At home with legendary art misfit Thomas Campbell

At home with legendary art misfit Thomas Campbell
Um... Duh... Yeah — T.moeski doesn’t like to talk... which is odd, considering he's a master in the world of his own language. As a filmmaker, photographer, surfer and artist, his handmade aesthetic defines everything he does. But beyond the sketches, stitches and stills, what’s is he really trying to say? Huck heads to California to find out.

When I pull into Thomas Campbell’s secluded driveway in Bonny Doon, a minimally populated area nestled in the mountains above Santa Cruz, his greeting sets the tone for the day.

I exit my car and crouch down to pet his Australian Shepard, Muddy, who bypasses all niceties to give my mouth a sloppy lick. “That’s the perfect way to greet her,” says Thomas. “She loves to make out. Want to see the highlight of the property?”

Thomas leads me towards the quaint cabin-style house that he shares with his filmmaker wife, Tiffany, whose influential Dear and Yonder (2009) raised the all-female surf movie to an artful place. A few steps away rises a majestic fairy-ring of redwood trees.

In the middle is an artfully-designed wooden platform built by Jay Nelson, the artist behind the whimsical tree houses and colourful window displays of San Francisco’s Mollusk Surf Shop. We walk up the steps into the centre of the ring – or, as Thomas calls it, “the redwood cathedral” – and stare up at a gasp of blue sky framed by a sphere of hundred-foot trees.

It’s an idyllic setting – the one place he “most likes to hang out”. But as we head for the house, a powerful vibration emanates from a cherry blossom tree. “They’re psyched,” says Thomas of the thousands of bees buzzing above our heads, “it’s kind of scary.”

He starts to talk me through his plans for a bee box and chicken coop, at which point his friend Roger Mihalko shows up to scan some film negatives. The Northern California skater, known for his barefooted misadventures, is typical of the creative creed of stylists who have gathered around Thomas over the years.

“Feel free to check out the place while I get Roger set up,” says Thomas. “Try some well water or there’s juice in the fridge.”

I’m here today to try and make an artist who doesn’t particularly like to talk about his art, talk about his art. “I don’t really think about it” seems to be Thomas Campbell’s motto. “People are always trying to get me to explain everything,” says the forty-two-year-old, “but that kind of ruins it.”

In many ways this mantra is the most telling thing he says. Because, beneath a mellow exterior and tendency to downplay his celebrity, the wheels of a multi-coloured, amorphous machine are churning out ideas left and right. And yet, like the sewing machine he uses to piece together his colourful pinwheels, Thomas exudes only a quiet hum.

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The Thomas Campbell aesthetic – as captured in film, photography, sculpture and fine art – has seeped beyond the barrier that segregates surfing from the world to the point where demands for explanations are pelted from all sides.

Art aficionados want to know where his genderless pieces – quilt-like pinwheels, whimsical bronzes and cartoonish feats of inventive carpentry – draw inspiration from; surfers and skaters want to know more about his roots.

It’s hard to please everyone with the same tale, so it’s understandable when he says that he’d sooner plead the fifth, before guiding your eyes back to his multimedia work. Each piece, suggests Thomas without saying a word, should ideally speak for itself.

So, what’s the message? His surf filmography includes a neat triptych of art-docs – The Seedling (1999), Sprout (2004) and The Present (2009) – which together breached core boundaries to explore waveriding’s every countercultural verge.

The trilogy became a creative counterpoint to the punk-versus-jock dualism perpetuated by surf media, leaving an enduring platform for the aesthetic freaks who had always been an essential but marginalised element of Californian surf culture. It was always cool to be a surfer; post-Campbell, it was cooler to be a surfer who also produced art.

His art (a body of work he prefers to “keep separate” from his surfing life) took root in the 1990s, when curator Aaron Rose drew together a misfit crew – Ed Templeton, Steve Powers and Mike Mills to name a few – put on a series of ad-hoc shows at Alleged Gallery in the Lower East Side, took those outsiders around the world and, in 2008, mythologised their work in his Beautiful Losers film.

On the West Coast, meanwhile, Mission School artists like Barry McGee and Chris Johanson were congregating around galleries like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, creating work that thrived in both public and private spaces. Thomas’s folksy homegrown style slid effortlessly into this niche.

