Winter 2023 - Phoenix/Talent, from tragedy to revival

Monday, April 3, 2017

Creature of Habit - Artist Spotlight

Creature of Habitat

Story by Michael Kew

Photography provided by Spencer Reynolds


In the 1980s, Spencer Reynolds loved surf media—the vogue outerworld. Oregon was innerworld. He was a boy in Brookings, a wet coastal bump six miles from California. This was no surfer’s Eden. Being cold and stormy, full of bad waves, huge swells, rocks and closeouts it offers a host of challenges. Instead, it’s an angler’s Eden. But Reynolds, now 43, doesn’t fish. He paints in his sylvan hillside studio on the Chetco River, in Semi Aquatic, his clean midtown gallery, and atop a scenic glen amid spruce and spindrift. 

I can breathe now. City life choked me, but it took 20 years to reach this mindset. I wanted to be everywhere else. 

Brookings was a remote, blue-collar town built for logging, now it’s mostly for retirees and tourists. Making art for money here is an odd concept, but outposts need culture. I’m not spearheading anything—I just want to contribute, despite my insecurities. I wasn’t raised with the idea of art being a way to survive.

I constantly question my abilities––whether they’re real or just a result of my overactive imagination. I have a lot of doubt I can pull off making a living from this.

My art needs to improve. Always.

Tranquil scenes are boring. I’m a product of this area. Like the Pacific Northwest coast, my art is raw. I’m also compelled to do my art here because I care about culture in small communities. People in the city can disregard art so easily because there’s so much of it there. In tiny Brookings, art affects them.

It’s not a new concept. Yin and yang, order and disorder, Apollonian and Dionysian. My art balances opposites. I tap into something bigger than me, balancing raw and refined brushwork. I like a structural element, balanced with a free flow. My brain is stretched in different directions and my goal is to find balance.

“Surf artist” is limiting. I am not a surf artist. I do many things. I experiment. I play with paint and try whatever comes to mind. I feel like a jazz musician improvising, seeing what comes out.

The purpose of art is multifaceted. My role in it may be to uplift peoples’ spirit a bit, but there’s also darkness in my art. My art is a fight for free spirit. Ultra-liberal, ultra-conservative, ultra-religious—these things possess a desire to control your life. We need to fight them, and that’s what I’ve been trying to put forth with my work.

Molds and stereotypes bore me. The name of my store, Semi Aquatic, says a lot about me. It’s clunky but passionate, expressing my deep love for water.

Some artists think you can’t capture a moment if you’re painting from a photograph. I don’t entirely agree with that, but I understand there are color dynamics happening in person that can’t and don’t seem to translate into a photo. If I’m painting from a photo, my mind goes outside the parameters of the photo, and eventually I’m not using the photo at all. We are so used to photos the painting becomes about creating purposely, to emulate qualities of a photo. It’s maybe not as pure as capturing the moment straight from life, but it still feels authentic to me in reflecting how layered and complex our lives are.

When an artist makes bold statements about this being the right way and that being the wrong way, I like to break such “rules.”

It’s important to know what really happens in artists’ heads rather than the image of perfection and the confidence most of us want to project onto the world.

Surfing has a similar dynamic to what I experience in art. I started surfing because it was fun; after a while, it became my identity. People judge you based on your artistic output, and all I want to do is tap into that original stoke, regardless of whether or not that’s the hip way of making art.

Art is how I explore life. It’s the only way I can make something authentic someone will connect with. It’s a paradox—sometimes people want me to continue making the same sort of image that possessed that original source of passion, but I can’t continue to make the same image and remain passionate, so something gets lost along the way. In the end, I press forward regardless of all these things; because it’s my life's passion. Insecurities can push you forward, but when are they detrimental? 

Art is the elegant middle finger toward life and death.

Talent isn’t always the biggest factor in making an artist successful. Sometimes this frustrates me, which implies I think I’m a good artist, but there are times I think I’m a talentless person. What is talent? Self-delusion?

Vulnerability and transparency are ways I’ve chosen to create empathy with my audience. This makes me uncomfortable. I have to let out the energy I get from attention in physical ways, like soaking in the cold Pacific.

I’m obsessed with lines. What does this mean? I rely on an answer inside of me. I guess I believe in something bigger and multi-dimensional, like a god or a force I rejoin after death. What does my obsession mean? It’s not about what you turn out; It’s about continuing the journey. The byproduct of that perseverance is nice art 

I’ve never really fit in with any group. I’m not cool enough for hipsters; I wasn’t nerdy enough for my art school friends; I’m not core enough for a lot of surfers (I was a body boarder for many years). I’m not even a “gnarly Oregon local.” I’ve been surfing this area longer than most surfers here.

Art needs to refresh you.

Spencer Reynolds

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