Pablo Ugartetxea is a Spanish artist/surfer living in the Basque region. Inspired by surf culture, his paintings are complex compositions of mixed media that feature photographs, drawing, and paint. We caught up with Pablo to find out more.
What was it like growing up in Spain?
I had quite a normal childhood. I grew up in Bilbao, an industrial city in Northern Spain where, thankfully, you can take the tube to go surfing. My family is originally from Lekeitio, a beautiful town near Mundaka where I used to enjoy myself a lot during the summer, living in a big house surrounded by my punk cousins.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I remember my first wave perfectly well. It was unreal to see the beach from up there. I was going so fast! I was stoked immediately. I wanted more and more!!!
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
When I was a young man, I loved comics—Tintin, Corto Maltes, Moebius and, of course, Wilbur Kookmeyer!
The art scene—I remember when I discovered Picasso. It was like a revelation, all the fun and crazy stuff you could do with a paintbrush. Rock and roll—The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, roots reggae. In literature, I liked Hermann Hesse, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In surfing, I admired Tom Curren.
Of all the interesting places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I like the Mediterranean very much; I travel to Greece as much as I can. Greece is the origin of Western culture and the light there is amazing. I’m in love with California as well. It has many similarities with Greece—the light—and also because it was the center of an ever-ruling culture. I like French and Japanese sophistication, the color and the magic in India, the Cuban sense of humor. I don’t know … I love many different places.
Where were you educated?
I studied at a Jesuit catholic school in Bilbao beginning in 1973, when Franco’s régime was already agonizing the people. The good thing was my passion for drawing helped me to survive the extremely boring classes. My name starts with a U, therefore I always sat in the last row, out of the teacher’s visual reach, and I could escape by filling my books and notebooks with perfect lineups, sexy California blondes and piers like the one at Huntington. When I finished school, I studied arts at the university in Bilbao, London and Amsterdam.
Tell us about your wonderful paintings. What do you hope to evoke with them?
My work mixes drawing, photography, oil and textures. I don’t believe in disciplines within different arts and techniques; I like to bring reality out of context, always with a great dose of humor. Having sense of humor is the best antidepressant and I use it compulsively.
Over the last few years, big waves have taken over my paintings. Now I combine city architecture with tsunamis, trying to obtain poetic images with a strong ironic and disturbing charge. There is a latent threat in my paintings. You can feel the catastrophe—buildings in flames, humongous waves destroying cities. I think this has to do with the dramatic new millennium we’re living in: crazy weather causing hurricanes in Europe, the collapse of western economy, 9/11, the latest dreadful earthquakes. It all causes an apocalyptic atmosphere that an artist cannot ignore. For me, a tsunami is a metaphor which invites us to think about human impact on nature and, at the same time, the impact of nature on populated areas—for example, how nature throws the ball back with all its strength, destroying our concrete monsters.
Last year, during my exhibition in San Sebastian on the occasion of this Basque city’s Surf Film Festibal, I came up with the term “Surfbanismo”. Surfbanism means urbanizing or, rather, “disurbanizing” through tsunamis, destroying all those horrendous maritime promenades and apartment buildings. In these creations, or should I say “destructions,” I have let the anarchist in me flow freely and I have to admit it was quite a pleasant experience.
Who or what inspires you?
Architecture, the sea, the light and the ocean. I find these sources of inspiration traveling as much as I can and taking thousands of shots. Back in my studio, I compose the cities my own way. I remove and add. I assemble different parts. I cut and paste mentally, painting imaginary cities which always have the ocean in the background. Through my painting, I can give priority to imagination, to the subversion of reality, to poetry. I feel like a billionaire and almighty city mayor who transforms the city as he pleases.
For my last exhibition in Bilbao, I completely reshaped my city. I replaced the stinking mud in the river with an epic white sand beach from Indonesia and I chucked the iconic Rio de Janeiro mountain of Pao d’Açucar in the middle, changing the grey costumes and executive suitcases worn by Bilbao citizens for swimming suits and surfboards.
In my paintings for The Surf Gallery in Laguna Beach, I bring the waves from Venice Beach to the channels in Venice, bay watcher cars pass through the Big Channel and there’s a huge wall painting of Jim Morrison on an old Venice palace. Amongst all artists who have inspired me, I would point to David Hockney and Andy Warhol for their creativity, Matisse’s color and, of course, Picasso’s genius.
What code or “golden rule” do you live by?
To be myself, to try and be true to myself.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
To focus on things you really believe in and not to waste time with bullshit. Like André Guide once wrote, “Dogs bark, cart keeps going.”
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of earning a living doing what I like to do most.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing makes me constantly be outdoors, in touch with nature, with people who think that money and material things are not their priorities in life. And you can’t forget it provides a perfect tan all year!!
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
When I catch a good wave or when I finish a good painting. In both cases, I feel extremely satisfied. It’s something priceless.
What is in your current quiver?
Right now, I am stoked on a couple of eggs—a singlefin and a 2+1—and a quad, all of them around seven feet.
What is your favorite board?
A seven foot quad made by a Brazilian shaper who lives around here. I did the colour myself—a beautiful bluish grey. It looks wonderful in the water, but very difficult to come up with when I need to repair the board! My next board will be white!!
I love to surf Les Estagnots (Hossegor), Biarritz, San Onofre, Portugal and the Mediterranean. Last summer, I caught a big swell on the island of Sardegna.
What’s your favorite meal?
I am Basque. This is a country with a huge gastronomy tradition, where men gather in private clubs to cook, where cooking is the most common subject to speak about, like others speak about the weather. To make it simple, we’re obsessed with food in general and particularly fish. I love to cook and to eat, but I have to admit that despite all this Basque cuisine tradition, my favorite food is a good hot dog!!
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Right now, I have Violent Femmes, The Cure, The Rolling Stones, Tchaikovsky, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, Khaled, Beethoven, Gipsy Kings, Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, Duke Ellington, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Blondie, Lou Reed, Tequila, Stevie Wonder, JJ Cale, Neil Young, Tito Puente, Men At Work, Frank Sinatra, Mano Negra, Nino Rota, Marvin Gaye, Camaron de la Isla, Van Morrison, Skank, Jamie Cullum, Peter Tosh, Mongo Santamaria, Django Reinhardt, The Creedence, Charlie Parker. Actually, I’d like to be more up to date regarding music. Having taken a look at my list, I see all of them are grandpas or they have been pushing up daisies for awhile now.
What causes, projects or organizations do you support?
I collaborate with Premanande Orphanage Centre in Ongole , India, an orphanage created by a Hawaiian friend, John James, a great man. Within the surfing scene, I have done things with Surfrider Foundation.
What are you most grateful for?
For being healthy, for having had the chance to meet my wife, Ana, and for having something as valuable as imagination to create.
What’s next for Pablo Ugartetxea?
Right now, I’m finishing some paintings for the Green Room Festival in Yokohama, Japan in May. Also, there is an exhibition at the Sporting Casino in Hossegor and a huge 3D wall painting for a surf film festival.
Find out more about Pablo Ugartetxea here.