The artist Russ Pope is a west coaster-turned-New England émigré. Growing up as a skateboarder and an artist, he brought his two passions together at a young age. Creativity has been intertwined with all his outdoor pursuits since, with a portfolio that boasts many skating and cycling collaborations. Hailey Moore recently had the opportunity to sit down with Russ to talk about it all—Read on for a rundown about his life of skating, arting and bikes and to learn more about a Russ Pope drawing giveaway! Thanks Russ!
Walking into Russ Pope’s home studio feels like walking into one of the records tucked on the built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. From traditional Brazilian vinyls laid with bossa nova rhythms, to Miles Davis, or MF Doom recordings, the room has a lively, musical energy. It is bright. The neatly-cluttered desk, tidy shelves, and standing table in the center imply a circular flow for moving through the space. On the walls are tacked a flurry of visual souvenirs, characterized primarily by bold lines and pops of color—not dissimilar to Russ’ own style—like chord progressions or staccato notes lingering in the air. And, of course, in one corner sits a record player.
While working in his New Hampshire studio, Russ primarily listens to records. When asked why during my recent visit to the artist’s space, he pointed to the obvious benefit of removing the creativity spell-shattering distraction of his phone, but also that having to flip records serves as a healthy reminder to get up and move his “old skateboarder body.” As a kid, Russ grew up in California—Steinbeck country—and became subsumed by skateboarding before films like Lords of Dogtown or Bones Brigade had been made, much less infiltrated popular culture. Recently, we sat down for a coffee chat about how his background in skating led to bikes, and how art has been there the whole time.
Russ’s drawings are gestural and often populated by fluid, noodly-limbed subjects. His paintings rely on bright colors and a more sparing use of line. His work frequently centers around people moving—walking down a crowded street, dancing, surfing, skating, riding bikes, talking or just existing in space. He describes his art as “life reportage” and typically has a sketchbook in tow to make quick notes of moments he sees that spark a right brain reaction. His bold style is conducive to rendering his work through myriad avenues—on paper and canvas, of course, but also on T-shirts, post cards, wine bottles, coffee bags, as murals and, one time, to cover a pop-up skatepark. In a few rare instances, his art has ornamented bicycle frames though more often it’s been found on the many skateboards he’s had a hand in designing. Among many past and contemporary artists*, he cites Dr. Seuss, Saul Steinberg, Charles Schultz, and Robert Searle as strong sources of inspiration.
Growing Up: Origin Stories
As Russ puts it, he’s “never not had a skateboard.” When he was five years old, his dad made him his first board, cutting it out from an old cupboard. Fittingly, it was around this time too, when a teacher praised one of his drawings, that being an artist also became part of his identity. “It’s around Easter time,” Russ says, describing the event. “My mom came to pick me up from kindergarten and my teacher told her ‘Russell is a super talented artist, you have to look at this Easter Bunny he drew; it’s amazing.’ I remember hearing that and seeing her hand the drawing to my mom and thinking ‘I’m an artist. I’m totally an artist, look how talented I am!’ Now, as an adult, I know that she did that with every single kid but I fell for it, so I essentially credit her with tricking me into it.” The two—making art and skateboarding—became constants, throughlines, tracking the past into the present, sometimes running parallel but more often overlapping and becoming woven together in various creative pursuits.
As the oldest of three, Russ describes growing up as “a latchkey 80s kid.” He points out that his parents weren’t “lame”—they provided an adequate house and put plenty of food on the table—but were somewhat uninvolved in the goings-on of his days; he was living his own life under their roof. He draws contrast between his own more creative and sensitive sensibility with that of his dad who built cars and motorcycles and was “the total opposite of that. He was a man.” However, his dad’s brother was a surfer and a dedicated painter, with art hung all over Russ’ grandparents house from their time living overseas—from Europe to Africa—as a military family. His uncle spent time talking to Russ about art and, when he got older, introducing him to different mediums.
Looking back, Russ clarifies that while perhaps sounding significant, the encounters with his uncle were casual and not overly frequent. Still, one might posit that having a close relative who was a devoted artist normalized the notion of pursuing a life of creativity.
Growing Up: Becoming a Double Agent
By the time he was 14, Russ was a double agent—a sponsored skateboarder and student. On the appeal of skateboarding, Russ points to how the self-expression and independence inherent in the still-underground activity aligned with his rejection of organized institutions, “Everybody knows this stuff now, but, in the era that I grew up in, it was actually counterculture. It wasn’t popular. It was punk rockers and artists and there if you didn’t want to play team sports. I just thought it [school, team sports, etc.] was all awful and where I felt most comfortable was cruising around town either by myself or with friends and drawing pictures. That’s what made me happy and what felt best so I gravitated towards that. Skateboarding wasn’t a sport—you were as good or as bad as you wanted to be. Nobody else was in charge. It was just a pain threshold thing. Depending on how much you were prepared to beat your body up was how good you could be. That, I was okay with, I could give myself a royal beating and that was fine because nobody was asking me to, I was doing it because I wanted to.”
