Artist Greg “Craola” Simkins’ storybook surrealism
Photo by Brent Broza (BrozaPhoto.com)
“It just seems to be something that I always did,” says Greg “Craola” Simkins. “It was always in me.”
Simkins is seated at a table in the Torrance studio that he shares with three other exceptional artists, painters Bob Dob and Graham Curran, and digital sculptor Kevin Pasko. Tattoos and ear piercings might lead one to think otherwise, but there is a focused, gee-whiz kind of boyishness about Simkins. He’s telling me that he can’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t drawing and making art.
Like many other children growing up in the South Bay, Simkins was absorbed by early morning cartoons. He cites “Popeye” as one example, and the show’s moderator, Tom Hatten, who encouraged kids at home to sit and draw. Not that Simkins needed much urging. He’d pass the time sitting at a table, drawing on the butcher paper that his parents unrolled for him.
“I’m in a car, I’m drawing; I’m at the doctor’s office, I’m drawing.” Beautiful models willingly posed for him. Not the kind you’re thinking of, but rather the G.I. Joes and Star Wars action figures that came from toy stores to live with him.
His skills were emerging. Simkins recalls that in elementary school he won a competition to have his art on the covers of the booklet for the talent show.
“In my freshman year of high school I took my first art class,” he says. “I was all excited, but my teacher never liked the stuff I drew because he just thought it was too comic-booky – because I was inspired by comics back then, too.”
This rather disparaging reception led Simkins to keep a low profile where his art was concerned.
“It was kind of like a downer for me, so I stopped doing art at school in classes and just did it on my own. I was a real quiet kid in high school. I wasn’t really trying to get noticed, I just wanted to get by without getting teased. Art became the escape for me, pretty much. I could always get into that and not worry about anything.”
His friends, however, recognized his talents, and they were impressed. One of them handed him a copy of “Subway Art” with its visual array of New York graffiti. “I was like, Oh my gosh!” Simkins says, “and that’s what got me interested [in graffiti art]. And that’s how everything changed.”
This took place a little over 20 years ago. As his senior year in high school came to a close, Simkins was immersed in graffiti art and its many possibilities, especially the realization that his drawings could go as big and as bold as he wanted. “It was exciting, and it was kind of a game-changer,” he says. “Art got really exciting.”
He acquired his artist moniker, Craola, about a year later.
Meeting the masters
People who excel at their craft, whether it’s writing prose or poetry, composing songs, as well as making art, tend to absorb a wide range of influences. They vacuum up what’s around them with their eyes and ears wide open. Simkins was no exception as an adolescent. He had friends who were also into comic books, but just as importantly he had friends who weren’t.
“Our parents would take us on trips to museums and we did more of that kind of stuff than sporting events. We’d go to LACMA or the Getty, where I was blown away by the paintings. You look at a Peter Paul Rubens and it’s like, What is this! Just mixing these colors together and you get that?” At the same time that Simkins was in awe of such work he was also wondering how he himself could create something equally impressive.
Well, why not? If Shakespeare can do it, I’ve told friends with a smile, why can’t I?
“It can be done,” Simkins declares, and he finds an apt analogy:
“I watch a lot of skateboarding and skate a lot. These days kids are doing tricks that the grownup kids couldn’t even think of back in the day. They see it, ‘Oh, that’s been done; I can do it because somebody else did it.’ And so eight-year-old kids are doing handrails down 10 stairs without even thinking about it. The way’s been paved. You see something’s been done, you can do it and add to it – and build and build and build.”
Soaking it all in
When he was growing up, Simkins says that there were various coffee table books lying around. One of them, devoted to Salvador Dalí, surely must have oriented him towards the Surrealists. “I remember seeing a show on Magritte when I was really young, and that was exciting.” Just as influential, at least for a time, were the various animal books.
“I was going to be a veterinarian,” he says. “I was always into animals, anything animal-related. So I had picture books, little veterinarian manuals for animal care classes, stuff like that.”
Later, in his teens – 16, 17 years old – Simkins discovered the Redondo Beach Fun Factory and was enthralled and seduced by both its seedy glamour and its element of danger. Although he’d go there mainly to play video games, it was the creepy, carnival-like atmosphere, that kitschy carnivalesque appeal, that stayed with him. And, along with his fondness for animals and his exposure to the masters of Surrealism, these raw materials became cornerstones for his later, more mature art.
