In the summer of 2012, Californian artist Geoff McFetridge’s show Around Us & Between Us took place at London’s Ivory & Black gallery. Among the large, block-colour paintings was one that everyone was talking about, a piece entitled A Proposal For A Glass of Water. It’s a beautiful image – stark orange fingers set against a block grey background, with the fingers behind the glass distorted by the liquid – a scientific visual trick we all recognise. Speaking to Geoff almost a year on, he admitted something intriguing – in the years it took to produce this specific painting he never actually held a glass of water and drew it.
“It’s really funny because how long would that take to get a glass of water and do that? It would take about five seconds, right? So that made me realise what I’m interested in is convincing myself that it’s believable, that that is how a hand would distort if seen through water.”
It turns out that Geoff had been subconsciously doodling that image for about five years, which he only realised when revisiting his sketchbooks hunting for something recently. “It’s the kind of thing that has no research. I don’t want to change my understanding of something, my mental picture. I mean I don’t know if the fingers behind the glass will have an even curve, or they’ll have a wobble, or they’ll have no distortion. It’s possible to draw something everyday in a way that, I believe, it’s never been drawn. And maybe some people would say that’s impossible, because everyone has hands and people have been drawing in this way for hundreds of years but I do think it’s possible.”
Considering Geoff works on design and illustration commissions as well as being an artist, it’s pretty mind-blowing to find out his work relies almost solely on his own brain rather than external research. “A long time ago I was like, how do I make work that isn’t referring to anything that’s been made before, but still feels totally familiar? It comes out of living in this culture – it doesn’t matter if you’re living halfway across the world, there’s still things that we share.”
Those who come to Geoff with projects know that – in an almost shamanistic way – he will be able to realise them in the way they want. “I know we’re thinking the same thing. The thinking in my work is so common, it’s like anyone could have thought of that.”
Geoff’s reliance on his own mind for research is rooted in his lifestyle in Los Angeles. To say he’s outdoorsy is an understatement, and he cheerfully describes his frequent destinations – such as the mountains, the ocean or the desert – as “anti-museums.”
“When I go to the mountains my favourite thing to do is hike; I hike where there’s no people. Just being in the mountains or being in a surf town, or if you’re in the water, being places where you’re basically void of culture is kind of interesting.”
Of course it’s different for everyone; some artists turn to museums to seek out inspiration for a project, some rely on their dreams or thoughts they have while waiting for the bus. But to know Geoff utilises the landscape around him to produce his images is comforting. It makes you want to move to LA and cycle around with him in the sunshine. “In the morning I can go to my studio and then I can find myself deep in the mountains in only an hour on a bike, you know? That’s kind of incredible. It takes effort for sure, but I like that kind of effort.”
If you’ve never been there it can be tempting to think of Los Angeles as an expanse of clogged highways, SUVs and A-list parties, but Geoff points out it’s got much more to offer. “You can find yourself in places that are the opposite of what you think Los Angeles is, where there’s nobody around and there’s nature and it’s quiet. It rewards you if you make the effort. If you actually go far out into the desert there are hot springs there! I always find that incredible. It’s not like you go to the desert and you’re like, ‘Oh it’s a bummer it’s just a bunch of trash and tin cans.’ No! You go out there and there is nobody out there and there really are hot springs!”
There’s a popular perception of the artist shut away from the world, obsessively slaving over their work. So someone like Geoff who has a healthy balance between their work and their leisure time seemingly has something as precious as the elixir of life. It’s a rare skill, and it takes practice. Geoff relates a conversation he had with fellow artist Thomas Campbell while they were surfing together. “I was talking to him about surfing and creativity and that kind of stuff, like being in the water and how you feel when you come out, and he was adamant that surfing is just surfing. Surfing has nothing to do with anything else, and I guess that’s true. If you’re going on a hike you never want to think oh, while I’m up here, I’m going to get inspired. Thinking like that would just ruin everything.”
Of course, there are times when leisure and work overlap. “Tonnes of the work I’ve done has been made on trips, at picnic tables and in porches and in my van. Over the years I’ve realised that there is never an opportunity where anything you do is going to be easier. You can’t wait for the perfect moment to be creative, you have to be able to be creative in the worst case scenario.”
Time spent outdoors and time spent in his own, rather beautiful, studio is not defined by a strict timetable, but rather what feels right at the time. When Geoff wants to go on a bike ride, he goes on a bike ride. That’s the magic about the way he works, he has no sense of work guilt or allotted “fun time” – it’s all the same.
“You could always sit there and be like ok, if I make this, or if I build these shelves for my house or whatever, that’s gonna take me a week, you know? And if I spent a week doing a painting or a commercial project, or spent a week doing an animation, what would I end up with? That would be a serious piece of work! It would be like, well why would I waste my time putting a catalytic converter on my car? To me that’s a dangerous thing. It’s all one. It all has value.” He laughs. “And I don’t mean everything I do is gold! It’s the opposite – everything you do is what you are doing, it’s equal, and you have to make time.”
