Kelsey Brookes did not come to art in any of the usual fashions. In fact, as he tells us on a rainy morning in Kreuzberg, the microbiologist-cum-artist found art through self discovery and surfing.
Without a sign of jet-lag, and brimming with energy and enthusiasm for everything from the neighbourhood to his work, Brookes talks to us about his show at Circleculture Gallery, surfing, and how his dog helps him get to work—in more ways than one.
Staying with friend and curator Johann Haehling near Paul-Lincke Ufer, Brookes takes some time out to tell us all about his path to becoming an artist before heading to Mitte to hang out and see his exhibition at the Gallery.
Tell us a little bit about your story, a brief summary of how you came to make art.
Oh no, a brief summary… it’s kind of a long story.
Well, you just got here, what was your first thought when you got off the plane?
Probably ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ It’s a long flight to get here, man! No, the first thing I thought, I don’t know, how excited I am to be in a new city. I love traveling. I’m a total xenophile.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Denver, Colorado, right at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
You worked in biochemistry before, tracking viruses for the US government. What was the step from biochemistry to art?
The step was, essentially I got tired and disillusioned about my life as a scientists. It just was boring, and I wanted to have fun. At some point I decided there’s no purpose in life. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do. You just have to make your own decisions and your own life. And I just decided I didn’t want to do something that felt so… easy. I just wanted to do something that I loved and was passionate about. And that was the hardest point—making that leap.
How did you start with art?
It wasn’t really a straight path, I studied microbiology in school. Then I had a friend who was really into surfing, and was like ‘man I’m gonna move to Australia, you should come, you could learn to surf’. I always thought surfing was the coolest thing, since I’m from way up in the mountains. So I was like well shit maybe I’ll go! So I moved there and learned to surf. I had always thought art was interesting, and I liked the idea of drawing except I sucked at it. So I decided to teach myself. Every night I would take out everything that was in my pockets and put it on the table in front of me, and draw it in my journal. I have this journal that’s just full of a year and a half of drawings. And you really can see the progression.
Then I came back [to California] and I was really in to art, and drawing and surfing so I followed the surfing scene, and drew from what I was seeing around.
Eventually, I started to do some illustration work for some surfing companies, and I thought maybe that will pay the bills, maybe I can get by if I just did illustration work, which gave me a lot of confidence. In the mean time I got another job nearby for a company. It was interesting work, but I had just finished university and hadn’t gone to graduate school so I was at a really low level and I just thought ‘this really isn’t fun, this wasn’t what I thought it’d be.’ I saw the end of my life already at the beginning of it. A career, a 401K plan and stock options, and everything seemed to simple, you know. The next step was to get married and have kids and buy a house. It was just too defined, so I thought what’s more interesting that? And the two best things in my life were art and surfing, so I thought lets see if I can make that my life. Just surfing, and just painting.
What was your time in Australia like?
That was the first time in my life I felt amazing. I lived in a car and drove to wherever the surf was good, or bad! I didn’t even care. I just felt it. If I was in a place and it felt good, I just stayed there, and if it felt wrong I went. There was no timeline, I had no rules. It was just explore and be free.
Were you by yourself?
No, various times I was with various people, I’d meet someone at a hostel, or I had a friend come out from Colorado that I traveled with for a while.
So when and where was your first exhibition?
London, 2005. That was the first real show. When I decided to quit my job at the bio tech company and go full time into art I was trying everything. I was walking around san Diego asking people if I could put art in their cafes or restaurants. I’d go online and everything that was asking for submissions, I’d send my stuff – even things not asking! I’d just sent my work everywhere. I told myself I had a year. That’s how much money I had. I told myself that I’d do everything I could to make it in a year and if it worked out great. And it ended up being one connection, out of all the shit I’d done, that helped out. Then everything sort of grew from that.
That was in London?
Yeah, actually there was this zine hat was based out of London, called Pavementlicker (this was 2005), and I saw they had an open submission on their website called Rooster Collective and I was like, alright, I’ll send something! It was all these weird drawings of animals and people kind of interacting, and doing weird shit, like sexually explicit stuff. Then it just got into the right hands and this group called Pictures on the Walls asked me if I wanted to come out and do some prints, and their annual art show which is called Santa’s Ghetto. There was a lot of different artists, like Banksy, Jamie Hewlett, the guys who did gorillaz, and this guy Mode-2, 3-D, Paul Insect and Anton Nicola. It was about 10 people, and I was like what am I doing here? But it all worked out. It didn’t seem like the street art thing had really started yet, it was pretty mellow.
