(Wednesday, July 30th, 2008)

Rick Piper

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I was on my way to the infamous Coconuts, located just outside Orlando at Cocoa Beach, when I first stumbled upon Rick Piper. Among a few other artists, he was sitting on the side of the street selling original art. His work, in particular, caught my eye and caused me to immediately pull over. I needed to see the paintings up close and personal. There were two pieces that immediately drew my attention, both were his. One was of a beach scene that had a Buddha type character carved into a rock. The other one was a much darker piece of a lonely mermaid that was chained to the floor of sometime type of cell, depicted mostly in shades of blue and grey.
     I purchased “The Call” that day, my first piece of original art named after the waves that appeared to be calling out from the Buddha’s stone-cold mouth. Although, the mermaid still haunts me to this day. I often wonder if I made the right decision, considering it’s been six years and I still debate it. The choice to endanger those in the vehicle with me when I nearly wrecked the van pulling over that day, however, appears to have been the right choice (Sorry Casey!). Because I now have six pieces of Rick’s work living in my house. The latest one I acquired, I feel most certainly was meant to be mine, even though I missed the opportunity to buy it during its first release.
     For five years, I have continually asked about this particular painting titled “Earth Moved.” I had no money at the time Rick was selling it, and so it slipped away. Since then, I’ve asked Rick things like, “Do you think it is inappropriate to approach the new owner and ask if it’s for sale now?” Rick usually laughs at my ridiculous attempts to claim what I tend to think is mine. One day, he gave me a print of it—I imagine out of sympathy.
     Then, last week, due to unforeseen circumstances, the painting suddenly became available again. When news of this popped up on my e-mail, along with a picture of the piece, I nearly fell over. I called and e-mailed Rick simultaneously, hoping he had saved it for me. And he did, “Earth Moved” is now mine. It’s something that I—never in a million years—imagined happening. Because when you miss out on good art, you never get the opportunity to get it back. Unless you are me, then things usually have a strange way of working themselves out.

Earth Moved
“Earth Moved”

Were you born and raised right here in Cocoa Beach?
No, but I am a Florida native. I was born in West Palm Beach. My Dad was a preacher, so we were almost like a military family when it came to moving around. He liked working with smaller churches to get them to a certain point, build them up. Then he would look for a new place to do that once he did it. So we moved all the time. My Dad liked Florida though, so we were always back and forth to Florida. 

When did you get locked in here?
I moved to Cocoa Beach in … geez, my first stint here started in, like, ’79. I got married a moved away for awhile to Connecticut. Then I got divorced and moved back … I’ve been here ever since; I consider it like home.

Were there any repercussions from being a preacher’s son?
Yeah, you know, being a P.K. is a big deal.

What is a P.K.?
A preacher’s kid, P.K. is what all the preacher’s kids call it. It’s a unique aspect to be raised by the person that is—at least in your small society—a religious leader. I saw my dad when he was not the preacher. My dad was a flawed human as there ever was, not in a sense that he was doing anything hypocritical. He was a hard guy, hard on himself and hard on everyone else.
     The story that is unique to preacher’s kids is that you have to act a certain way. If you get in trouble, it’s a bad reflection on your father, his business or his avocation. You are always under that scrutiny. Most preachers’ kids rebel crazily, they’re usually the wildest kids in town. I wasn’t as much, but my brothers—I was the baby of five kids—they took care of that.  I grew my hair out, that’s about as rebellious as I got. I had a couple of brothers that were major drunks, so I didn’t get into that. By the time they were in college, they were messin’ up pretty hard. I saw that from a distance and thought, “Nah, I don’t want to get into that.” My art is my escape, my drug or whatever.

When did you pick up a paintbrush?
Well, I’ve done art my whole life … painting is something that came later in my life. Drawing was my strong suit. I was a black and white artist, mostly pencil, charcoal and graphic stuff, like printing. All the way up and through college, I had a sense that I didn’t really know color.

Yeah, I always excelled at drawing. The first contest I ever entered was in first grade. I remember it distinctly. They rejected me because they thought my parents had drawn it. My mom was like, “I don’t know when he did it!” It was cool because she defended me. She said, “He just does this. We don’t know how he does it.”

Are your parents artists?
No. My dad was OK; he wrote some poetry. But I do have creative people in my family. There were some aunts that were gifted, but not formally artists.