We’ve all been there, when a deadline is looming, you’re cancelling plans and nervously holing yourself up in a room until the job is done. “You can end up miserable if you go, ‘Oh I just went on a three hour bike ride and spent 15 minutes on that drawing; I should’ve gone on a shorter bike ride and spent longer on the drawing.’ The drawing is the drawing and the bike ride is the bike ride.”
If you’re an Apartamento reader, you may have seen a charming feature in which Geoff showed off some of the furniture he makes for his daughters. From simple fort-like structures to little reading chairs and stools to rather elaborate toy cookers, Geoff has quite clearly put in the hours when it comes to constructing things for their amusement. So is there a difference between making personal or commercial work in a studio, and making work for someone you love? Geoff says no. If you’ve ever doodled on a piece of paper only to find that it’s one of your finest pieces of work, you may relate to this.
“If I’m making something for my daughters it’s like well, is that a piece of art? And it’s like no it’s not…but it is. When you totally release yourself to being like, I’m just gonna quickly make this thing for my daughters, it’s of no consequence, and of course the minute you finish it you’re like, ugh, this totally has consequence. Why is the cosmos like that? And that changed me.”
Having children, he says, affected his work like an ecosystem suddenly disrupted. “I sit down and I draw with them. With my eldest I love to get her opinion on things. I think she’s seen me work so much that she just knows. She’s like, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if she had like a staircase coming out of her head and she was walking out of it?’ So I’ll do it, and that happens all the time!
“She kind of throws off-the-cuff thoughts out there. What I do is so simple that for a nine-year-old it’s totally conceivable, so she can participate in what I’m doing.”
Geoff created a video a few years back which showed one of his daughters drawing a picture, with him mirroring her every move. “Until you see what we’re drawing you wouldn’t know whether she was copying me or I was copying her. To me that kind of says something about how I view the world. I understood her drawings a little better – it’s kind of alien and I definitely like that. That sort of input doesn’t necessarily come from viewing other people’s work or going to museums. It’s things you do, your family, your friends, all the inconsequential stuff you know, what I’m reading at the time. At the moment I’m reading a lot about Native American cowboys,” he laughs. “Like, it’s interesting, but it has nothing to do with what I’m…anyway.”
The experimentation and relying on his own head means that not only is the work personal, but it all links together nicely. Geoff says the reason he didn’t take to being a graphic designer was that when one project was over, he’d have to start work on a different idea when he was nowhere near finished with the previous one.
“It’s actually all the same ideas over and over again. So I’m never starting from scratch, and that’s the frustrating thing when I was working as a graphic designer. There’s frustration in the waste – you need years and years to work through ideas.”
He usually starts working through these ideas by writing. “I make notes based on my thoughts so I take everything out of my head by writing it down, like removal. Sometimes I just go and go until the point where something starts to happen. I’ve always thought that the ideas are actually all within me, in my memories, and I’ve just got to get to them.”
As a student, Geoff studied Egon Schiele’s technique of rarely letting the pencil leave the paper, and keeping one’s eyes firmly on the subject. These ideas have continued to influence him throughout his career in practice and in philosophy, but also in his time spent outdoors. Geoff is famed for his work in the world of skateboarding, particularly his involvement with Solitary Arts. The way in which he works – the repetitive subconscious sketches and relying heavily on practice over research all ties in with the nature of skateboarding. “Some people you skate with have a very technical approach. My approach was always if I’m feeling it in my head and I can picture it, I can do it. That kind of going without knowing, just moving forward and you don’t even know what you’re gonna do, that is very familiar to me. I like to be in that situation and that definitely comes from skateboarding.”
The nature of making something for your home or family that turns out to be an important piece of work, or allowing your own leisure time to be just as crucial as conventional museum or library-based research links beautifully to the act of skateboarding. Geoff says he could only do successful skate tricks in front of friends if he just went for it. “It’s like seeking those kind of moments where you’re committing to something that you don’t really understand, there’s something about putting yourself on the line. There’s potential embarrassment – you don’t wanna be like, ‘Check this out!’ and you go and you’re just shit.
“It’s really good for me to have this thing that you do every day and develop by default. I know many people have talked about it in the past, how people like what is inherently creative about skateboarding and I do think there are things that happen just because of the physical act of it. It trains your mind in a way because when you learn a trick, there’s repetition and reward and it rewards a type of behaviour and thinking, taking creative risks and thinking abstractly.”
His take on skateboarding and creativity reminds me of an animation he once made of a man climbing up a ladder, the rungs of which would fall down into an abyss whenever he stepped on each one. “That really applies to pretty much everything I’m doing. He’s not looking down at the rungs falling away, he’s looking up. I think that if you look at that drawing you can’t tell if it’s intentional or if it’s an accident happening. It’s like he’s got a certain understanding – well that’s just the way it is.”