By Michael Kew
Spencer Reynolds won’t paint burgers. But maybe he should.
They’re gorgeous things.
And he’s just ordered one, medium-well with extra avo, from Raymond Ross, friendly owner of the Vista Pub. Squinting in late-Saturday sun, the 41-year-old Reynolds sits opposite me in his jeans and blue coat, drinking Brookings-brewed beer at a varnished redwood table. We’re in the pub’s side patio on Chetco Avenue, the whoosh of traffic alternating with birds chirping from the green hedge that doubles as a fence.
On the black cinderblock wall by our table is Reynolds’ 4-by-4 painting of Natural Bridges, a picturesque spot 11 miles north. But it’s not the view commonly photographed. “It’s a little more dangerous to see,” Reynolds says. “You have to almost hang off the cliff to get that angle.”
The piece was commissioned by Ross, who has displayed Reynolds’ art since the pub’s birth in 2011.
“One chilly day, Raymond ran over to me as I was walking from the ocean after surfing. He excitedly told me that he was opening a pub and would love to hang my work inside. We didn’t know each other well at that point, but I loved his passion.”
Today, four years later, Brookings’ ocean-breezed air is still chilly. Hot food sounds great. But first: two more pints by Chetco Brewing; in 2013, Reynolds was hired to draw the company logo.
“Designing it was fun for me on a couple of levels. First, I love a good beer and thought it would be cool to make art for a brewery. Second, I grew up on the Chetco River, so I have a deep passion for this amazing place.”
After my third sip of Willa Nelson IPA, I ask Reynolds about something he’d told me a few weeks back, a morsel about his art being driven by an attempt to balance opposites. What does that mean?
“It can mean lots of different things,” Reynolds says [then, to Ross, approaching with our gorgeous burgers]. “Wow, that was fast!”
“Everyone in there is drinking beer,” Ross says, grinning before heading back inside. “The cooks are just waiting for orders.”
Squirting ketchup onto his French fries, Reynolds continues.
“So, yeah, opposites—there’s always some sort of opposing elements in my work. Could be a structural element versus a flowy element. It could be the physical materials, or metaphorically political, and a real desire to see those things get along. It’s not always something that I know that’s going to happen when I start a piece; rather, it’s when I finish a piece and I look at it and realize that the rule of opposites has come out of me again. No matter what I create, that always seems to be there.”
The rule of opposites, I posit, could apply not just to his work but to his base, firmly in Brookings, perhaps financially unsound for a full-time artist.
“There’s a lot of moral support here,” Reynolds says, chewing fries. “Often I’ll have to sell my art in other places—mainly Southern California, because that’s where a concentration of surf culture is. But as I expand into different areas, maybe that won’t be as important.”
I ask, “You no longer consider yourself a ‘surf artist,’ right?”
“Not anymore. I think I did for a time, but I want to broaden more, because the title of ‘surf artist’ is too confining for me. I want to do other things.”
He sips some beer, sets his chin.
“I don’t know. I just want to experiment, to play with paint and try whatever comes to mind. I feel like a jazz musician, improvising a lot of the time, seeing what comes out of me.”
Reynolds admits to being a kid enamored with surf culture, because the Curry coast had none. A 1991 graduate of Brookings-Harbor High School, he moved to Eugene for a lukewarm stint at community college, then to Port Angeles to surf, then to Seattle to prioritize his art. He attended the Art Institute and surfed rarely. “I was moderately scared of the big city—the big world—but I wanted to enter it.”
After six years, he did some traveling, eventually settling in Hawaii and Australia before returning to Oregon—Portland this time, where he met Stacey, now his wife, marketing director, and mother of Blake, their 3-year-old son.
“Stacey has lots of skills and abilities that I lack,” Reynolds says, wiping his lips between burger bites. “I’m the passionate dreamer side of the relationship, and she’s the realistic, mechanical side. She’s pretty essential for me not getting too far out in la-la land.”
In 2009, the newlyweds moved to Brookings.
“I really want to feel like I’m sinking into this place, to be firmly rooted,” he says. “I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m a bit of an introvert, so I don’t feel as hindered here as I did in the cities, where everything seemed to suffocate me. I can really breathe here. But it took me years to get to this mindset. I wanted to be out everywhere. I didn’t want to be here for a long time, but I always knew I’d come back.”
There are plans for a Reynolds art gallery not far from where we sit.
“The commercial side of it to support your family is probably Spencer’s deepest desire—to be able to live off his art,” says Stacey, who’s just joined us from inside the Vista. “We’re constantly trying to navigate that—how we can bring art and creativity to everyone’s lives and make it accessible, especially here in the Brookings community.”
“People are excited that I can make a bit of a living as an artist here,” Spencer adds, “but it’s definitely a sort of bizarre element to where most people here make a living in a very practical manner.”
“Is art impractical?” I ask.
“It’s very practical,” he says. “It’s essential. A lot of people might argue against that, but art gives you a reason to live.”
A swig of beer and a pause in eating. He leans back in the metal chair, red-cheeked, aglow, optimistic about the future, about the second half of his gorgeous burger. Spencer smiles. Because here in Brookings, living is the reason.