Words by Evan La Ruffa
Regardless of what you know him as, Greg Craola Simkins has made an indelible mark on various sectors of the modern art world. In remaining unfettered by the constraints imposed by clan-like divisions in the art world, Greg has solidified his post as one of the most gifted surrealist painters around. As part of a scene who’s contributors are increasingly replete, his work stands out as a hallmark of uncompromised vision, as dark and abstruse images reveal Simkins’ exceptional skill.
Whether his earlier days as a graffiti artist or his latest canvas pieces, Craola is constantly pushing the limits of of his own imagination, steadily concocting worlds whose inhabitants multiply specters in the shadows. Pre-depression era antiques, jellyfish, and a myriad of synthesized critters find their home in his otherworldly scenes – constantly reminding us of surrealities our coloring books never knew were possible. Greg is a favorite of IPMM, and we’re honored to be able to present this glimpse into his process, creative evolution, and state of mind.
EL: Before we get into, it, we loved the last print release “The Nature of Nurture… we featured it on IPMM as well… (fantastic title too)…
GS: Thanks Evan, that piece is one of my favorites and I keep finding myself sneaking the strawctopus into many other paintings now. I think he’s in 5 at this point, but “The Nature of Nurture” is the first. I was surprised on how fast it sold out. I believe it was 8 hours if I heard right. I was very happy to see it so well recieved.
EL: I’ve got a story about the hoodie you released via Upper Playground… I bought the thing before I started writing for The Citrus Report, took it to a festival, and some dirty f-ippie (fake-hippie) stole it from me… I quickly had it replaced… Any other ventures into clothing in the future?
GS: Haha that sucks! Should’ve had a bike lock on it… Yes we put out some clothing stuff from time to time. I currently have my online store www.shop.imscared.com that carries some of the IMSCARED line, and I believe there are still a couple Upper Playground things available, as well as Me and Alex Pardee’s collab “Scared Friends” stuff.
EL: You’re known for combining creatures who’s construction might lead to some identity issues. Do you always have these weird beings figured out ahead of time, or do they ever mutate during the process of painting them?
GS: Yes and Yes. I keep working sketchbooks going all the time full of any ideas or notes that pop into my head. A lot of times I’ll sit and watch nature programs and get some wild ideas. I re-sketch these ideas until they’re in a presentable form with good composition. Once it’s on the canvas, I allow myself to freestyle a bit as I paint. The freedom to do this keeps the painting alive to me.
EL: “Azul” is another recent work of yours that really caught my eye… Would you characterize your latest work in any differentiating way from your past stuff? What ideas have influenced you lately?
GS: This latest body of work is another step in the world I paint, called “The Outside.” This place gives me the freedom to paint any odd arrangement of elements and still have it make sense. I’m always exploring how wildlife can interact in my different styles, be it the more still life format or the surreal landscape pieces. At the same time, I’ve been developing this vocabulary with the elements I use for so many years, that I feel the dialog is starting to tell more of a story…. (it) isn’t just about composing weird creatures, but about ushering people into “The Outside,” to take part in the story.
EL: In “Hide Behind This,” you allude to your Craola days… What’s the experience of bridging the graffiti-to-fine-art gap been like for you? This painting would appear to be a commentary on that process…
GS: It’s always a complicated question for me. My approach to my canvases vs. walls have always been a different experience. I’ve always been making these weird creatures and worlds since I was a kid, before I ever picked up a spray can… but when I was in my most productive years painting graffiti, my main concentration was letters. I still draw tons of letter schemes, they’re everywhere in my sketch books. I feel they helped me with my compositions a lot. At times I feel conflicted and don’t like to label myself anything other than an artist. I don’t feel I deserve to call myself a graffiti artist because it has been years since I did any kind of bombing. The styles are still part of everything I do though. I still paint letters on walls and have a couple walls coming up that I’m stoked to be doing, but it still feels like a separate entity from my canvas work. I almost need that separation to grow as an artist I feel. Different ideas spark in my head when I’m doing each kind of painting. As far as my name Craola, I’ve had it since 1993, so do the math. I don’t really think about it too much, It is an extension of what I do.
