Grab a beer and relax, this might take a while…
As long as I can remember, art and water have been my two favorite things. When I was one and a half years old, I created my first masterpiece; a chalk drawing of a balloon, complete with string, on my little wooden table. Maybe that’s why to this day I prefer to paint on wood, not canvas. Growing up in Ventura County, the ocean has always been my backyard playground. My Dad and uncles were always taking me fishing, exploring around the Channel Islands and hanging out at the beach. My mother put me in swimming lessons when I was an infant and I’ve had trouble staying out of the water ever since.
Most of the pivotal moments in my life seem to be marked by an interaction with the water. Most significantly, when I first discovered surfing when I was 11 while in Junior Lifeguards. This newfound passion found its way into my artwork, my class time doodles turning my notebooks into sketchpads filled with waves. To me, the ocean and making art were one in the same. An inherent expression of spirit, fun, nature, and freedom.
It was around this time I realized this was what I wanted to do… surf and create art. I knew these were the things that ultimately made me happy. When I was about 17 I caught my first job towards making that dream a reality. A spot opened up at Roberts Surfboards for an airbrusher. I remember the first board Rob had me paint for one of his team riders who was headed to Indonesia on a photo trip. Robert came back to see my progress and almost lost his head when he saw what I had done… he thought I had completely ruined the board. But it turned out the rider thought the artwork was amazing and what was even cooler was the photos from the trip making it into the surf mags with some great shots of the board. I worked on and off for Roberts for the next few years, before and after classes at Ventura College and during the summer, and continue to do graphic work for them today. It was awesome to be a part of the whole surfboard making process. It gave me insight into the core of surfing and I was able to experiment riding different types of boards all the time.
My dad is an avid fisherman and owned a fly fishing company. By the time I was 18 and out of high school, I had traveled a lot of the Western U.S., Mexico several times, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize, either on family fishing trips, or surf trips with friends. I was born with a travel bug.
In Belize, I discovered the lost culture and art of one of the most advanced and mysterious civilizations the world has ever known, the Maya. When I climbed The Temple of the Masonry Alters at Altun Ha in the jungles of Belize, I was completely overwhelmed with the geometric style and amazing skill of these ancient artists. The power and history of the place shook my soul. I think this profound experience still has an impact on my art today. It was this trip that also inspired the tattoo of a mayan face I gave myself on my shin, during my brief stint as a self-taught tattoo artist.
I spent a winter in Utah, tattooing, snowboarding, learning design programs and creating graphics for snowboard companies including Glissade and Third Drawer. Then, in 2000, I moved up to Ashland, Oregon, getting my Bachelors of Fine Arts with a focus in Painting and Graphic Design at Southern Oregon University. Pursuing more of this “formal” education really broadened my exposure to art. I opened my studies outside of painting and design, exploring sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking. I think this diversity really shaped me as an artist, allowing me to see the possibilities outside of an easel. Living in Oregon exposed me to a new environment as well. It was around this time I really noticed how much my surroundings impacted my art. The pure and natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest inspired me to focus on a more natural subject matter, free from anything manmade.
This theme continued when I moved to Portland, Oregon after graduating college in 2003. Perhaps my favorite city in the world for not having a beach. The people, the vibe, the greenery, the beer and all the weird, it’s just hard to beat. Surfing in the Northwest is truly an experience. Many times you’ll just wish you have somebody to paddle out with. The ocean is powerful, frigid, murky and about as sharky as it gets. The coastline seems so raw, so natural and so ancient. Some of those sessions will stay with me until the day I die, there’s nothing quite like scoring perfect barrels all to yourself in front of a cliff covered in giant Sitka Spruce. If you look at my work from my days in Portland you might feel the mystique of the ocean and the serenity of the rain.
Living in Portland was an amazing time, I was surrounded with great friends and family and working remotely as the only Graphic Designer for a start-up based in LA. In 2005 the company started growing fast and, while it was exciting to be a part of, I reluctantly left my friends in Portland and made the move to LA to become the Art Director and partner at the company. For the first time in my life I had a “job.” The work load was pretty intense… far more than I can ever imagine doing again. The momentum wasn’t stopping, and neither were we. I should have bought stock in coffee and Redbull at the time. I had no time to surf or sleep, and even though I was living in Santa Monica, I felt like I hadn’t been in the water in years. I was actually painting a lot, staying up into the wee hours doing some art therapy to cope with my insane work schedule. Looking at my artwork from this time, you can tell that the ocean wasn’t where I was spending my days. My work was more abstract, compiled with lots of my tribal faces and bizarre compositions of natural elements. It was loose and unique… I like the work I created in LA. It was expression and discovery all at once. I felt like I was having some success in the local art scene, showing at infamous underground spots including The Hive, Cannibal Flower, and Thinkspace Gallery.
