It’s difficult to believe it has taken us two years to feature the work of Californian-born artist Ben Brough. Sure, Ben is an artist – but he’s many more things besides: surfer, designer, father, husband, conversationalist, skateboarder, art scholar and sheer creative force of nature.
This is something his friend Craig Barker picked up on recently. “Ben would be making artwork of all kinds even if he wasn’t participating in the ‘art world’ just because he HAS to … and that’s important”. This idea of a creative life being as important and fulfilling as the work itself is a theme Ben comes back to often during an hour long conversation that ranges around the world and covers everything from the story-telling lineage of Mexican mural art to the lonely, solitary stoke of catching a wave.
“I like the process and the discipline of it”, he says. “It’s like if I don’t surf. If I don’t create, I feel a little off. There are no labels. I’m just trying to do everything and just be into everything”.
What’s a typical day for you? How does it go?
A typical day? I got two girls, one’s 8 and one’s 4, so my wife and I get the kids ready for school, and if it’s good sneak down and get a surf in before work. Then I head down to the office – I work for O’Neill as their art director. I’ve been there for two years. So I go there and do the daily duties, the ins and outs of work. Then I come home, make some dinner for the kids, hang out, maybe have a couple of beers and then go into the studio and work until late and night. Usually it’s a combination of that, to try and balance all those things – family life, work full time, and keep the studio time. And surfing. Between all that it takes up a solid chunk of the day.
It sounds like you need to be pretty organised and dedicated to make time for your work then.
My wife helps out a lot. She understands I’m an artist and I have shows and projects. She’s active too and creative. Together we’re just trying to balance all that shit. I mean, of course I’d like to do it all day. I was for a while, and it’s hard – I was trying to buy a house, and then this job opportunity at O’Neill came up. So at night is really the only time I get to concentrate on my art. You know, I’m at work all day at the computer, and that’s the opposite of what I do in the studio, which I think is a good thing. I have to do catalogues, colour corrections, that type go thing, so I like the fact I can come home, play some music and throw some paint around. And I like it late at night. It’s quiet, and I have a garage so I can hang. That’s usually the routine. If I have a show, I wake up early on the weekends and work throughout the day. If it’s really crunching out, I’ll get up early and make time for that. I just pick and choose.
You’ve always worked commercially with brands such as O’Neill. How does that work with your art? Does it complement it?
For the longest time, I was always trying to keep my fine art and graphic design separate. I was afraid of being watered down. But now as I get older, I’ve realised it doesn’t matter. I mean, I’ve been doing graphic design for companies for 12 years now, and its all part of the same story. It all influences the other and gives you something else. Like, my art is really loose and flat. There’s not much 3D involved, but when I’m designing I enjoy the total opposite. I like the cleanness. Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini, ha ha. So at work I enjoy creating ad campaigns, laying out catalogues, lookbooks, trying to keep the vibe and direction giving in the same direction. It’s a tighter as a brief, but it’s still an outlet. I love getting photos, going on shoots and then manipulating it back on the computer. It’s all creativity, it doesn’t matter if they’re separate.
Is it difficult, to balance those things? Sometimes it must be tempting to just sit down, watch TV and have a beer. How do you keep motivated and focussed?
Yeah sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes my brain is just mush, so I’ll drink a few beers, sit on the couch and reset my brain. But I try to stay as focussed as possible. Even when I’ve finished a shot, I like to be in there working. But sometimes it just isn’t possible. Sometimes you have to draw the arrow back, absorb, get some downtime, get ready.
I’d like to say ‘Yeah, it’s none stop. I’m obsessed!’ But it’s not like that. Sometimes I need a break. I mean, I’m constantly thinking about it, but it’s hard to maintain that frame of mind the whole time. So to try and keep that frame of mind is the goal, so that I do step in, everything starts to flow. Because I don’t work in series or blocks: I come in and start banging stuff out. Mostly it’s just working the whole time until something sticks. It’s like skating or surfing – I get the same enjoyment from those things. And you don’t do those constantly. Sometimes you’re hurt, sometimes you’ll need to sit back on it. Sometimes it clicks and it’s all you want to do. Then you want to keep in that, because it’s firing. It’s like a big circus. When you’re in it, the stars are aligned. When you create, when you get a wave – they’re all the same for me.
The older I get, the more I think that creativity is basically a habit. But do you feel guilty if you’re not working? When you’re on that downtime? You sound like you have a good handle on it, but recognising and enjoying that necessary downtime is really difficult I think.
Yeah, I definitely feel guilty. And I’m trying more and more to see creativity as a habit. I always get interested in other artists with kids. I mean, I feel guilty when I’m not with my kids. How do you balance it all?
What came first? Surfing or art?
I surfed from a young age, I grew up in surfing family. I was born in California, with it’s rich surf history, then we moved to Hawaii. And I’ve just always been in the water or on the beach. My Dad was great and was always making sure I was in the water. At the same time, when I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an artist from around the 4th grade. My grandfather was an artist in the Navy. He used to draw people for 10 cents a portrait. So that was around me, and I held onto that.
Soon after I got the opportunity to travel as a sponsored surfer, which was amazing as I got to see the world. But I was always much more interested in heading to the museums, and checking out the local culture, than just necessarily going surfing. Having that opportunity to travel and experience so much fired my imagination and gave me so much to draw from as an artist.
Was the surfing itself an influence at all?
It’s funny, because it’s only recently that I really started being into surf imagery. Before, I wanted to keep it separate. Above all, I always wanted to be true and be myself. That applies for any influences though. I didn’t want to fake it. I mean, I’m not a graffiti artist. I didn’t grow up in an urban environment. But the more I worked, and the less time I had to surf, then the more I was drawn to surf stuff. Because the truth is I’ve always been connected to surfing. And it went from there, and eventually the theme comes out. Like in the last show I did, it’s definitely prominent. I still wouldn’t say I’m a surf artist. For me, it’s about keeping to themes I know about and that I can speak truthfully about.
