawings, it’s never been about commerce or production. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do what I want to do.
CB: You moved from California to Boston. Do you believe that where you live affects your work or studio practice? Do you think your art has changed at all since you moved to Massachusetts?
RP: I’m really influenced by where I’m at. I had a show, it was called “Come On Pilgrim” -- I had lived in Laguna in a classic 1960s style ranch home with a pool and palm trees, and then I moved to the seventh floor of an apartment complex in Back Bay, Boston and began walking everywhere. It was cool but hugely different. Boston is not the same as anywhere else, it’s not even the same as New York. There’s new people, there’s new sounds, there’s new cityscapes; so it absolutely affected the subject matter. I’m definitely more inspired to stretch my studio time in the winter when it’s snowing and freezing outside than when I was in California and it was beautiful outside and I thought I needed to be on the beach.
CB: What about skateboarding? Has it been different in Boston?
RP: The skateboarding kind of sucks here a little bit. Not the people, the people are great and they’re a hearty group of people. I really love the skateboarders who are here. There’s not a lot of places to skateboard compared to California. I had no idea how spoiled I was -- so spoiled! I had key fobs that got me into the Vans facility that was a 70ft wide boomerang ramp -- and the Stance bowl! Here that just doesn’t exist. Most of these parks are the worst parks ever built. You can ask the people here, I’m not being disrespectful, they’d say the same thing. This is one of the areas that got taken over by a developer who swept through the town and built a bunch of horrible skateparks and then charged the city a whole bunch of money. You have one or two modern parks that are little gems to ride on. The people here are really great, they’re fun to ride skateboards with, but there’s not a lot of options like there is in California, which makes it tough.
[Frontside in Western Massachusetts. Photo by Rob Collins]
CB: Was there anything else influencing you as a young artist outside of skateboarding?
RP: I think music always does. Music completely changes my mood. There’s been times in my life where what I’m listening to shows up in the brush coming across the canvas. I’ll listen to a ton of Clash -- I’ll listen to Sandinista! the triple album by The Clash and then I’ll go right into Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. Then from that I’ll go to some bluegrass band, then I might even listen to the Grateful Dead and then blast over to something way heavier, like Witch, or High on Fire, or Slayer. I listen to a lot of different types of music for sure. As a kid, my music selection definitely wasn’t as broad, I listened to a lot of old punk rock, it was synonymous with skateboarding back then. The real typical people you would imagine, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag… I was pretty typical in that way.
CB: What was that scene like where you were growing up in California?
RP: There weren’t a whole lot of skateboarders and there weren’t a whole lot of punkers, so the skaters and the punkers hung out together which is everybody’s story, it’s not special. There were five people who listened to punk rock and five people who rode skateboards, so that was our gang of ten people. We’d share music and make drawings together. I remember being in class and passing drawings back and forth with a particular guy in junior high that would draw as much as I did. We would finish each other’s drawings when we were supposed to be working on school work. It was a tight knit group of people -- that’s what I meant earlier when I said that the people who were involved with skateboarding were more creative. There’s people who are just as creative in skateboarding today, but skateboarding is just so much larger that there’s this group who are only driven in this sports sort of way.
Written by: Chelsea Burcz
More about Russ Pope here. His book Life Lines is available at Pilgrim Surf + Supply.
[Russ Pope window mural at Pilgrim Surf + Supply in Tokyo.]