Interview by Michael H. Kew
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. Cold and stormy. Bad waves. Huge swells. Rocks and closeouts. Epic fishing—an angler’s eden. But Reynolds, 43, doesn’t fish. He paints. Sometimes in his sylvan hillside studio on the Chetco River. Sometimes in Semi Aquatic, his clean midtown gallery. Sometimes atop a scenic glen amid spruce and spindrift. The coast that cast him away. But recently he returned—for life, for family. Natal homing, like salmon to his dear Chetco.
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. Maybe impossible, but it drives my work.
“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 also there’s darkness in my art. My art is a fight for free spirit. Ultra-liberal, ultra-conservative, ultra-religious, things like that—they 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. Another angle in my mind is: we are so used to photos that 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 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 art 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.
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 bodyboarder for many years). I'm not even a “gnarly Oregon local,” which I have every right to be. I’ve been surfing this area longer than most surfers here.
Art is how I explore life. It’s the only way I can make something authentic that 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 needs to refresh you.
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 the f— 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, sometimes with intentionally weird laughing or clapping my hands, or other ways. Soaking in the cold Pacific also works well.
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.
Art is the elegant middle finger toward life and death.