At what point did you realize it was something that you wanted to do professionally?
Well, I think even as a kid you could have randomly walked in my house and found me sitting in front of the TV, drawing on a sketch pad. I have boxes and boxes full of sketch pads… [Rick’s friend Hideki drops into the studio to measure some art and hang out.]

Do you think school is a place someone can learn art?
I think you can learn a great deal about art in school. I actually have a belief system that anybody can be … I don’t think “taught” art is the right word, but they can be introduced to the visual aspects and levels of their own mind and facility. I see education as a place where you can learn a lot of technique and get a lot practice, experience and influence from other people. And occasionally, you might get the right teacher that can teach you something about it. But for the most part, it’s an innate part of humanity for most people.   
       I think there are people, like myself, that have an intrinsic gift for it and are driven. I guess because a dominate part of my brain makes me want to mimic things visually. There are artists friends of mine that I’d qualify as gifted artists; and then there people who do art, who don’t have a natural gift, but do it because they love it. I imagine anyone can get better with their physical facility for drawing or painting. But to me, that’s not art as much as technique. I think that art can be done by people that are extremely naïve and that have no technical ability at all; they can do incredible things that are visionary expressions. I think great art is authentic expressions in a visual language.

Do you remember the first painting that you sold?
I remember the first painting I sold when I decided to do quit my job, move out of the house I was renting, abandon my job and commit to it. I moved from my big house on the canal to a tiny apartment. I committed to painting; I jumped off the ledge and didn’t sell anything for a long time. I had made a few, very large attempts at master pieces. That’s kind of what you do, especially when you’re in the mode of jumping off the cliff. You think seriously, so you make serious art. I starved and starved and starved. I couldn’t give them away. I literally went to a friend of mine’s house and said, “Monday, I’m going to start looking for a job and abandon this. I can’t do it.” I was starving, literally, for months. These were the friends that fed me, so I didn’t necessarily starve to death. But I was like, “That’s it. I can’t. It’s broken me.”
     Then a friend of mine, no it was my son’s friend, his father had come over to pick him up. We had been fishing. He had heard about my paintings; he was a doctor. He introduced himself and then said, “Hey, I heard you have some paintings.”
     I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” At that point, I was ready to put them out in the dumpster. But I brought him in and showed him anyway. Mentally, I had abandoned the whole idea.
     He asked, “How much are they?” They were 5’ x 6’canvases, huge pieces that took weeks of work. I was trying to get a grand back then, but I had lowered the price to $500 … then $300.
     So I said, “I’m trying to get $300, but at the moment I’d take $150.” That was the cost of materials.
     He looked at it and said, “I really love this one but I can’t give you $300”
     I said, “OK, well what can you give me?”
     He said, “$400 because that’s all that I have on me and its worth five times that.”
     He was this guy that came out of the blue and gave me hope. You can’t do anything without hope, especially creatively. He made everything better. Suddenly, I was validated. I just needed the universe to give me that, “Hey, you’re on the right road.” Then things even got worse of course, but I wasn’t stopping at that point. 

Is it essential that you live close to water?
Yeah, I think it is. I need to be near some environmentally inspiring place. I couldn’t live in a town that doesn’t have water or mountains in it, or at least some feature that has a wealth of inspiring aspects. But water is a huge symbol of my work.

How does the beach inspire you?
When I was a child, we had lived in some pretty boring Midwestern kind of places that didn’t have a lot going. So it was really inspiring to see the river. What fascinated me about seeing water in mass everywhere—I have sketches from way back when—was trying to figure out what the waves look like when they are moving. They move so quickly; it’s a fascinating organic shape that focuses almost everyone, so much that when they see water they are transfixed by it. It’s like what my friend calls a common primitive; it’s like looking into fire. It just locks us in, that curve motion that you can see. You’re not really sure what it’s doing, or how it’s doing it, but you can freeze it in a photograph.
      It’s not just the beach, it’s all water. I can watch a river, rapids or a waterfall pouring. However, waves are a great expression of water and energy. It’s one of the only places in the natural world that you can visually observe energy. Surfers like to talk about that a lot; I’ve read some esoteric articles about it in surfing magazines. Waves are the only place you can see energy, approach it and climb on top of it.