I remember going in a hanging my stuff on the wall, and it was just this old shop, that they totally gutted and just threw everything in. It was just a month long pop-up show. But I remember that first night at the party/preview, all these stars were coming in like Jude Law, buying art! And I was like how did this happen to me? But it was really just that first week in London that I really built a crew off of.
Are you still connected to these people?
And they’re still supporting each other?
Well, I think everyone is still connected in a way, but whenever you have a lot of attention it kind of adds stress to things, but everything still kind of seems the same to me. Everybody’s kind of doing their own thing, but it still seems like everyone still comes together every once and a while.
And what are you here in Berlin for now?
A show at Circleculture Gallery.
Did you ever think you would be exhibiting in Europe as an artist starting out?
Wow, that’s a tough one. I never thought… I don’t know what the fuck I thought. I just thought I wanted to make art, I guess I hoped that one day I’d be able to sell a painting. That was a huge step, just seeing that some would buy a real painting from me, instead of just buying illustration to put a t-shirt when somebody bought a painting from me the first time I was like, shit you can actually do that? You can make a living doing this. So did I think I’d be here, probably not.
When you came to London was it your first time to Europe?
No I mean I guess I had sort of always been moving around. But I’d been here a few times, backpacking and stuff. And to Australia and Fiji to surf.
So surfing is definitely a big influence on your life and work?
And are you still surfing?
Oh yeah. I mean, not here obviously! I’m going right from Europe to Hawaii, to do some surfing and some painting out on the North Shore for the Triple Crown, the big contest out there. And yeah, I’m gonna hang out and do some painting and some surfin’. I’m obsessed.
Do you have a favourite surf spot?
I do, but I can’t tell you—it’s a secret. Anywhere there’s waves, go surf. Accept in San Diego, it’s not worth it.
Tell us about your day-to-day life in San Diego — the way you work and live there.
I used to live at the beach, but recently moved to a more urban area down town. And I have a studio about a mile away from my house. So I wake up, and go to the studio. I see what’s going on my way, like if I have time to surf. Typically I take my dog out for a walk, or on my skateboard. He loves to run! I’ll be like a million miles behind him on a skateboard, it’s so funny. But I’ve worked out a couple of streets with out stop signs and all I do is hold on, and he takes me right to work. And I just hang out there and paint all day. He picks all my colors and tells me what to paint, mostly. My work has really improved since I got the dog.
You’ve been here for a few days, so how would you compare life in Berlin to San Diego?
Hmmmm, well it feels totally different. For me specifically, you know, I’m not working everyday. The vibe here is completely different, I don’t know if it’s just the people I’m hanging out with or its all Berlin, but it seems like everyone stays up really late. I don’t think I’ve had a night off since I’ve got here! Just always going out, and having drinks, and staying out till at least two in the morning. And at home its pretty rare I stay out that late. You know I’m pretty focused and disciplined; I’m like “pink pink pink pink” I get obsessed. But here I’m more relaxed. I think its also because I’m done painting for the show, and I don’t have another show for a year. I’m feeling really relaxed.
So do you specifically prepare for one show a year?
I always do one show a year in November. And that’s usually a solo show. But then I’ll do maybe one or two group shoes through out the year. Usually with new galleries I’m thinking about working with.
Tell us about the show at Circleculture Gallery.
The show is called Caped Creatures. The drawings are coming back to animals and more abstractions — you know looser, freer stuff. I’m always wanting to loosen up more when I get in front of a painting. It used to be that I’d really sketch everything out, and work out ideas almost to completion before hand, but that doesn’t feel so true to me. I just want to get in front of the canvas and go. This one is sort of working towards that a little more, it’s a bunch of weird animals with capes. So that’s it.
Was there a certain point where you found interest in drawing and painting?
I think instinctually all people draw and painting as children, and it’s just over time that you’re conditioned to pick a subject in school. You show aptitude in science or math and therefore you get put into a path so that you can utilize that to make money. I guess I always did it, and I always had friends who made art, but I just never thought I was good at it. It wasn’t til I actually started trying it and doing that I fell in love.
And you’re self-taught?
Yeah, completely self-taught. I mean, you can tell, right? Look at these paintings. They’re a fucking nightmare. No person in their right mind would tell you to paint like this.
I don’t know, I think a lot of Berlin people would! It’s very popular right now.
I mean urban art, especially mural colours is very in. But you have a lot of influences in your work, are you trying to make any statement?
