Bill Ogden is a California surfer/artist who made a mark in the industry with paintings that depicted the beauty of the ocean with swirling colors and fanciful lines. 35 years later, Ogden’s work has found a whole new audience. We spoke with Bill to learn more.
What was it like growing up in California?
My parents were from Oklahoma, which made me a CIO, or a “California Improved Okie.” I grew up in Gardena, which was about 6 miles to the beach. During the summer, my brother and I would ride our bicycles down Redondo Beach Boulevard to the Redondo Breakwater. We were pier rats and we caught and sold fish there and got into the kind of mischief little boys sometimes do. At the age of 9, we later moved to West Covina where I stayed until I was 18 when took off for the coast and moved to San Clemente.
What was it like when you first witnessed surfing?
It was at the Breakwater. I saw this guy just planing on a wave riding a flat piece of plywood. He was going so fast he was practically bouncing off the wave. He wasn’t surfing – he was planing. It was pretty far out seeing all of that speed.
Tell us about your first surfboard
Riding my ten-speed bike from West Covina to La Puente I came across a bike shop. Going inside I noticed a cardboard box that contained a surfboard inside. It was a molded cast foam surfboard that had glass, catalyst, and everything. I absolutely flipped! I was obsessed from that second on. I had no money, so I went up to the counter and sacrificed my ten-speed that was worth at least three times the value of that surfboard kit. The guy looked at me and said about the board. “Get that thing outta here!” When I built it, I didn’t use enough catalyst in the resin so everything at the beach would stick to it – sand, shells, you name it.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood up on a surfboard?
That feeling of moving without a motor, I felt the ocean carrying me along – it was a free ride, like a magic feeling – yeah! No motor, no sail and here I was standing up and really moving. It was quite empowering. I just had to do it again, and again, and again.
Tell us about your experience with shaper Bill Holden
It was my first experience at a real surf shop. It had a mystique. I would just look at the walls covered with photos, smell the scent of resin, and just dreaming of the day when I could afford to get my own board. I remember painting a cartoon character with the flower baggies with the name Bill Holden Surfboards on my car. I saw Bill not too long before he died and he was aware of my art for many years. I told him he made me first real surfboard. When I told him of this fact, he was just so honored.
When did you get interested in art?
People always ask me “Why do you make art” and the response is usually “Because I have to.” Even at the age of three, I always had this feeling that I was late and what I did was a serious deal. I even got kicked out of Kindergarten for teaching the other kids how to draw! The kids would look at me with their wide eyes and say “How do you do that?” as if what I did was magic. I told them “You can do this, too!” I wanted to empower them.
Why do you feel it is important to reveal the beauty of California in your art?
As an artist, you always “get into” your own environment. However, having traveled a bit and then returning to California, I see that it has everything. I am currently sitting here just above Palm Desert and I am 2 hours from the coast, 2 hours from Mexico, and I’m 2 hours from Big Bear. I am within striking distance from 4 or 5 different terrains and each one has its own beauty depending on the time of the year. It really is a place where an artist can’t go wrong.
Tell us how the ocean factors into your art
All surfers talk about when they were kids and how they would go to the beach with their parents. It was an experience that just gets stuck in our heads. So I guess we are all trying to relive that wonderful experience of the ocean and adventure that we had when we were young. Also, you can look out to the horizon and not see anything man-made. Sure, you might see a sailboat or ship, but for the most part you can see for a very long distance. This perspective gives you a very comfortable feeling of being free.
How important is integrity in art?
I don’t see how you can be an artist and not have integrity. But it seems that there is as little integrity in art as there is in real estate.
How many years have you been painting?
I did my first oil at 12 years old. It was a paint-by-number kit given to me by my girlfriend. I destroyed it because I tried to paint outside the lines by trying to blend the colors. It just made me more determined to paint what I saw in the art books. To answer your question, it would be about 53 years.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Most artists believe it is their purpose to give the world beauty. To be able to show the beauty that is already here. As artists, we point out these things to people who may be too busy in their lives to notice. It is our mission to carry that torch for beauty, truth, and integrity through symbolism in our art. A beautiful landscape is going to give someone a feeling of peace and quiet and if an artist can deliver that emotion – that is a really great reward.
Do you still get out in the water?
Not in a while. As a matter of fact, I am going to do some serious looking for a wetsuit, board, and racks. I know a longboarder and artist named Jesse Miller who wants to take me out to Old Man’s in San Onofre. Oh man, I would have never surfed there in my younger days (laughs)!
What motto do you live by?
I look at life as a great adventure. All the things that have happened to me made me stronger. It takes a life of adventure – you eat life or life eats you.
What’s your favorite meal?
Let me think. It would have to be machaca and eggs. I typically eat grains and vegetables, rarely red meat – mostly chicken and fish. And I’ve probably eaten more sardines than anyone in the world.
What’s next for Bill Ogden?
There is a new, large painting and it has already been penciled in. Also, I am working on a book that will be a quick narrative of my work from beatnik, surfing, and psychedelic. Billabong currently has a number of my paintings featured on their clothing. And finally, The Surfing Heritage Gallery will be having a showing of my work in Costa Mesa later this month.