After 18 months, I realized the Art Director position was not my calling. There I was, uncomfortably sitting in my 14th floor office in shoes, slacks and a tucked-in shirt on a beautiful, sunny Southern California day. As I gazed out the window at the famous Hollywood sign, I looked back at my computer and read a quote on the screen that hit me like a ton of bricks, it read:
“The worst days for those who love what they do
are still far better than the best days of those who don’t.”
Who knew that a simple quote could drastically change somebody’s life in an instant? This one did exactly that for me. I needed to surf, paint, and live. I moved home base back to Portland, travelled to Mexico, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and spent the rest of the year painting, exhibiting, freelancing but getting a little too settled. It was nice to be my own boss again. But I started getting itchy feet. This was the big itch… I knew there were so many people, cultures, and waves I’d never met. So I decided to pack up a few boards, sketchbooks, and a backpack and buy a one-way ticket to New Zealand.
Taking off in that jet plane was the most liberating experience I’ve ever had. I felt alive and free. I was starting the adventure of my life. There was no return ticket, no end in sight. My only obligation was to follow my instincts and experience everything the universe brought my way. For the first 8 months, I lived out of a camper van, cruising around and surfing the rugged coastline of New Zealand, a place I’d felt pulled to for over a decade. I soaked in the rich Maori art and interesting culture. The landscape is so lush and green, with so much opportunity for solitude. One night, camping alone on the beach in my van, I was looking up at the stars, thinking that I was truly lost… and it felt great. Nobody in the world besides me knew where I was, and that doesn’t happen nearly enough. Sometimes you need to be lost to ultimately find where you’re supposed to be. In New Zealand I found my solitude and saw my reflection.
The great thing is, I was still working on freelance projects, but now in my kind of “office.” I remember doing a t-shirt design for Billabong. I was camping on a grassy bluff overlooking a perfect right pointbreak with hardly a soul around. I had surfed perfect waves all morning, was sunburnt and salty with a belly full of fresh food. I had a paintbrush in one hand and a cold beer in the other as I ‘worked’ on a new graphic in the sunshine outside of my van. I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. I was filled to the brim with gratitude for the companies and people who were making this possible.
Although the winter waves in NZ were good, the cold started to creep into my bones a bit too much so I started looking for a tropical escape. I found a gig working in a fishing lodge on a small island in the Kingdom of Tonga. It sounded too good to be true, but a few emails back and forth with the lodge and I bought one ticket to paradise.
So I took off for Tonga, where I would find myself in complete and utter bliss. A place with no agenda and no need for shoes. I spent my days eating tuna the size of me, tending the banana and papaya trees and the veggie garden, doing maintenance work around the lodge, spearfishing, drawing, writing and finishing each day with a sunset beer on top of the bluff while humpback whales breached in the warm ocean below… or I’d go drink too much kava with the friendly locals in the village. It was literally a dream. But I wasn’t getting near my wave quota and after a few months, I became pretty antsy to find a sailboat to take me away and find some quality surf. So when a sailboat named Nola anchored in the lagoon in front of the lodge one day with a crew of 2 Kiwi Surfers and offered to take me out to hunt for some waves, I had my gear onboard in about two seconds flat.
I ended up spending over two months on the Nola. If the lodge gig was a dream, this was a dream within a dream, this was beyond heaven. We were just cruising the islands, surfing empty waves, diving sea caves, meeting new people from around the world, swimming with humpback whales, and pouring rum into freshly opened coconuts to wash down our freshly speared dinners. This was living, this was as good as it gets, better than the movies. It’s funny how things happen the way they’re supposed to sometimes. One of my goals when I left home was to learn how to sail, and here I was on this sailboat bobbing around in the South Pacific, breathing in the trade winds. I felt like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which is an amazing feeling. My sketchbooks were filled with many thoughts and ramblings and a million interesting ideas to explore in my artwork. I was inspired by the South Pacific Island decor, art and style. That primitive vibe has always attracted me. Like all aboriginal art, there seems to be a truth in it. It’s got an honesty that’s hard to find in the modern world of art.
After my time ended on the Nola I crewed on a small French sailboat back to New Zealand (This hellish 3 week ocean odyssey is a story all in itself!) and back to my van to pick up some old friends from the states. We spent a few more months exploring the “land of the long white cloud” before heading to Australia.
Sydney has got to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I fell in love the second I got off the plane… mostly with the gorgeous women everywhere you look, but the city and beaches are nice too. There’s so much good energy, so much going on. It’s seems like the country revolves around the ocean, around surfing, fishing, diving. The whole vibe just makes you want to be a surf bum and party, which is pretty much what I did. I eventually made my way up the East Coast and got stuck in Byron Bay for a while and could have easily stayed there forever. It was good to be in such an animated place after so much solitude and reflection. The waves were perfect, the water was warm. The kangaroos were delicious.