“We were just a group of friends making different stuff,” says Thomas. “Some were younger and less evolved, like Chris Johanson was only a kid back then, but something was slowly… percolating. Were we ‘a scene’? Um… yeah. It was definitely a movement.”

Today, a Thomas Campbell original commands a pretty price tag. His most recent solo show – Capture and Release at Half Gallery in New York – brought together his brand new bronzes, recent paintings and ‘sewn paper stuff’, all on offer for $2,500-$30,000. While his ubiquitous style hangs in galleries the world over, at home Thomas does his best to put a shroud of anonymity over a level of fame that, twenty years in the making, he still finds “startling”.

“In my life I’ve created a scenario where it doesn’t reflect back to me very much, because I don’t want it to,” says Thomas of his stature in the art world. “We’re all just trying to find some kind of path that feels good.”

Thomas lives a secluded lifestyle in the mountains above Santa Cruz but travels the globe for well-publicised art events, and tries to temper his role of influential artist with his desire to achieve “balance and happiness, however that’s found”.

When asked how he feels about being touted as an influential beacon of surf and skate culture, and a bastion of the DIY aesthetic, he replies simply: “For me it’s about making it. That’s what I’m interested in. I just do it. I love it.”

Countless short films show Thomas documenting the moments that culminate in art, but putting that process into words is another thing. So, how do you get an artist who doesn’t like to talk about his art, talk about his art? Sometimes the best way to understand a person’s story is to wander through the world they’ve created. Thomas’ is more colourful than most.

Back in the Campbell kitchen, above a stripped-down wooden table, is a wall of framed art. Alongside a photo by iconic 1960s surf photographer Ron Stoner are drawings and paintings by artists Kyle Field, Evan Hecox and Simone Shubuck.

Two Jim Marshall photographs from 1963 – one of Bob Dylan, the other of legendary pianist Bill Evans – hang by their side. There’s an Ed Templeton piece and a print and holiday card from Barry McGee and his late wife, Margaret Kilgallen. Thomas takes a piece from all of these worlds.

“Are you hungry?” he asks walking into the kitchen, finding me staring at the mini museum. My two-hour window-down drive from San Francisco has spurred an appetite, so we hop in his big white van, outfitted with a bed in the back and covered in stickers, and head down to Bonny Doon’s one-block “town”.

Turned off by the “crowds”, Thomas has a change of heart and we head twenty minutes south to local Santa Cruz favourite, Brazil Café. But it’s a Sunday and this brightly decorated hole in the wall isn’t any less packed. Resigned to the twenty-minute wait, he puts our name on the list and finds a bench outside, away from the throngs of weekend lunchers.

“Living around this area, people don’t really put off an air of whether they have money or don’t, you can’t really tell,” says Thomas, as we are greeted hello by a kid hosing down his wetsuit in his front yard. “I really enjoy not having that hiccup of talking to people and them then looking at you like you’re fucking weird or judging you. The acceptance level is high here.”

It would be easy to typecast Thomas Campbell as laid-back and easygoing, but there is a depth to his calm that goes beyond the surfer stereotype. “I came from a very kinetically, energetically, low-frequency sleepy beach town, and that’s where I register,” says Thomas, who grew up skating and surfing in Dana Point, Orange County.

Art was not a huge part of his childhood, but like any kid he dabbled in different mediums. The one indicator of his future career was a love for ceramics class, which he took every year throughout high school.

At seventeen, already creating popular fanzines from home, he started shooting for Transworld Skateboarding, and spent the next eleven years juggling slots at core titles like Big Brother and PowerEdge, eventually finding himself as photo editor at SkateBoarder Magazine when Tony Hawk was editor.

At 19, Thomas left Southern California for Santa Cruz. But six months later, in 1989, the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake hit with an epicentre just twelve miles from his home.

“It was really crazy,” he says, gesturing and making sound effects. “Cars were bouncing like a foot off the ground.” The intensity prompted him to leave the mainland for the surfing Mecca of Kauai. But at twenty-one, he realised that the little island wasn’t culturally vital enough for, nor conducive to, the things he wanted to see and do.

Keeping Santa Cruz and San Francisco as home bases, Thomas spent the next five years travelling. He began taking his art more seriously and, in 1994, hosted his first solo show at Arcanes Gallery in Morocco.