Headed for the Outside
None of these things would matter if Simkins didn’t also have an eye for composition, and he emphasizes the importance this plays in his work. He again makes reference to Old Master paintings: “The way they composed their pieces, there’s a flow. Your eye dances around the piece and goes a certain way.” As an artist, he says, “You can force the eye to go look at your main focal points.
“But I always was interested in some kind of underlying story also, attached to that flow and that composition. I like to have a little bit of both worlds. It’s not just the look of things, it’s also what’s behind it.”
In other words, a narrative that the viewer can try and piece together in his or her own way. That’s what’s enticing about the pictures that Simkins creates. There are many pathways once we lock in on them and allow our eyes to wander.
“As I paint,” he says, “a story usually develops in my head while I’m working on pieces, while I’m drawing them up. I’ve developed this world I call the Outside” – comparable, perhaps, to Narnia or Wonderland. “There’s always portholes and rabbit holes into other worlds. Whenever I paint, I try to go there, to the Outside. There’s heroes and villains and artifacts you find around that world that you wouldn’t find here. Things that don’t make sense here, make sense there.
“I feel like I can escape into that when I’m making art, and I’m happier there.” He laughs softly at this admission. “I always call it escapism. Also, it’s just a way to get out of my head, to get out of the problems of the world and go to the Outside and paint, draw, create, [to discover] what’s going on in their world, you know? It’s more interesting to me.”
What shall we call it?
If you’re reading this in the latest, hot-off-the-press issue of Beach, or if you’re perusing it online (careful, eye strain is permanent!), the accompanying illustrations speak better than any stabs at description. You’ve already noticed Simkins’s biomorphic forms that slither and writhe across each canvas. His ability to render life-like objects is remarkable, but what does one call this particular hybrid of ultra-realism? Storybook surrealism seems to cover it pretty much.
Generally speaking I think it’s often referred to as pop surrealism. It’s also commonly been labeled lowbrow art, not because it’s for dummies but because it triumphs in galleries without ever finding any sort of stable footing in museums. Some notable Los Angeles artists who’ve mined this vein include Robert Williams, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, and El Segundo’s Damian Fulton. Hipsters (like yourself) admire their work, but society’s upper crust, the ones who can afford choice seats at the opera, apparently keep looking the other way, not finding it “serious” enough.
And yet work like this is carefully rendered, with forethought and great skill.
Simkins is always sketching, if no longer doing so while in the car, at the doctor’s office, or in front of the TV. What begins as a kind of doodle may spark his attention. Perhaps he’ll enlarge the image on his computer and then, working in pencil, add more details, fleshing it out and discovering how it fits into yet a larger, more comprehensive composition.
“I’ll do my drawings mostly from just my imagination,” he says, but he’ll also get ideas while flipping through children’s books, collections of fairy tales, or, more recently, because lately he’s been painting a lot of birds, the works of John James Audubon.
Simkins also does his research after he’s put down his ideas and figured out the composition. For example, if he’s including a porcelain teapot he’ll get a hold of an actual porcelain teapot, or else he’ll look for pictures of one or even photograph one himself. “If there’s a tiger in my image or a tiger skin, I’ll go find photos of tigers.” Not so that he can copy or trace what he finds, but so that he’ll be clear on colors and textures. “I can do a blue jay with my eyes closed now, because I’ve been painting them a lot, but everything else it’s like, ahh, now where that’s color gonna go?”
A fountain of ideas
“I think I’ve always had my eyes set on doing a mural landmark in Torrance or Redondo,” Simkins says, and he mentions Kent Twitchell’s well-known mural in Old Torrance that’s not far from where he, Simkins, used to have a studio. The opportunity to work large excites him, and there’s a huge canvas propped up near where we’re sitting that’s a constant reminder of this fact. He says he’d like to work in that size as much as possible.
Referring to his five-foot canvases, Simkins explains, “That’s pretty standard and I feel comfortable on these. I’ve got one other 6’ x 8’ that a client has, and it’s the biggest, most complex piece I’ve done to date. It’s called ‘The Pearl Thief’ and I’m trying to draw its sister piece. I like painting large; it just seems that you can tell a more fantastic story.”
More space in which to lose oneself.