Where else do you draw inspiration? Are there other artists you look up to?
All artists influence me. If I see something I like somewhere, I’ll work it into my next few pieces. No one else will see it, but I do. I love Dali, Picasso … I like Surrealism and Cubism. [Rick’s phone rings and he answers it for a brief second.]

Some of your pieces remind me of Dali. How does he visually influence you?
If I go to an urban museum, he is someone I seek out. He is a masterful painter and masterful compositional artist, as far as using space and form. His fields of dream like circumstances … I love that. If you ever get to see Dali’s paintings in person you’ll notice that he paints with incredible technique. I can look at it from an inch away and not even understand how he got that intricacy. His canvases are like 25 feet across—just gigantic—and it makes you wonder, “Gosh, did he spend a lifetime doing that?”
     The answers is no, he probably did it for a show between this time and that time. I mean, how could he have even completed those? There are a few tricks in there I guess. Dali likes to do color fields and fades that seem to be plains in a dream-like desert. If you look at it pragmatically, those cover most of his canvases and then the super detailed stuff is small.  So I guess it does only take weeks, as opposed to the months that it appears to take.

Are there other artists or eras that you’re attracted to?
I was heavy into Cubism early in my life. That introduced me to abstract art and the idea of abandoning rules. Of course Cubism has a certain set of rules that gives it its look, but the whole phenomenon of abstraction is a very freeing concept artistically and creatively—I think beyond even visual arts. Think about it. When the camera was invented, the purpose of an artist changed. They were no longer a recorder of Realism and serving a purpose as a craft, striving to make things as perfect as they look. The only way to get a picture of a King or valley back then was to have someone paint it or sculpt it.
     Then the camera was invented and you could make a more perfect image in a thirtieth of a second. All the artist of that era—Modern Art and the twentieth century, we’re talking about 1910—it was the whole permeation of the idea that we don’t have to do this. What is our purpose? We don’t have to just recreate images. They explored it all the way to abandon the form and the subject matter. You’ve got [Paul Jackson] Pollock that just poured paint on something, his own expression that isn’t really any thing. It’s not a picture of anything. Although, I struggle with Pollock’s interpretation; he wasn’t even trying to be beautiful. But then again, I’ve seen a Pollock in the right lighting in a museum—and I’m sure he’d reject my opinion of it—and it was beautiful, when I walked up to it, the sunlight hit all the ridges of paint. I don’t think he meant it for that purpose, but I see beauty in his aesthetics.

How long does it take you to finish one of your pieces?
I paint pretty fast. I’ve done a lot of mural pieces, so I’ve gotten fast. I typically see paintings as something I need to get to the finish of. A lot of artists will work on multiple pieces here and there. I tell people, “For me, it’s a story and I have to see how it ends.” So my smaller pieces, I’ll finish in a day. It depends on details and inspiration. Some times I get this idea and it just cranks; I’m talking a 6-foot canvas in six hours. Then, you’ll get other ones that you struggle with.

Do you work best in the morning or at night?
I seem to work best at night. My schedule slips though because I stay up later and later painting and then the next day is ruined. I’ll wake-up later and paint later. But I did discover that every six months it turns over completely because I start staying up so late it that it is morning. Then it’s like, “Hey mornings are cool. I haven’t seen these in a while.” [Laughs] My life right now is so independent of all that though, a lot of times I don’t even know what day of the week it is—those are my best times. When I’m involved in creating and not tied to anything. 

Do you keep track of where your paintings go?
I do. All these paintings are original authentic expressions, so I feel tied to all of them. I don’t just create product. A lot of people ask me to paint things again and I never do that. I just paint; and I want to find new things every time I do it. Some times people will come up to me and say, “I have one of your paintings.” I won’t recognize them, but as soon as I found out what painting they have then I remember the whole thing. I recognize people by what pieces they have.

Do you do paintings by request?
Rarely. I am at the point right now that I have enough people collecting me, so I have the luxury of doing what I want to do, which is what most people want from me. People like my style. I don’t want to copy a picture. I get offers every week of my life for commission work and I say, “No.”  For other people and fans of my work—depending on the timing and the money—occasionally, if you give me a little idea, I’ll sketch something based on that. If I like it, I’ll show it to you. If you like it, I’ll paint it for you.