He hitchhiked across America, lived for a year in Europe, and timed his travels to match the surf seasons in spots across the globe, all the while shooting and painting in tandem.

“The whole time I was taking photos, I was trying and trying to figure out art,” says Thomas, “kind of like a skateboarder would approach a ledge; you don’t always succeed, but you gotta keep going.”

In 1995, he followed a girl to New York City and put on his first show at Alleged Gallery. But the transition from lackadaisical Bay Area to big-city hustle was something of a shock.

“It was almost like a moth to the flame and I was the flame,” recalls Thomas, of how New Yorkers treated the novelty of his calm energy. But the dog-eat-dog hyperactivity of the city eventually got to him and he headed back west to San Diego.

“Some people need chaos to get motivated,” he explains. “I’m just naturally motivated. A lot of stimuli just confuses me.”

In 2000, he moved back to Santa Cruz and last year he and his wife bought the property in Bonny Doon.

“I didn’t understand it at first but when the kinetic energy lowered, then I could hear myself,” he explains. “It didn’t come to my mind that if I moved out into the country, I could hear myself all the time. Maybe perceptively I’m influenced more than other people, but it seems like living in the country is really grounding.”

Thomas may not wax lyrical about the emotions behind a painting, but that may simply be because he’s too busy contributing to the zeitgeist. Right now he’s working on a 16mm skateboard movie and preparing for an August show at Baronian Francey in Belgium. But he seems most excited about Um Yeah Press, an indie publishing arm launching in May that will be “a vehicle” for his work.

“It’s an opportunity to create all the different books I’ve wanted to make for a while, alone and with different friends,” says Thomas. His first offering, From Ummm To Der, is an almanac of recent artwork in collaboration with Gingko Press, while a longer-term project, which he’s excited to work on “for the next few years”, is a series of bi-annual photo-books pulled from his prolific surf archives. Each book will “have the same feel and format” but explore different topics and locations with the first installment, Slide Your Brains Out: Surfing and General 1997-2012, setting the tone.

“I’ve just got so much stuff from those early days,” says Thomas, “and I don’t want any of it to go to waste.”

Over lunch, Thomas dodges questions about his art. Instead, with his gift for subtly turning an interviewer into an interviewee, we talk about me. But it doesn’t feel like evasion. One question after the other, Thomas asks about my own work, what kind of music I make and listen to, my childhood spent on Kauai. In turns encouraging and instructive, he says things like “I’m excited for you” and “I’m imparting this to you because I think it will help”.

If you research Thomas, it becomes clear that this curiosity about other people’s interests has shaped many lives. When Dane Reynolds turns his back on the professional circus to immortalise freesurfing on grainy Polaroids and self-made films; when Kassia Meador throws up a little photo exhibition alongside a longboarding comp; when Alex Knost channels his wave-sliding roots into another genre-less band – a nod to Thomas Campbell’s transgressive innovations is never far behind.

“Thomas does a million things all the time, it’s so inspiring,” says Roger Mihalko, the skater who dropped by Thomas’ house. “I remember watching Sprout and thinking, ‘Oh you don’t have to ride a regular skateboard!’ I always rode weird boards anyway, but Thomas’ movie made it feel like that was okay.”

Encouraging people to diversify and embrace their outer-talents is, for Thomas, just the logical thing to do. “All those Beautiful Loser guys, we were all just friends, you know?” he remembers.

“Me and Ed Templeton knew each other because we shot skate photos together. One day he showed me a closet full of paintings. He was just shooting photos back then and never showed anybody his art. I was like, ‘What the fuck are these doing in your closet? Hang them up, give them away – do whatever you have to to get them out!’ He would paint on my photos, or Tobin Yelland would shoot something for him to draw on. We just all started doing stuff together.”

It is fitting that Beautiful Losers shares its moniker with a Leonard Cohen novel, for Thomas’s greatest passion projects, outside of art, are musical. Not only has he influenced the careers of countless artists, but with his small twenty-year-old label, Galaxia Records, many musicians as well. Galaxia has become a home for the structureless sounds of Tommy Guerrero and Ray Barbee, skateboarding alumni who both turned to jazz.

