THE ART OF THOMAS CAMPBELL

THE ART OF THOMAS CAPBELL
interview / alex knost

This month we have the pleasure of featuring the legendary and self-taught painter, sculptor, photographer and filmmaker Thomas Campbell. We asked Campbell’s longtime friend and collaborator in surf, art, film and music, Alex Knost, to conduct the interview. The result is a historical dialogue with over two decades of artworks carefully sculpted around their discussion. Many thanks to Thomas and Alex for the wonderful read.

Recently I saw a photo of you and The Seedling crew at the Surfer Poll awards, and I just wanted to ask about the scene – describe the vitality of that scene for me – those gestures: contained, indefinite? At that time, it was apparent that Surfer Magazine had to pay attention. Looking back, years later, what are your thoughts on the film?
Let’s see… I guess at the end of the day I grew up with a few handfuls of my friends running logs in Dana Point and at Sano, and then as fate would have it I met Joel Tudor. I didn’t know much about modern hi-pro longboarding. I’d go to the 7-Eleven and would look at Longboard Magazine in the rack and looking at the cover I knew I didn’t want to pick it up because it didn’t have anything to do with what I liked about longboarding. So I didn’t know very much about it, and when I met Joel I really liked what I saw; I never saw anyone surf like that before. It was astounding, so I don’t know; I just was attracted to that. It emoted a certain thing that I really related to, and then Joel introduced me to a bunch of different people, like Devon Howard and Jimmy Gamboa. And uh, yeah, I just started documenting those people and it was just more documenting the thing that felt right. When it was finished the main person who distributed surf movies in California was Sex Wax, so I sent them a copy of the film to see if they could distribute it (haha) and they were just like “uhhh…” They wavered and said they didn’t think it would sell. So yeah, they didn’t distribute it.

In hindsight, from this removed vantage and looking at that photo, it seems a decisive moment – high contrast to the rest of the people you would see at surfer poll. Can it be summed up easily for you?
Nooo. I don’t think it’s my job to sum it up; it was my job to make it. And I made it. I don’t want to talk about myself like that. It’s your place to talk about, not mine. I think it’s important, a lot of incredible talent there and I like the way people were surfing and it was unique. But as far as a summation of it, I don’t want to do it. I mean – what do you think? The reality of it is you’re one of the people I think that was inspired by it.

I was at that particular Surfer Poll and not close with any of you guys. By default, I was outside, a spectator. There is something I always think about, not just in terms of your making a movie and the cast therein, but also about popularity and a fractured identity. You can make something alongside these people and it reaches the limelight, after which it goes up to the audiences’ discretion. A voice, a singular perspective becomes a source of entertainment. Is there any sort of bizarre sensation, disorientation, from being a member of that culture? 
It’s not like the culture stopped, ya know? You’re another part of the culture. Riley Stone is another. Going forward, the culture is there, the culture is in trim, and in the feelings people have. Surfing is sensational. They’re feeling feelings and that’s the thing that makes them keep coming back. The feelings documented are the feelings that continue to happen.

I feel like anyone that gains an audience there accompanies a fractured identity. You are yourself before you look in the mirror, before someone brings it to your attention. What you did you did organically. You went to 7-11 and were like, “these longboard magazines are stale.” At some point you must have realized you made this VHS and realized it was substantial enough to pivot the moment. You are a source of entertainment, biblical in proportion. I wonder if your fetishes and your conceptual practice are affected. You’ve continued to make art, films and take photographs, doing what you were doing then. 
I tried to do something in that 16mm format especially, and I think that helps out a lot with vibe. That’s kind of why I keep shooting in that format. I tried to do my best with the small budget that I had, with the lenses that I had. It was very minimal but it took awhile and I went for it, and I went into the next movie expanding upon the surfing I found interesting, and with Sprout more explicitly oriented towards other kinds of surfing and tried to expand more upon the kinds of known or unknown forms of surfing I thought were interesting. Are you always successful, do you always make the right choices? Not necessarily. But we’re all striving forward.