How is the business side of being an artist during these times?
In these times, it’s hard. It’s sucking. Everyone is suffering through economic karma, as well as other karma from this period of time. I can’t wait for it to be over. The last 6-8 months have really been recessionary. Art is one of those things people buy when they are in a good mood; it’s a subjective purchase. If people are worried about their groceries, they aren’t going to buy a piece of original art. That aside, last month was an anomaly; a lot of things came out of no where. 

What does the little group of fish in most of your paintings symbolize?
I spend so much time fishing in this lagoon system out back, the Banana River, some of the best fishing in Central Florida, Florida and the world, really. The bottom of the food chain is the mullet, or these little schools of mullet. As a fisherman, I cast net those mullet to use for bait, to catch other fish. If you been to the river, you’ve seen them everywhere. There like your constant companions when you’re wading around and fishing. A lot of my paintings have the fingerling mullet.
     You know, I’ve wondered [about the mullet] too. I put them in the air and all around because that’s how it feels to me. There’s also this link to this whole life cycle. They’re there, and they’re there in abundance. Without them, none of the rest of it would be there. They’re harmless little vegetarian fish that get harmed. I kill them and use them for bait, but I have a mad respect for them. I’ve held many, and looked into its eyes and then let it go. [Laughs]

Tentative Step on to Water
An example of the fingerling mullet in “Tentative Step on to Water.”

In what exhibitions or museums has your work been featured in lately?
My last big deal thing was last year when I won “Best of Show” at the Brevard Art Museum. I also won the Purchase Award that year. That was a lot of prize money and attention because no one has won both of those awards in the same year. That was the first time that I ventured into museum contest. I don’t really do a lot of seeking out for competitive environments. I mean, first try—win everything. That was great.
     This year I didn’t even get in the show. In the last six months, a lot of things have tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, this is not what you do. You don’t do the subjective art world and get validated by ribbons, prizes, awards and money.” I create my artwork, and sell it to people who fall in love with it. That’s my mission. Competitive environments don’t bring out the best in me anyway.

What is your definition of successful art?
I think what you’d call success is creating something that is important visually to you. Like, if you take a walk, and you get this idea or see something that makes a thought. Then you take that and bring it into the realm of 3-dimensional reality. If you love it and authentically it expresses what you were hoping it could, then someone else, especially some one you don’t know, sees it and says, “Oh my gosh!” The authenticity of a connection to another human through something that is truly your reflection of a reality is the most successful thing that could ever happen. If they buy the painting, that’s validating too. But really, the money just allows you to buy more materials to go do another one.

Where are the furthest places that you’ve sent your paintings?
Let’s see, I have paintings in France. I have paintings in the Caribbean … in Hawaii … in Canada and South America … and now, prints in Japan … thanks to Hideki. He’s trying to market my stuff over there.

Where do you see your art heading?
I don’t know. There always is the tropical aspect and the reflections of this area … and things that I love that are true to me. [Hideki asks to take pictures of us while we’re interviewing.] It’s an interesting question because I look forward to finding out where it goes. I wonder what I’ll be painting at 80, because I know it’s changing. It always changes. To me, that’s one of the most important parts of it. I want to keep growing and changing, like everybody … whether they know it or not.
     To answer you specifically, I’ve been thinking about doing something on a much larger scale, something that is not meant to be bought individually. I want to find a venue, or big space, and do an installation without the approval of museums or whatever. What people don’t know is that I’ve done lots of kinds of art in my life—I’ve just settled on doing what I love.

Where do you think your art will be in 100 years?
That’s one little connection us artists have with original art, it gives us a little bit of immortality because it will be around. That’s a satisfying idea. There will be people that see my painting for the first time in 100 years. I mean, like six generations from now there may be people in their teenage years playing on beaches, and then they see my paintings and go, “Wow.” That’d be great.

Then, I guess, you’ve done your job.
Yeah, I’ve done my job. It’s why art is referred to as a life’s work—it’s not work. Who knows what will happen after I’m dead, but right now it’s kind of a delicious idea.

*Interview Date: 7/30/2008

To see the mermaid that haunts me and more of Rick’s work, go to www.rickpipersart.com.

Posted Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 in Artists , Orlando InterviewsTags: , , , ,
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