Later, on my drive home, I will put in a CD Thomas makes for me (“I just like to craft these super-slow mixes across a bunch of different genres, but I can’t remember what’s on this one”) and come to the conclusion that his art is just like the jazz on the mix: repeated patterns embellished with improvised departures. But he’s not quite ready to get into that kind of analysis just yet. Our names are finally called, so first we must eat.

As we look over the menu, the conversation turns to my current (and his past) veganism. “I’m not saying that it’s all true, because history to me is folkloric anyway,” he says, before launching into a ten-minute recap of the history of mankind’s eating habits, as garnered from a book he read recently about blood-type diets.

“Every single person is a different chemistry experiment,” he adds – and suddenly I feel like he’s not just talking about food. “Anything can be right for anyone. It’s dialling into yourself and seeing where you’re at, finding out what feels right. Our culture doesn’t really instruct us how to feel.”

After lunch we talk obsessively about music, comparing favourite records and favourite shows. We both commiserate the years that we snobbishly listened to one type of music (punk for him, folk for me) before opening up to the bounties of other genres. He recounts the time he saw the Grateful Dead and consciously stayed sober to have an unhindered experience.

“It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” he says. He stops at the post office for a moment, pausing in the open door of the driver’s seat because, when it’s a subject he’s enthusiastic about, he just can’t cut a conversation short.

I joke that it’s time to stop tricking me into talking about myself. I want to understand why he uses 16mm instead of digital, ancient lost-wax bronzing techniques instead of 3D modelling, sewing machines and scissors instead of laser-cutting. “My creative process definitely came from skateboarding and being in that culture,” says Thomas, who ‘launched’ his first Xeroxed ‘zine at the age of thirteen.

“In the 1980s, when I was growing up, you made fanzines and took pictures and tried to paint. That was just a part of it. I’m not a surf artist. I made these kind of influential surf films, so people try to co-opt me into that culture. Sure, those other things are a part of what I do, but I like to keep things separate.”

Back at his studio, Thomas introduces me to several pieces he is working on. Full of multicoloured projects at varying stages of completion, it’s like walking into a stained glass cave, littered with gourds, paint cans, piles of wood, found objects and endless scraps of paper.

Revealing his affinity for African art, Thomas lugs out one of his most recent creations. Made from wood, ropes, cardboard, clay, fibreglass and gourds, then cast and bronzed, ‘Der’ is an eighty-five-pound sculpture named, in Thomas’s humorous way, in honour of the expression, ‘Duh!’

He starts to tell me about the months it took to create the sculpture. Right before the patina specialist was going to add the finishing touches, Thomas exclaimed, “Holy shit that looks horrible! The communication sucks. It looks like it’s in pain and I don’t want that.”

So he moved the mouth and added some pimple-like texture to the face. “This one I really like because it’s almost like this entity, or person, or whatever it is, is really communicating,” he says. “It didn’t all come together easy. You’re kind of moving with it in a jazz-like way.”

From his energy to the paint on his fingertips, Thomas’s need to keep making things by hand is palpable. In much the same way that he petted Muddy a few minutes before, he affectionately wipes dust from Der’s expressive face.

“I do think I have a romantic aesthetic idea about what I do, an older-world idea of art. Not extremely conceptual, but more generally expressive,” he explains.

“I have a language that I’ve developed and I’m expressing through that language. I work in bronze and sculpture and traditional painting because I like the aesthetic of those types of things. In my photography and movies I only use film because I feel like it has a warmth, depth, dimension and a dance in the grains. You can tell when it was made. I understand the applicable aspects of digital photography and filmmaking; I see how it can work. But for me, film is a more viable path, and I think a more impactful path. I find digital ephemeral.”

He goes on: “Film is like a dancer. You’re dancing, you’re over here and you shoot something, and you dance over to the middle and the film dances. You don’t really know what the film is going to do exactly, but it has its own cool dance and you can do your dance and you meet somewhere in the middle.

“What I find with digital film is that the medium’s dancing over there and you have to dance all the way across the room; you have to do big-time dance to get it. I’m not saying you can’t get it to somewhere interesting, but it doesn’t meet you in the middle of the room. If I’m going to spend the time to capture something, I want to honour the scenario, the activity, the people, the emotion, and get the most out of it.”

So, is permanence part of the allure? “Very much so,” he says. “I shoot Super 16mm film because if I’m going to try to honour these things, I want this reference piece to be around.” The same goes with bronze.