Well the statement is up to the viewer to decide. I’m not a conceptual artists. As for influences, I had an Egon Schiele book, and like everyone I was totally obsessed — started drawing really big hands, but that got kind of old. I started progressing from there. And I remember seeing Picasso for the first time as a kid and thinking, ‘hey this guy draws real shitty too! If he can do it maybe I can do it’. And I guess a lot of these drawings now are drawings I would have made when I was little. This is like, a weird dog-creature, this is a weird bat-unicorn, this is a unicorn falling in love with a mushroom, that’s going to be a butterfly flipping people off. This is what you see after you take too much acid. I’m just painting the same shit I drew when I was little.
You’re probably getting better and better…
Do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist?
I haven’t gained any weight since I was in high school. And I have not gotten taller — maybe I’m shrinking! But, you know every show I do is always different, there’s always a new idea in my head. It’s inevitable, you paint and you get these ideas. There’s always growth, whether or not it’s positive, or what some one would call in the right direction, I’m not sure.
Do you have day-to-day inspirations?
Inspiration is everywhere, man. Like that painting right there, I saw a ram basically in a similar running form when I was driving up to a print shop in LA, and it was on the side of a truck but I just quickly sketched it out while I was driving (I almost got in an accident, it was gnarly) but I just liked it. Or these ones are just shit that pops into my head. Or I get inspiration from psychedelics and stuff like that.
And when you travel, you capture these things on camera?
By camera, or I write them down. I always have a little notepad with me. Whenever I get an idea—good or bad—I write it down. Cause that’s the gold mine.
Can you tell us a little bit about the sustainability trend in the US?
It’s hard because I live in such a small sub-culture of the entire United States, but it seems to me that people are becoming, not dissolution, but tired of the mass market stores like Starbucks. They’re looking for something else. I mean people are into farming again, I know a farmer! My neighbor is a farmer, that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago! Or artesianal cheese makers, bread makers, or coffee houses, people are trying it all out, like this is what our grandparents used to do! And it was good, and sustainable and healthy, and maybe we can do it too. It definitely makes for a nitsch, a place where everyone can live differently, rather than having one place to go for coffee or one place where everyone goes to get groceries, it’s cool to have different ideas and options.
What are you looking forward to being here in Europe?
I have no real agenda. There are some paintings I wanted to see — this series called “the Slovic Epic” by Alphonse Mucha and there outside Prague. But other than that I’m here to explore and see things.
So, what did you hear about Berlin before you came here, is there a lot of talk about Berlin in the indie-art scene?
No, not in San Diego, really. But San Diego’s not a real big art place. There’s some great galleries here, some amazing museums. And I think there’s a general feeling in the world that Berlin is a young city and it’s in a really interesting phase in it’s existence. I can’t imagine a more diverse or unique place — this is such a unique place. The history that’s gone on here and everything, it’s really an amazing spot. But what did I hear about it? Any time I asked anyone about Berlin, or whether I should come out here for this specific art show, they were all like, ‘yeah do it!’ it’s a good gallery and it’s a great city and you’ll have fun. It’s true, it’s a great city and it’s totally free and open. You can do whatever you want in this city, relaxed and young. At least in my perspective. But, I’m also at a pretty free and relaxed time in my life. I just finished all these paintings, and getting ready to go travel.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I’ll tell you exactly what I’m listening to [pulls out iPod] Beatles, they’re first, then you’ve go the Kinks, Van Morrison, Beethoven, Verdi, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Creedance Clearwater Revival, T-Rex, My Morning Jacket, Animal Collective, Beirut, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Serge Gainsbourg, (they’re both great Frenchies) Jame Brown — he’s the best! Andrew Bird, Arcade Fire’s new album and you know, more Beatles.
I have a show in London next November, and then a show in NY the next November after that. Other than that, I don’t really know, just make some more work and have fun!
Are you collaborating with any companies or brands?
Yeah, with RVCA out in Hawaii. A couple t-shirt designs. I try to only do this (points at one of his paintings), but you know, you have to pay rent, so some times you have to do some commercial work. But in my own world, I would do this for the rest of my life — and that’s it.
Kelsey Brookes is taking some time to surf after preparing for two exhibitions in Berlin and New York. The exhibition Caped Creatures will be on view at Circleculture through January 12, 2011. To view the work visit the gallery’s website or Kelsey’s own online representation.
You can also find Brookes’s merchandise online at RVCA’s shop.
Interview: Tim Seifert
Text: Olivia Murphy
Fotos: Ailine Liefeld
Video: Marcus Werner