EL: Sure. I guess I feel like the graffiti to gallery gap is even harder to bridge than the street art to gallery gap, mostly because stencil art and other more easily digestible forms have become popular with the white walls crowd…
GS: I didn’t really bridge myself to the galleries from a graffiti standpoint. I began showing with the more surreal style I was doing in my personal work and expanding on the ideas from my more pop culture laden youth. So I’ve never looked at graffiti as a springboard to my gallery work. My graffiti work is always just a part of who I am and has come along for the ride. I don’t think it hurt my gallery relations that I had this background in graffiti, but the work I was doing on canvas was very different than the work I was doing on the streets (when I started getting picked up by the galleries.) It wasn’t intentional, I’ve always just painted whatever I wanted without any preconceived ideas of where it could take me. I never thought I would be showing in galleries let alone making a living at it. I have always just purely painted what was interesting to me and if I looked at it as a bridge in the beginning, that bridge would have fallen long ago. I am not trying to ride any waves, but am just trying to paint what’s in my head and heart.
EL: I definitely hear what you’re saying. The reason I ask isn’t in that I thought that bridge was something you were necessarily conscious of, just that the art world can be pretty compartmentalized at times. That’s actually something I feel like we’re trying to ameliorate at IPMM, ya know, expose people to a broad range of shit, whether it exists in a gallery or a venue bathroom. In that vein, do you ever take to the streets anymore??
GS: Yes, but only on permission walls these days. It’s still some of the best times I ever have. It’s hard to beat painting outside with friends and the impact of a large piece that you can pull off in a day. I have been experimenting a little bit with mixing my mediums and would like to do more of that in the future.
EL: Very dope. “It Escapes Me” is one other piece that feels emblematic or your dark approach, a seeming confluence between a still-life and your creatures. It feels like something decayed in the 1920’s, was hit by nuclear radiation, and started growing things amidst the decay…
GS: I like the idea of making living still-lifes. It’s almost as if the objects I was painting decided to leap off the table. I choose a lot of my imagery from a mixture of nature, books, antiques, and furniture from my grandparents home, old comics and some cartoon references, etc.. I’ve called these items comfort food in the past. The idea is that they give me peace to paint and draw. They fit in my world.
EL: Personally, surrealism has quenched my creative thirst in that it facilitates things that cannot be in our world. To me, bringing those “surrealities” to life is the massive evolutionary power of art… Describe the process of finding your own aesthetic and perhaps the artists who opened your eyes to the fact that art could be anything…
GS: My aesthetics have been growing for years, kinda like walking through a flea market and carefully choosing things that appeal to me to add to my cart. I was definitely inspired early in life by Salvador Dali, Magritte, Davinci, Rembrandt, Dr. Seuss, Tim Burton and other obvious choices that so many of us are exposed to when we’re young. Hanging out at the library and book stores, watching animal planet and Disney movies played a big role as well. Later in life as a working artist, seeing the works of Todd Schorr and Robert Williams as well as Mark Ryden and Joe Sorren opened my eyes that this could be done. Being a painter in these disciples wasn’t just a bygone art that went to sleep when Dali passed away.
EL: Completely agreed. What’s a favorite of your own work? I’m always curious to know what the public and what the artist themselves, consider a success.
GS: That’s tough. I’ve never felt like I nailed it, and I’m usually happy with a piece only months later when I haven’t seen it for a while. Some pieces of mine that I like a lot though; “Never Alone”, “The Pearl Thief”, “Puppet’s Pathos”, “The Nature of Nurture”, “Azul”, “Finding Home”, “Label Me”, “In Sleep”…. etc. I can’t choose. At times they feel like my kids and I like to revisit them.
EL: Name one artist IPMM readers should check out.
GS: 1? How about a couple… Alex Pardee, Bob Dob, Matthew Bone, Gunnar, Belin, Adam Hathorn, Steven Daily, Robert Bowen, Haste, Nicnak, and a list that goes on….
EL: Thanks Greg!
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