For myself, seeing you as a filmmaker who invited certain people to be in your films because you appreciate their thing to where I am now as your friend on this personal level, your being an artist with a sensitivity towards composition, I believe you’re intent on creating from the hip. How everything intersects within the genetic makeup of YOU. I think this surpasses good surfing/good surfers. I mean, A Love Supreme, ya know. The Seedling, too, Ear Eye Data Poop, your photography, your being there, your movements from Morocco to New York to where you currently reside in Santa Cruz, these are all things that exhibit your taste, my generation and thereafter, digitized and instantaneous, style and persona, examined quickly so as to follow and imitate. But for the readers, what got you there? Which instruments did you have on hand? Your skateboard, or where you grew up in Dana Point, your parents, what you wanted to alienate yourself from… from where was this creativity necessity born? 
Clearly, growing up in skateboarding culture. Like, really, my creativity came from skateboarding culture. Like, if I was a tennis player or I played football or whatever else, I would have not been on the same creative path. I pretty much have everything in my life to give up to skateboarding – when I was a kid, skateboarding at five years old in 1974 and skateboarding throughout to today. Maybe around ’84 or something it started. There was a little scene I became involved with, and within that scene, within that time (it was kind of a depressed time) there weren’t a lot of skateboarders. There were probably like, and this might sound weird, I don’t know, maybe in ’83 there was like 500 skateboarders in California. Not a lot of people, and it was an interesting time. As a skateboarder, you took pictures, drew pictures, played music, made fanzines. Skateboarding is such an evolving, creative activity anyway. But that was a depressed period. During the Reagan-era, there was not any economic purpose in our making stuff or art; it was really just for fun. Like, you weren’t doing it because you thought you could sell something, and we were just looking at people, like Neil Blender, Tod Swank, Lance Mountain, Chris Miller and ya know, just looking at them, and being like “whoa.” Those guys drew their own graphics, or made rad zines, played music or took really good photos, and it’s just like that was what you did. So we were just like, “Oh let’s try,” and at the end of the day I just kept trying. I was making the zines and then I got to work for Transworld Skateboard Magazine and evolved the idea of how to write, how to shoot photos and eventually how to put together a magazine.

Nowadays kids are groomed. They learn or ape their parents, know how to kiss-ass, maintain a poker face, post photos of themselves and all that shit. So to me, it seems mythical that you could just, “Oh yeah, I made a zine and now I’m an editor of a skateboard magazine.” 
Whatever, I’ve always been a fucking go-getter. I would call people like Tod Swank and get in contact. He was like my idol. I would ask him for photos. Ask him for photos he wouldn’t use in Transworld for my zine, and he would send me some, same with Grant Brittian. I would get these rad photos and lay ‘em out and try really hard to make something really cool and then send it back to them. And they’d be like, “This kid, this 17-year-old kid in Dana Point is doing some shit.” And eventually they asked me to write an article for them. There was this ditch, called the Shit Ditch, in Laguna Niguel and it got demolished. So I wrote a eulogy for the ditch, and I couldn’t even write, I was horrible at writing and I just wrote it and my friend Joe Lloyd took the picture and that’s how it started. I was like “Fuck, I’m in.” So what can I propose that they would be psyched on? I don’t know. I just wanted to do some cool stuff. I guess what it is interesting (to you) is what I learned in skateboarding, that approach, just keep going and if you slam it’s normal. Failure is super normal. Like if you don’t pull it, you just keep trying. If you just keep slamming on your face, you have to until you make it. I just took that way of looking at things and adapted it to my surf film and surfing, eventually. When I started making those movies… Making movies is a lot like making a magazine. Ok, what’s the meat of the issue? And what are the supporting parts? I learned that from working in magazines.

Really cool to identify with constraints. Working within limited resources I think is an interesting precept. You talk about not being a capable writer, initially, and in skateboarding normalizing eating shit. You spoke of the suffering economy. What I’m gathering from this is that failure wasn’t discouraging but a badge of honor, to disassociate from and alienate the idea of success. I always perceive loneliness and failure fetishized in subculture, but it sounds as if in skateboarding you know your contemporaries in art weren’t necessarily fetishizing failure but more so celebrating a brotherhood of not giving a fuck. I’m guessing in an organic way this built an entire movement.
Total movement. But the thing is, it’s not even like failure or failing is something bad, it’s just what happens in skating. You’re gonna fucking eat shit. It wasn’t even for money. There was no money. The thing you were after was a good feeling from doing something good. You just had to try hard. That is one thing I am really thankful for from skateboarding. You have to try, you have to eat shit, and if you want to succeed you have to just keep trying, and be vulnerable. Skating gave me everything. Art, in total, my wife, my child – my wife’s a skateboarder. If it wasn’t for skateboarding I wouldn’t have never met her and she is awesome.