“Which was the purpose,” Simkins replies. “The client, my friend who wanted this piece, said ‘Don’t worry about me; do the painting you’ve been wanting to do.’ And I want to get lost in it pretty much, to just spend many, many months on this piece.”
How much time do you generally spend on your paintings?
“A long time,” he says. “Some of them can be short, and some of them months and months and months – up to five, six months even.”
When you’re working on a piece for that long, do you just focus on one painting or are you working on several at once?
“I go back and forth,” Simkins says. However, and this seems to apply to the larger canvases with their intricate, connecting scenes, “I try to work on one piece at a time because when I’m painting it I think of it as different-sized pieces like, oh, I did that piece today or I did that piece. I’m trying to break it down, and each section of the painting is a different piece in my head. That way I don’t feel like I’m only doing this one piece.”
Such an approach allows the artist to savor small accomplishments along the way, and that in itself engenders a sense of progress. Meanwhile, the picture as a whole is still alive and oozing more possibilities.
“It becomes that battle in my head of having too many ideas and not enough time to paint them all, and that becomes really stressful. I just want to get all these ideas out. At the same time, I like the process of painting so I make sure and take my time.”
All these ideas, and yet you’re a perfectionist. That keeps you from going too fast, and yet it seems that you produce a lot of pictures.
“For each show,” Simkins replies, “I try to do at least 12, 15 paintings, and then a lot of drawings to support the paintings. I’ve gotten it to a point now [where] I have one solo show a year; it used to be two to three.” That’s as he likes it, because with multiple shows he found himself, in his words, “painting, painting, painting, painting.” That’s a lot of “painting”! “The deadlines are stressful, but doing the work is not. When I’m in the work I’m there, it’s perfect. But now I have two kids also, so I try to keep it down to one show, side projects, and it’s good.”
And who buys them?
How do you find your clients, or how do they find you?
“Most of it’s through my gallery,” Simkins says. “I have work with Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles, and before that I was with Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles and Joshua Liner Gallery in New York. I’ve shown all around the world, but those are my main ones. Merry Karnowsky is like my dream gallery. I’m going on my third solo show with her, coming up in May.”
There’s also a client base that he’s built up over the years, which his wife oversees. Simkins doesn’t mince words: “She’s the brains and the backbone that keeps all this running.”
As for the immediate future, “I intend to keep painting. It doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down. It’s been going really well for many years, and we’re working on a project right now, a stop-motion animated short. That’s coming out probably around summertime, based on one of my stories and some of my characters.” There’s more at imscaredthemovie.com.
Simkins, who has already published a couple of deliciously illustrated books, including “The Outside” from Presto Art, has at least one more in the pipeline.
There are other potential projects that might tempt him, like providing illustrations for someone’s novel, but then, he says, pointing to the large unfinished canvas in his studio, “I get caught up working on one of these guys. And I’m like, I’ve got to get this done.” Suddenly, precious weeks or months will pass.
“When I step away from doing my thing,” Simkins reflects, “taking illustration jobs and getting away from my vision, it always kind of hurts a little because it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not part of that path that you were going on. Like, you lost your momentum.’”
This applies to commissioned work where the buyer may start to request specific images, especially if this occurs after the painting has been started. Simkins, it seems, prefers to make each picture just the way he envisions it. But if a client begins to insist? “I’m like, well, now it’s your piece not mine. It takes me out of the excitement of doing a big piece if it’s somebody else’s piece.”
For the most part, of course, Simkins retreats to the Outside to explore and dream and create exactly what he wants. Which doesn’t always mean the canvases will be purchased as soon as the paint’s dry.
“Most of these aren’t a sure deal,” he says. “You don’t know if they’re gonna sell or not, so there’s a risk in that. But it’s the risk I knew I was getting into.
“I had a secure job – not secure, nothing’s secure these days… I used to work in video games as a texture artist; I’d paint the backgrounds basically of all the game sets. I knew I was getting into something that was a lot riskier by being a painter, but so far it’s just snowballed in a good way.”
Into an artistic avalanche, in fact. Greg Simkins is a remarkable talent, but you can see that for yourself, can’t you?
Greg “Craola” Simkins, www.gsimkins.com, www.imscared.com. Instagram @craola
Inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Represented by Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles (mkgallery.com)
All paintings done with acrylic paint and Trekell brushes (www.trekell.com). B