Rustek got the chance to sit down (virtually) with local Oregon artist Erik Abel this week. Erik’s not your average art school kid. From giving tattoos in his kitchen to getting deported from Australia, Erik’s journey and inspiration are far from ordinary. His international surf escapades and wild adventures have shaped his work into some of the most recognizable and renowned surf-inspired artists of his generation, and it’s been a dream to collaborate with him on some custom Rustek goods. In this interview, we talk inspiration, mushroom-induced revelations about sustainability, and more. Let’s dive in:
To start things off, let’s talk about how you ended up in Oregon. You’re a California native, traveled extensively around the world from Tonga to New Zealand- why the PNW?
It’s a story of a lot of back and forth. After high school, I moved to Utah for a winter to play in the snow. I was doing some freelance work creating snowboard graphics and random projects and giving tattoos out of my kitchen. And I was continuing community college classes that I had started in Ventura, CA. That winter really sucked for snow so there were a lot more tattoos and debauchery happening than snowboarding. I knew I eventually wanted to go to a 4-year college and get an art degree and then maybe teach art, so after the winter I found a college that was a lot closer to the beach than SLC, had a mountain to ride 20 mins from campus and didn’t require testing to get in. SOU in Ashland, Oregon was the spot. I packed the pick-up truck with my belongings and headed to Southern Oregon. That was 1999. I graduated in 2003 and decided not to do the teaching program and try to make it on my own as an artist instead. That choice seemed to have worked out. I moved to Portland the next year, back when there was no traffic and no trash. Then, in 2006, I reluctantly moved to LA for an Art Director position for a start-up. Then it was back to PDX in 2007 until I bailed for a solo world adventure in 2008 for a few years before returning to Ventura in 2011 to get serious about my art. I happened to get hitched to an Ashland girl and we decided to move to Seaside, OR. Five years and two kids later we needed to get the hell out of the rain, so we pulled the trigger and headed back to Ashland. We pulled into town to start house hunting a week before COVID lockdown started. Fun times!
It’s obvious that your work is inspired by the scenery you’re surrounded by. Have you always gained inspiration from the natural world, or is that something that’s developed over time?
Yes, I’ve noticed over the years that my environment definitely seeps into my work. I can pull inspiration from any of the locations I’ve lived or traveled to over the years but my current setting definitely calls to me. I think that is natural for people/artists to be inspired by their surroundings. The natural world has always been more inspiring to me than anything man-made.
How have your experiences travelling internationally shifted or shaped your art?
Travel has shifted and shaped who I am as a person so it definitely affects my art too. From Mayan temples in Belize to the intricate masks and architecture of Bali, I’ve always been drawn to primitive art, tribal art, and ancient art. There is something so raw and true about it. And also the various landscapes around the world are super influential. It just adds to the arsenal of things to pull out of my memory and siphon out onto the canvas.
Rustek got started with the idea of being able to build a creative business while still being on the road, snowboarding and exploring nature. We really connected with the adventure/work/life balance side of your story. What was your experience like living and working on the road?
Erik: When I was traveling the world, I wasn’t really working. I had saved up enough to bum it for a while and I did the occasional commercial design project. Mostly I was letting my mind wander in my sketchbooks and developing new ideas for art I wanted to make in the future. I basically spent three years brainstorming. Just having the time to follow inspiration where it leads and not be so rushed was a huge benefit of being on the road. It was hard to find ways to make larger art while on the road. But it sure felt good when I decided to settle back home for a while and focus on creating art with all the experiences and ideas I had while traveling.
Rustek: We feel you there...our founding idea of travelling around to different ski resorts and making/fulfilling orders after a full day of skiing only lasted about a season. Finding motivation to create after 6 hours on the mountain was fun and inspiring, but wasn't sustainable for us. Now we leave our shop trailer parked in Portland when we head out for a trip to the mountains.
Speaking of work- what does your typical day look like?
