Editor’s note. Lauren Emily Brown conducted this interview in 2013. Doug passed away this week suddenly and unexpectedly. It is with great sadness that we repost this conversation here, in Memorium. The First Friday community will miss Doug and his contributions greatly.
Santa Cruz artist Doug Ross has some serious street credibility. Ross has painted two of the traffic boxes embellishing Soquel Avenue, has designed some major advertising campaigns, and is an Open Studios veteran. But what makes this artist truly unique is how he spends his time outside the art world–one could even call him a veritable superhero to the aquatic inhabitants of Santa Cruz.
LEB: Where do you draw inspiration from for your art?
DR: I think my modern style comes from growing up in a late-sixties, spartan, suburban development where there was not much to do, and very little stimulation to the senses. We were fortunate that there were wild areas we could walk to, and get our nature fix. So nature is my favored subject, but my style is clean. My aesthetic is also shaped by the fact that I spend more time thinking about what to draw than I do drawing it, each addition to a drawing is judged and tested as to whether it will improve the piece or merely make it busy. I don’t do busy. I am not a fan of crowds and multiple people talking at once. I think this relates to my style.
How does the ocean inspire your work?
I think because it’s largely unexplored. It’s deeper and more complex and diverse than land is. The color palette is way more diverse. I’ve been an underwater person my whole life–I’ve always loved swimming underwater. I have dreams of being underwater and being able to breathe underwater. That something is not fully explored is amazing. It’s exciting because there’s so much to discover. In fact, I think going into space is kind of stupid [laughs]. Rather than going out into space looking for other planets to live on, how about learning how to take care of the one we’re on.
How do you combat feeling uninspired or not wanting to create art?
I go for a run or bike ride, look at the sea, or go to the wharf to see the sea lions. Sometimes I will see a sea lion in distress and that will lead to a rescue. I volunteer with the Marine Mammal Center and a successful rescue is the best medicine. I feel like superman afterward.
What is your favorite part of Santa Cruz?
I love the explosion of activity in our ocean just offshore, when you see huge flocks of Sooty Shearwaters, Terns, Humpbacks, and sea lions all working together. I’m a water person; I feel comfortable in water, it feels kind of like home, in a way. I like the water but I’m not so crazy about the beach itself. I do a lot of seal rescues on beaches, and I have been to so my favorites are the ones you can’t normally get to. I think my favorite is Acid Beach, which you have to rappel down a cliff to get to, and Piggy Beach is on private property with limited access. You can’t just stumble upon it; there’s a specific path. It’s a secret [laughs]. But it’s amazing because hardly anybody ever goes there, so you can imagine a beach that has on average one person per day, give or take. Maybe less.
What does it mean to be an artist in Santa Cruz?
Being an artist in Santa Cruz rocks because people love artists here. The patrons are so complementary that they make me feel like a rock star. People from other areas become art buyers and patrons while they’re here; it’s the thing to do. When in Rome.
How did you get involved in First Friday?
I started attending First Friday regularly as a spectator when the Museum of Art and History got a new director and made it participatory. Since then I have been out to probably 90 percent of First Fridays, either as a viewer or with my own show. I hate to miss one. First Friday is like grown-up night in Santa Cruz. It makes me feel cultured.
What do you like best about First Friday?
Advertising with First Friday is key to a successful opening. I had a solo show once that was not submitted to First Friday and no one came. But I’m okay! It was a learning experience.
As someone who is a participator in First Friday and a spectator of the art, my favorite part of the night is running into people from the art community: artists and people who are patrons of the arts. It’s like a community meeting for a lot of your friends that you only see on First Friday. The social aspect of it is probably the highlight of it. On First Friday I come out of my shell. I think other artists do too.
When I’m an artist on First Friday, I think my favorite part is that it’s a chance to introduce yourself and meet new people, because I’m being advertised through First Friday. So hopefully, the goal of First Friday should be to increase the appreciation of art and participation. It’s not just to sell stuff because the sales don’t necessarily happen that night, but expanding your circle does. It’s really nice. It just kind of gives everybody permission to talk to each other. On First Friday it’s okay to just walk up to someone and say “Hi.”
How do you feel like your art interacts with the community?
I’ve got some really cool things going on, like the traffic boxes. People see them and talk to me about them it. That’s taking art outside. I like being able to take art out of galleries and into the public. Santa Cruz has a strong movement towards democratization of art so that it’s not just for the cultural elite who have memberships to museums. It’s for everybody.Graphic Traffic It was a great program for the city and Outside the Box is good for the county. and it gives me a strong link to the community. All I have to do when I meet someone is tell them that I painted those boxes and they instantly remember. That’s a great way for artists to interact with a port of the public they wouldn’t normally. You’re putting the art out there and making it easier. They’re forcing people to see it because it’s on their way to somewhere. It’s as good as it can get–who doesn’t want to see art on your way to work?
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would like the ability to communicate with animals. This would empower me to tell them when people are trying to help and to tell them which people to avoid. I think Aquaman had this. I could get really close without scaring them. A lot of the sea lions we rescue–it’s really gross–they have plastic or fishing line around their neck and their head, and as they get older it starts cutting their flesh. I wish I could just sneak up and take it off. But as a person, they don’t know we’re trying to help.