As a result of being picked up at a young age by a sponsor, Russ continued the trend of carving out his own life through high school, one that sounds adjacent to and more independent than that of the “typical” teenage experience. During most of his summer breaks, he left Morro Bay to spend the free months away from home, traveling in a tour van around the country. “In skateboarding, it’s a little different,” Russ explained, “[in cycling] you may rep for a local bike shop, do some crits or whatever, but I was actually shooting photos for ads that would go in the magazines. Every summer I was gone in a tour van—it was like that all the way through high school, where art and skateboarding were absolutely my main [shared] focus.”
Whether motivated by teenage angst, or an enviable singular focus that comes to those who have found their thing, and—most likely—a combination of both, Russ’ relationship with school was, at best, distant, through graduation. “Fifteen, 16—by the time I was 17, it was reeeaaallllyyyy close,” he recalls, “I was about ready to cash in because this high school thing was totally bothering me; it was taking up all this time. And my dad was pissed and was like, ‘you’re never going to make a living as a skateboarder! Nobody does this!’” That old hat.
By the time he was 17, Russ had graduated, moved out and became as involved as he could with the brands he was representing in skateboarding. “All of it,” is how he described his responsibilities at that time for NHS, where he was managing Santa Monica Airlines and Speed Wheels, “I filmed every video, edited it all, shot photos of ads, gave creative direction, managed the team, and still skated demos. I would drive the van then get out and ride with the team for the demo.”
Attending school, too, meant that his life as a double agent would continue through his early 20’s: he spent four years completing two years of school, working full-time during the day, while attending classes at night at a community college in Santa Cruz. But soon enough the familiar burden of school—a pursuit that didn’t seem worth the trade-off in time and money—sank in. The crossroads came when, at 22, he’d come up with “my best version of a business plan for a new skateboard company that I wanted to start.” It was called Creature Skateboards (“It’s still around today—people like it.”) and when NHS wanted in on backing it, Russ wanted out of school. As he recalls, “That summer, it was either sign up for classes (and go to them) or go do six weeks in the van with my new team for the new company that I was going to start. I had two directions: school, or bag this thing that I was so passionate about and could 100% see out in my head. So I skipped school and went for the company.”
(Russ’ lineage of skateboard brand influence continued when he went on to form Scarecrow Skateboards in 1995 with Jason Adams, realized a coffee-can dream project in the Transportation Unit and worked as Global Brand Manager for Converse.)
Getting Into Riding: From Schwinn to Santa Cruz
During this period, what seemed like an ill-timed knee injury forced Russ onto the bike. Over a one-year stretch of getting cortisone treatments while going in weekly to have water and blood drained from his repeatedly hammered knee, the doc suggested riding bikes as a way to rehab and strengthen the badly abused joint. He took out a four-part payment plan through a bike shop to buy “Schwinn’s best hardtail model” and explored some of Santa Cruz’s now-classic terrain. “The back entrance to Nisene Marks was eight miles from our house so I would ride every single day, out the back door, up a windy road and just pop into the most gorgeous trails ever.”
Serendipitously similar to his entree into skateboarding, Russ found mountain biking on the cusp of the sport exploding—this was the early 90s and the mountain biking wave was about to hit big. Crossover between these two, small, counterculture worlds led him to create relationships with a few of the folks who’d wind up being highly influential in the burgeoning discipline: “Rob Rosskopp, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Bikes, was one of my riding partners… and I was actually one of [RockShox founder] Paul Turner’s test pilots for his early suspension fork, the Mag 20. I think I still have it; it has his handwriting on it. He’d come back to get our feedback, re-tune them, dial them.”
At this point in the conversation, it was becoming evident that Russ has an uncanny ability to access the niche, alt circles of sport. An intuition that drove curiosity, or was it a drive for going all-in that resulted in some pretty fortuitous timing? Turns out, he raced several years of the early editions of the Sea Otter Classic, riding in a few of the events on Santa Cruz’s preliminary full suspension models. At some point during his decade-and-a-half of racing mountain bikes, Russ’ obsession-inclined personality pushed him to purchase a road bike too, in an effort to sharpen his speed. He also went on to race cyclocross with a local team for several years, ultimately competing in (California) State Championships as a Master.
Because: Bikes Are Beautiful
There are times when “beautiful” falls flat. It’s a word that stays busy, often showing up in sentences that are beneath it, like a sumo wrestler who’s been called to a pillow fight—it holds back. There are rare instances, though, when beautiful is called upon to describe something and the word finally gets to throw its full weight around. A microsecond of extra space hangs around it, like the three syllables are, in that moment, doing more to carry with them the entirety of the archetype they represent. To explain his infatuation with road cycling and the culture of one-day classics, when Russ Pope said “it just looked beautiful,” I could feel everything contained it—the image of Eddy Merckx, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, the Taj Mahal, a fresh blanket of snow, the best meal of your life—all wrapped up in that wonderful cliché. Like truth or love, it’s something that is so fundamental that a tautological explanation is the only way to explain it. Beauty is beautiful to behold.