That links nicely to your latest project, Children of the Wave, which seems to link many key strands of surf culture with other influences like comic strips. Was that intentional?
Well the basis of that was this comic strip I made up about a gang of desert kids called the Cactus Club. They’re a motley crew. They they live in the desert, camp out, cause havoc. But they know when the waves are good, so then they surf while it’s good, then they head back to the desert to shoot guns. They’re basically pirates that live in the desert, causing havoc.
I read a lot that Wilbur Kookmeyer was a big influence. Is that true in this case?
Yeah. I mean, I grew up with surf magazines from the 60s and 70s. My Dad was there and hanging out, and he has all those old magazines: Wilbur Kookmeyer, Rick Griffin. All those fun old strips. That’s the type of surf art I like, rather than like a perfect painting of a wave or whatever. It’s a little more raw and related to the fun of surfing.
So yeah, it was a homage, to have fun and keep that vision alive. I wanted to do something similar in a different age, to keep that spirit alive in the modern era, and come up with something raw, fun and truthful. Surfing to me isn’t just a perfect wave or a sunset. Sometimes your board breaks. Or it’s the burrito you eat when you get out of the water, which never tasted better. To me that shit is surfing.
When I look at your work it seems to me that freedom is a key theme, almost like you’re trying to recapture the innocence that marks out your early days as a kid, when your life revolves around riding waves or skating the local spot. When you grow up, you lose that. Is that what the Cactus Club was all about?
Yeah. Subliminally it’s about that, trying to recapture that freedom you had as a kid. Like you say, now I have this routine, whereas when you were a kid it was simple. I think subconsciously I’m always longing for that freedom again.
What about Lonely Slider, the other project of yours? What is that all about?
It’s a new project I’m working on. There’s nothing deep behind it. I just wanted to have an umbrella to put my art underneath. It is turning into a brand now actually, and there’s the possibility of releasing merch under the name – prints, hats, t-shirts and whatnot. I know it sounds a bit emo, like ‘I have no friends, boo hoo’. Which is funny, because I think friends are everything. But Lonely Slider is the act of riding a wave or getting waves.
What ambitions do you have for your work at this stage?
I love preparing for gallery shows. Any artist would like to be doing it full time. I’d like to be on that level but….I’m only 35. So in the art world I’m young. I mean, I hang out with a lot of other artists in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and they’re still going at it. And I want that, I want to live to a ripe old age and be like them, drinking wine and create. The goal is to keep doing it non stop, to keep working. To keep at it. The thing is, I’ve always done it and I always will, regardless of whether I get good shows or now. I just want to keep doing it and see where it goes. I like the process and the discipline of it. Like I said earlier, it’s the same feeling I get if I don’t surf. If I don’t create, I feel a little off and I wonder what’s wrong with it. It’s a feeling that you just have to try and do it again. It keeps your brain working properly. I turn into much mentally and physically if I don’t.
But yeah, I’d love to get my work around in the ‘real’ art world. I’d like to get to a point where my art is recognisable. I want to be collected. Which artist doesn’t? You know, I look at other artists – they work in one medium, or are know for one thing, and for the longest time I wanted to do that. I struggled with that for a long time. Now, I’m like fuck that. There are no labels, and I like to explore all these different avenues: comics, abstracts, design, paintings, collage. I’m just trying to do everything and just be into everything.
How about specifics? What pieces are you working on?
I’m working on this skull and crossbones series right now. It’s interesting, because it’s not a new subject. It’s everywhere. But in looking at it, you realise how many layers such a well known symbol has. I love the shape of it. It reminds me of danger. It can be political. It breaks down any racial issues. It’s universal. It could be a cliche, but I’m trying to see something different in there.
Are you inspired by other artists directly?
That’s such a broad question – there are so many artists that I look at and am blown away. And for me it’s almost like a day to day, week to week thing. I love looking at art and sometime it fucks me up. I don’t want to subliminally influenced, but at the same time I like looking, getting inspired. It’s kinda like a catch 22 – if I’m looking at art, then I’m getting pissed off that I’m not doing as much. It’s a black hole question. I could be here all day, ha ha. David Lloyd, who lives up in LA, is somebody I look up to. He works non stop. David Shrigley. I love him. I love Rick Griffin’s stuff. Then I’m influenced by eras and styles. I love Egyptian art and caveman art. It’s flat and one dimensional, but it still has a dialogue, tells a story and deals with pretty deep questions. I love Old Masters. Mexican mural painters.
It sounds like for you the act of doing it, being inspired by others, and living a lifestyle that’s as creative as possible is almost as important as ‘the work’ itself.
I’m not trying to make my life sound like this crazy artist lifestyle. But like I said earlier, it’s about being truthful to yourself. I didn’t grow up in New York or Berlin. I didn’t cut my ear off, fuck hookers or drink absinthe. When I was a kid, I was really into that image of the romantic artist. I thought that’s what an artist did – sit in a garret all day and try and ‘create’. I enjoyed it at the time, but the older I got the more I realised that wasn’t really what it was about.
It was the same when I surfed all the time. I used to get so caught up in criticising the industry, complaining that it’s lame, and wanting to break out and away from it. But as I got older, I came to my senses. I realised this is the world I came from. I surf, I skate. I’m influenced by skateboard graphics. I’m a product of that lifestyle. Regardless of labels or whatever, it doesn’t fucking matter. That’s how kids are right now, they’re into everything – photography, art, skating, whatever. So I’m embracing it. If anything, too much. It’s almost overload sometimes. Sometimes I think I need to reel it back and focus on one thing, ha ha.