At that point in time, was it slamming, limited resources, rejection and learning from scratch which drove you to be a limitless outsider? And was it something you were conscious of? 
You know, I’ll say this – when I got into high school, I had a good group of likeminded friends. I never felt casted out. The jock scene wasn’t very strong. My friends and I we surfed, we skated, made art, we did whatever. I was psyched. I was into punk rock at a young age or people who had art-based ideas. To me, those people were the coolest and it didn’t seem to me those kids got any shit for it. And we were skating. And skating was the best thing ever. And we were psyched. We didn’t have time to think anything; we were doing whatever we were doing. I hear other people’s stories, and that just wasn’t my story. I started working when I was really young. My parents were kind of strict and I felt like if I just had my own job they couldn’t control me, or they could control me less. I worked since I was 9 years old and had a strong work ethic. And then I was just nomadic as fuck. I was sleeping on people’s couches, traveling around the world. One thing I thought about is once I left home at 19, and moved to Santa Cruz and Hawaii and then back in Santa Cruz, traveled to Europe and Africa and then moved to New York, I just didn’t have any money and was super broke most of the time. I worked for skateboarding magazines mainly as a writer and eventually as a photographer, but when I was a writer whoa, so poor. I just realized in those travels that the more present that I was to the situation when I would meet people I’d just try to be real present to what was happening. Be like, hey man let’s hang out can I cook dinner for you? I got to spend lots of time with a lot of different people from all over and it was just a super cool experience. I developed good relationships and it was more like I’d try to be a good person and everything will work out even if you don’t have shit. That was my mantra. Try to be present. Just kick it with people and have rad times.

I have these notions of understanding people from other generations. But everyone stems from something else. You said you didn’t perceive divisions in high school. However, I’ve connote notions of success in Orange County to real estate agents following their parents footsteps. Not the nomadic mantra you seem to have had. Do you think that type of journey is generational?
No, I don’t think so. Not a lot of people my age were into some of the stuff I was then. I started logging when I was about ten and I would be surfing Doheny and surfing with Brian Bent and there was like no one and three or four kids trying to surf shortboards and maybe riding logs or whatever. Sometimes I’d surf Salt Creek with my log but the kids would just look at me, they just had no idea what this spaceship coming by was. I don’t know but when I looked to the surfing culture, the sponsored surfing culture, at the time, it was lame to me. I respected people who could surf good but when I looked at what they were wearing and whatever, I was just not connected with it or interested. The cultural thing I had going on in Skateboarding was so much more dynamic. Even opening up Thrasher Magazine and there being Robert Williams, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Barry McGee art in there… Like seeing Robert Williams paintings when you’re 16 years old being like what in the hell? This is crazy and the music didn’t have any biases they would cover everything, from the Butthole Surfers to the Cocteau twins to whatever, you’re were just like, “Whoa, what’s this?” and “It’s supported?”

What about now? What about the contemporary intersection of audience? Obviously so much has changed. You made this longboard film The Seedling, and years pass and you have all these people, specifically shortboarders, coming at you and appreciating something that perhaps prior was out of their peripheral. And then you have someone like Ozzy Wright who made 156 Tricks, which I’m sure you felt at arms distance with, come around and integrate. Congealing cultures almost.
No, I loved it! I loved 156 Tricks. I loved it when Ozzy slid across the rocks and rode through the cave. That’s why I wanted him in my next movie. When I was a kid I had like these five friends that were super cool and they were a little bit on the surf side of things and some of them skated more, but when I wasn’t working and I was lurking with them we would just say, “Ok what are we gonna do?” We would go skating, and if the wind blew, if the wind was blowing onshore it was offshore at Doheny, and we would go longboarding or we would go skimboarding in Laguna Beach. That was our mentality. We were like, “Whatever let’s go have fun, let’s go to Oceanside or Trestles and surf shortboards.” When I met Joel he had the same idea of like he just wanted to ride all kinds of different things and approach waves in different ways. I remember the first moment I saw you surfing at Malibu I was just like, “Wow, I like the positioning of the way that kid holds his body, who is that kid?” And it’s still just like that. I like working with surfers the way they are in the dance, the vibe really. Like Ozzy, he just rode things in a certain way, Rasta in his way, Kassia in hers. I don’t know, it’s not all that complicated who are the people that I like and let me see if I wrangle them in to being in my film.

About making films, a lot of skate stuff has come out in the past 10 years where it’s very competitive. Skaters trying to outdo each other with radical cut-and-paste clips, intentionally outdoing their opposition. Surfing has followed suit. As a filmmaker and a skateboarder first, what is your take on the new [Jim] Greco film Year 13. Your take on the way he employed film? His edits? His references? It’s come full circle. What do you make of all that? Yourself being dispensed to a generation more inclined to watch and create 60 seconds of hammers, bragging rights, etcetera?
Um, I think it’s cool. One of my best friends growing up in skateboarding, Tobin Yelland, was the DP for the film and ya know, I think Jim’s an interesting guy and he’s a chameleon and he changes over the years to punker glam boy to skate rat to now someone who’s… not Godard.