“It’s a long journey to get them to be dynamic on a level where there’s an interplay and they function. If you’re going to really go through that process and get somewhere, it’s nice that that thing can stick around.”

He pauses. “[Then again] there’s almost a Mad Max idea to some of the art,” he says. “People worry it’s gonna get messed up, but that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s supposed to last forever.”

He goes on to explain how he can work on a painting for seven years, paint over things he doesn’t like, covering up places where it fell and got beat up, or eventually even toss it if he doesn’t like the outcome. You can see this layered aspect in much of his work: the three-dimensional objects that juxtapose shape, colour and texture; the tapestries that are stitched, sketched and sewn; and even the films themselves where clear shots are bled with light from analogue process and directionally driven music is threaded through with atmosphere.

Thomas’ creative output is a deepening palimpsest in constant flux. “I’m not super attached to my work,” he adds. “I don’t need to have it around me and be the centre of everything. I like doing it but then I like getting away from it as well.”

He says he doesn’t “get away” as much as he used to. In the last six months, trips to New York, Hawaii, Berlin, Chile and New Zealand are all considered “light travel”. For Thomas, working in different mediums provides a similar release. “They all come in in a different registry on meditative levels,” he says.

“The sewing is interesting. Sometimes I’ll go away for a few weeks or a month and a lot of times the first thing I’ll do when I get home is just prepare a bunch of those paper flowers. I’ll just make like ten of them and it’s crazy grounding. It helps me re-enter and reconnect.”

Known affectionately to his friends and fans as T.muck or T.moeski – signing off emails with, and every version in between – Thomas infuses a sense of humour into everything he does.

The landing page of his website frames his work as ‘creative dribble’, ‘art faggery’ or simply ‘umm yeah’. It’s a vernacular that pops up in his paintings, usually alongside semi-human characters who say things like, ‘Fuck yeah’, ‘Yep’ or ‘Ummmm’ in balloon-like speech bubbles.

“It’s funny, but also has depth if you want it to,” he explains. “I try to access more positive references. I think it’s a lot harder. Sure, we all have darker parts of ourselves. Accessing dark shit is really easy. It’s all around you and everyone does it. But it’s kinda boring. Besides, ‘um’ is probably the most common, repeated term from all people. I find that mid-thought really interesting. To me it’s the most relatable idea.”

Inspired by the customary robes of Morocco called jellabas, the genderless humanoids in Thomas’ work are designed, he says, to float outside of context – free from the confines of gender and race, and without a backstory – so that they can slip by unnoticed, no questions asked.

“I’ve gone out of my way to stay under the radar,” says Thomas, revealing something of himself in those little human forms.

As our day together draws to a close, Thomas grabs his computer and a couple of blank CDs, and asks me to follow him out to the garage. He starts grabbing colourful scraps of paper from the dishevelled mountains of materials piled around his studio.

What follows is probably best imagined as a sped-up time-lapse video, with Thomas cutting, folding and sewing at lightning speed two impeccably crafted covers for the mix CDs he’s just burned for me.

Then, with a striking combination of focus and frenzy, he pulls up a chair, crouches over his desk, and starts drawing, stamping and personalising a copy of his book. I spent the day chasing soundbites from a man who refused to bite. But as he works, his reluctance to philosophise is replaced with something real. He is driven, in that frenetic moment, by an indescribable force.

Before I make off with my pile of handmade gifts, something Thomas says at the opening of Sprout springs to mind: “This is a film about the exploration of the riding of water mountains and mole hills. The idea behind Sprout is to show how many different ways we have to access our ocean’s existence using whatever shape or sized equipment it might take to have a more connected ride.”

Though he was talking about longboards, shortboards and weird logs in between, the same manifesto could apply to his art – and, for that matter to his life as well. I can’t help but think that, by slipping seamlessly between all mediums, from old-world bronzes to 16mm film, Thomas is proving that there are endless ways to access our own existence – infinite tools we can use to create a more connected ride.

So, is that the message we should take from his work? “It’s not really about my story,” says Thomas. “It’s about your experience with it.”

And on that final note I walk away from Thomas feeling like he’s told me all I need to know. In our interview, he wanted to talk about my experiences. In his art, he wants to talk about yours.

This story originally appeared in Huck 22 – The Counterculture IssueGet it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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