As if to slap me back to reality, or just to give me a reason not to drink myself to death in Australia, I got word that my Grandma was in the Intensive Care Unit, so I took the next flight home to California to spend all the time I could with her. Grandma Bev wasn’t your ordinary Grandmother. She went surfing. When I was in High School, she would be waiting across the street to take my friends and I to the beach any time it was good. She could get on the Naval Base and help us score some of the best waves around. She would bring her big beach hat, her bamboo mat and chair and a stack of books and just sink her feet into the sand and watch us surf until dark. She will always be one of my inspirations in life.
After a month at home, a good friend and I hopped on a plane to Indonesia to continue the voyage I’d started. When we got to Bali, the first thing I thought was “Why the F*** did it take me 28 years to get here?!?” To finally surf some of the most notorious surf spots in the world, it was a dream come true. Waves I’d been drooling over in the surf mags since I started surfing. The artistry and culture in Bali blew me away. Like being in Belize, the craft and time put into every detail of the ancient temples was so inspiring. I couldn’t stop looking at the architecture – the tiles on the roofs, the little carved accents that flock every building. Inspirational to say the least. After journeys to the islands of Java and Lombok, my friend returned home after a month and I was once again on a solo mission in a strange and beautiful country, searching for the tube of my life. Lagundri Bay on the Island of Nias, off the coast of Sumatra, was literally on the top of my wave list. So I went, and it didn’t disappoint. Every morning I’d wake up to fresh steaming coffee and banana pancakes, laughing at how perfect the waves right out in front were. It was surreal. I stayed on the point for over 3 weeks and surfed my brains out.
Midway through my Indonesian journey, Grandma Bev passed away. And even though Indo was close to paradise, this news made me realize I was ready to take a vacation from my vacation. I felt It was time to be back in California for the summer to spend time with family and let out all the inspiration that was overflowing from my sketchbooks. I was able to come home and immediately work with Surfrider and Surfing Magazine on the International Surfing Day 2010 artwork as well as have a solo art show at the Surfing Heritage Museum in Costa Mesa, CA. This was a good outlet for some of the new artistic directions I had been developing on my travels. Dipping a paintbrush into paint for the first time in months was like getting to pee after an extra long movie.
A summer in California and the travel bug gave me another sting. I was off to meet the Nola in Fiji, but this time, I realized the only thing missing from my life was a guitar and I insisted on learning how to make nice sounds come out of it. I know I had felt like other places were “it” before, but Fiji seriously is paradise. The waves were absolutely mind boggling. The people were so friendly, smiling and generous. We got there a few months after the government opened Tavarua to the public, so we were some of the first people that got to surf Cloudbreak and Restaurants without staying at the expensive resort. I had never thought I’d get to surf those dreamy spots. But dreams do come true.
After a few months sipping coconut milk and getting some mind altering tubes in Fiji, and being so close, I decided to get another fix of that big rowdy country they call Australia… besides, it was a huge place and I had to see the other side and visit an old friend who lived in Margaret River. A few months of fun blew by in Western Australia and then I got deported. Literally escorted onto the airplane by immigration officials. You live and learn. Home was sounding good anyways.
Surfing all of these legendary waves, experiencing all the rich cultures, and incredible people… I felt satiated. Many things got checked off the bucket list. Almost 2 years after I had taken off for New Zealand, I had finally come full circle and was ready to settle down a bit, find a studio and get busy with some art. I had grown so much in my sketchbooks, mind, and soul. I had a fresh perspective on life and a heightened sense of artistic direction. After finding a great studio a block from the beach in Ventura at the WAV art community, I was able to step back and really internalize everything I had just experienced and realize my art was directly influenced by this great gallivant. There were tribal totems, faces, fish, jungle plants, and lots of waves. They were the pieces that have come to further define my style, as this adventure has defined so much of who I am. At this time, I started working on more commercial projects. One of the most exciting projects was doing the artwork for the 2011 Reef Hawaiian Pro in Haleiwa on the North Shore.
Seeing my work plastered all over the magazines and event site was awesome and humbling. The art itself was perfect culmination of what I’d been doing – surfing the tropics, enjoying life. I was also part of the Board Art Benefit with SurfAid, teaming up with Robert Weiner to do a live board painting. It was great to get to partner with someone who’s been part of my career since the beginning. Working with SurfAid, combined with what I learned on my travels, has made me realize the potential I have as an artist to give back…to make a positive impact in the communities and environments that make surfing possible. Now that I’m settled back in my studio, I’m focusing a lot on this, using my art to support the causes I care about. I feel so lucky to have been able to experience what I have and do what I love for a living. I thank all of my friends, family, collectors, and clients who have made this possible.
– Erik Abel, July 2012
*Abel currently lives and works on the Oregon coast with his wife and son.