Thus, it felt appropriate when Russ expounded on his admiration of the European road scene by aligning himself with the Italian side of the sport—”going to ride a Giro looked amazing, because of the Italians and how they approach life; it’s more about the feeling than the RPMs.” While he claims to have been just a “stupid skateboarder who bought a bike,” Russ does own up to applying the hustle ethos picked up from his many years in the skateboard industry to landing creative projects in cycling. Over the years, he’s had an impressive array of collaborations ranging from mural projects and merch capsule collections with the legacy brand Cinelli, to his latest collaboration with the SimWorks offshoot bike bag project, RAL, and Product of Bob Scales. The RAL x POBS x Russ Pope product set includes a basket bag with Pope-designed silk screen printed interior (sized to hold a sketchbook), bottles, and a classic button-down ride shirt. A one-off hand-doodled Russ Pope x Retrotec frame served as the showpiece to tease the forthcoming line at the recent Chris King Open House.
Incredibly enough, Russ’ first gallery show coincided with the creativity-crowded cluster of his early 20s. In thinking back on our conversation, I’ve struggled to square the skater punk whose reaction to the world seemed to mirror the refrain of the similarly-timed Rage Against the Machine anthem “Killing in the Name,” with the gallery-showcased artist who has now, three decades later, had shows across the globe. Maybe the flip-the-bird mentality was countered by the very human desire for acknowledgement and validation—a clear metric by which to say, “I’ve made it.” Which, perhaps, could be viewed as another kind of rebuke to the norm. By showing the world that you are worthy of a gallery exhibition without the stuffy art school credentials, you’re proving that your way works just fine. But, that’s just one theory and nobody fits in a box.
Still, when we spoke about the exclusivity dilemma posed by museum or gallery-confined art, Russ was quick to acknowledge that it’s a scene that he feels very comfortable in, and only wishes that everyone did too—”I think there is something to be said for [art] being accessible. Instagram was a cool thing; that’s making your art shareable with folks. I think street art is really great because it brings a gallery onto the street and allows everyone to see it. There’s a massive barrier to entry for folks who can’t afford to be/aren’t comfortable in/are made to feel uncomfortable in those spaces.”
Inclusivity, in fact, was the common thread I saw running through our diverse and divergent conversation. Russ firmly believes that skateboarding today is the best version of skateboarding that has yet existed; its macho bravado has been tamped down, somewhat, and room has been made to encourage and support a wider range of individuals and communities. He looks to the recent past as evidence it’s a changing scene, “it’s only been in the last five years that you could be a woman in skateboarding and not get tons of shit.” He sees the same thing in cycling where, today, people are encouraged to ride how, where, what they want: “I see someone like Ron[nie] as very much a skateboarder, or a surfer, on a bicycle. It’s really nice that cycling has gotten there. Everybody doesn’t have to aspire to race or wear lycra—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s nice that not everything is made for race pace and aerodynamics and aggressive pedaling and RPMs. I’m inspired by all the riders who keep going, long, short, fast, slow… bikes are neat.”
I think achievement is often, erroneously, divorced from creative pursuits. Some still adhere to the fluffy notion that art is only made when inspiration “strikes” like a divine bolt of lightning. But when I think of some of the most prolific creatives—from Anton Newcombe, to Stephen King, or Bob Dylan—an achievement-oriented ethos is often motivating their output. Underlying or explicit, there is a drive to be the best. And this fits a man who sees creativity as a muscle to be exercised, daily, and admits to making sketches from TV shows, because he can’t countenance the thought of just sitting and watching. On several occasions during our conversation, Russ described his drive in sport as an intense satisfaction that came from pushing the body further than others wanted to push, only to be followed up minutes later with an admission to weeping at the sight of a painting, experienced in real life, hanging in a gallery’s hall. You can call it ego, but I also think of this way of moving through life as an opening of the floodgate to feelings, across the spectrum of pain and joy. Whether you’ve just been thrown from the bike, body slamming into the ground, or you find yourself moved to tears at the sight of a human-made rendering—it’s how you know you’re really here.
Russ Pope “Morning Workout” – Illustration Giveaway!
As a way to limber up the creative muscles, Russ often starts his day with what he’s dubbed the Morning Workout—a quick sketch to loosen up. We loved this piece that Russ did just for this article and has generously offered to send to a reader. Drop a comment below or on our IG post for a chance to enter!
If you’re not already, tune into Russ’ IG feed and stories. He’s a planning a “Seven days in Parisian Cafes” project, where he’ll share sketches and more developed drawings after walking his way through Paris with his wife, Jennifer, later this month.
*Russ provided a long list of artists and friends who’ve been inspiring to him over the years, it felt appropriate to give everyone a nod here: Seuss, Charles Shultz, Marvel comics, Margret Killgallen, Chris Johanson, Thomas Campbell, Pettibon (in my young adulthood). Now I’m inspired by photographers, designers, and illustrators just as much as painters…I love Steinberg, Ronald Searle, Alexander Girard, Bill Cunningham, and folks who are producing work today some of them I’m lucky enough to know or have known like Jason Polan, Jason Jagel, Jean Julien, Nathaniel Russell, & Tina Berning, Kathy Bradford etc. I’m still am inspired by the likes of Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, and Hockney.