Cassavettes.
Yeah, full Cassavettes. I think it’s good to explore, and he and they are exploring the medium.

It’s a slow burn, much like your films. That’s why I ask. It’s demanding for an audience. You transitioned the cut-and-paste, clip-oriented shortboard world to a jazz soundtrack, black-and-white, high-contrast film without logos.
I think it’s good what he’s doing and I like that he’s doing it. Do I feel like it could be more developed? More of storyline? Yeah. But I also like the balls that it takes to make the thing that he did. Any piece of art, you’re gonna have multiple perspectives. Cheryl Dunn did this really great film with Mark Gonzales called Back Worlds For Words in the late ‘90s. It’s so amazing and put skateboarding into another context, a lot of different possibilities. I’m working on another skateboarding movie now, it’s gonna be done by the beginning of next year. Basically a driving film, black-and-white. And it has whatever, really good skateboarders in it: Evan Smith, Provost, Barletta, Ray Barbee, Busenitz, Jason Adams, Al Parts, Chris Russell and a bunch more. It’s really fun to fuck with the standard presentation, the narrative.

There’s the Warhol quote, “business art comes after art and being good in business is the most fascinating part of art.” As someone who is regarded as a fine artist and also a commercial artist, where is the divide? Does business art fund your art? What are your reservations with working in a commercial context?
I like doing a lot of different kinds of creative stuff, whether it’s fine art or commercial stuff. It’s fun to collaborate sometimes; it’s fun to be alone for times in my studio. One thing is growing up at that time I did, the point was to have fun. Taking pictures, drawing pictures, the cadence of doing one thing and alternating between another, it keeps everything interesting and kind of grounded. Staying in a studio only I would go mad. Directing commercials or record labels stuff or working on bronzes or ceramics, producing a soundtrack, it keeps things new and fresh. When I work on one thing I’ll work towards exhausting it and then work on another thing and it’s fresh. Whatever happens before informs the next thing.

We’ve talked about various surfers who inspire you to keep making films, forcing you even, and in painting what prompts that? 
It’s all exploration, pushing limits, where to go, what’s out there, emotionally, especially painting. It’s such an emotional medium. There’s a momentum I can do this and this and this, can I adapt that and expand on this other part?

You mention movement, movement through mediums, practices and traveling in your youth as well. Is the leverage comparable to relocation? You left California for New York.
I grew up in an idyllic place. Dana Point was very tranquil and rural place when I grew up there, and then it changed and I freaked out and I had to leave. When I moved to New York in the mid ‘90s I felt I was an alien because I really came from a place that has a sunny disposition and is just mellow. And now everyone’s going really fast and cutting and dog-eat-dog and you’re making work and next week a guy stole all your style and it’s up on the wall next to you. It was a really broadening experience. But, I also loved it and a lot of cool experiences.

Going from the sunny disposition of SoCal to New York and back, you now reside in a removed environment. Down here in Orange County and L.A. there is an apparent “this is happening here” going on, and it’s interesting how public figures and artists in the media are handling it, some uncompromising. In utilizing your public platform, you seem to take a direct moral stance. 
You know, I cannot not comment on what’s happening in this country. I can watch my Instagram followers just fading away at times by what I post. But at the end of the of the day I just hope everyone in this country, and this world in total, can be supported and live better lives. And you know the current regime at this time does not really give a fuck about people. Honestly, my daughter was born two months before Trump went into office and one of the things that hit home was his deep lack of respect for women. I grew up with five sisters, I have a lot of respect for women, to have that guy as a role model or symbol of the highest position in this country or the world, especially to men, is so fucked up and so backwards. If you could say all the bullshit that that guy says and make any impact. Young men growing up thinking they can treat women or just people the way that guy treats people makes me so sad and mad. This country is built on genocide, the total decimation of its indigenous cultures. This country is built on the backs of roughly 10 million unpaid slaves, it’s time to talk about retribution, level the playing field. Until that’s done there will be no peace in this country. The current regime with their white, mega-racist, corporate-oppressive movement is going as far away from caring about the needs of its citizens in total than it has in a long time. I’m very sad about what is going on and so I don’t really have a choice but to communicate about it. The time to talk is now. If you don’t talk about it now, you may not have the option to talk about it later.