Currently, my work situation has been a disaster. I’ve been studioless since moving back to Ashland in March. My little family has been bouncing around from rental to rental waiting for the house we finally bought to get remodeled and the studio to get built. Lately, my typical days are spent managing two small children, cleaning up the new property, answering emails, doing design work on the computer, and designing and developing new products for the holidays. I also picked up mountain biking this summer. It’s been my adrenaline replacement for surfing, as sessions have been few and far between this year now that I don’t live right on the beach anymore.
One of our goals at Rustek is to make things with sustainable, natural products whenever possible. But we have to be upfront about the fact that not everything we do is great for the environment. How do you deal with issues of sustainability with the products you use in your art?
That is one of the things I liked about Rustek when they first reached out. Sustainability is really important. I’ve always tried to find ways to be more earth-friendly in my business, like switching over to bamboo paper for our paper art prints. We’ve done a lot of fundraising projects with environmental organizations like Save the Waves, Heal the Bay, Surfrider, and SurfAid. Late in 2019, I had a big eye-opener during an intense, solo mushroom trip. My business and art practice had to shift towards being as earth, human, and animal friendly as possible.
All the moving and being unsettled the last several months kinda made me lose my focus on that. But this summer, as I approached the big 4-0, I had a major existential crisis. I was sourcing and researching some new products to release for the holidays, like enamel pins and more vinyl sticker packs, and it became all too clear that I was going down the wrong path. I watched a video of a steamy, hot, metal refinery in China. They were pouring molten metal into a mold. Then, guys in hazmat suits dipped various pieces into vats of plating chemicals. Next, a row of 20 women with syringes filled each little area of an enamel pin with different colorful petroleum-based resins. Then they packaged 200 of them in individual poly bags to fly halfway around the world so some kid could put it on his jacket. I just sat there and thought “what are we doing???”
I lost my shit for a few weeks there and went down the rabbit hole of research on the toxicity of the art supply industry. I’m still rattled. Do we really need to buy plastic bottles full of pigmented liquid plastic (Acrylic paint) to make art? The health hazards of turpentine used while oil painting has been well documented but art students around the world are still being taught with it. It’s overwhelming.
Now I’ve committed to changing my studio practice and educating other artists about it. I’m also figuring out how to challenge the art supply industry to pull its head out of its ass to develop better, less toxic, and more sustainable solutions. A documentary is even in the works. We’re in the middle of figuring out all the changes that need to be made in my business. It’s a little discouraging to feel like I need to start all over again to learn new materials/techniques and ditch the easy supplies I’ve built my career on. But there is no doubt in my mind that it’s the right path to take.
Any advice for the starving artist trying to make it through the covid-19 pandemic?
My wife and I were just talking about this the other day. I feel so lucky to be where I am in my career during all this madness. If this happened a few years ago, it would have been devastating for us financially.
My advice to all struggling artists right now is very similar to the advice I always give to young or beginning artists:
- Learn the basics in Photoshop and Illustrator so you can control how your art looks online and in print and you can design all your marketing materials. Modern phones have good enough cameras to document your art. Learn how to photograph your work.
- Learn how to build your own website, Shopify makes it stupid easy now.
- Have art for sale on your website, whether it’s original art, prints you make yourself, or somebody prints for you. Always have something available for somebody to buy. This way you can make money while you sleep.
- Focus on building your Social following and newsletter list.
- Keep making and sharing your art like your life depends on it!
- Be a workaholic. This pandemic is the perfect excuse to be a recluse and make a ton of art and get the business side of things dialed in.
When this whole thing hit, I thought the art industry and my business was going to stop in its tracks. Amazingly, the opposite has been true. We are on track to have our biggest year of sales yet. People are still buying art like crazy. Knowing that should give struggling artists some hope, you just have to figure out how to find your target market and collectors and have something to sell them.
Finally, what’s your favorite artist for background music when you’re creating?
Oh, the list is long depending on the mood. The Budos Band is usually a good way to kick things off and get the energy flowing.
Check out the Rustek x Erik Abel collaboration here.