Russ Pope Interview by Evan Schiefelbine
We got in contact with Russ a few years back thanks to a mutual friend. Fast forward a few years and we talk on the phone and try to meet up whenever we’re in the same city. Proud to have had Russ do the latest series for Small Wheels. Thanks to Evan Schiefelbine for conducting this interview. Hope you enjoy. -Aaron Brown
You just got back from Paris how was it?
Dude it was the best, Paris rules for sure. It’s definitely one of my most favorite places on the planet. South of France is really dope, Paris is great. I’ve never had a bad time in Paris.
How many times have you been there, you’ve made it out a decent amount right?
Yeah I usually go a couple times every year. I try to go every January and every June for fashion week. I know it sounds ridiculous going for fashion week, but it’s not like I’m sitting at runway shows. I just go at that time of year because we usually put something together, whether I have an art show of some sort, or it’ll be a skateboarding event that’s a good reason to go for a week. I’ll usually travel around seeing museums and eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of Aperol Spritz’s and walk all day.
Was there any particular artists work or piece that you saw this time around that you were psyched on?
Hmm that’s a good question, let me think? Ahh what was dope? You know this isn’t going to sound super contemporary or maybe not interesting to all, but there is a Picasso museum there. There’s one in Barcelona too that’s really dope but the one that’s in Paris is particulary good and they always have - it’s always Picasso, and then something, a new exhibit that they add to it to keep it fresh. Like if you were to show up 2 times a year like I do and want to go because you love Picasso, there’s always something new to look at as well. This time it was a Picasso / Calder show going, it was really cool. They had all these Calder sculptures going sitting alongside Picasso sculptures and kind of juxtaposing one another. It worked really well together in the rooms they had them set up. Then they also had things like - Picasso painted his working studio, and Calder had painted his (studio) as well. I wasn’t super familiar with all of Calder’s paintings. All of his sculptural work I’ve seen a ton. Especially because he worked in Connecticut, so New England is pretty rich in Calder pieces. But these paintings that he did were really fucking good and they were cool, it was different. So they had one room that was literally a somewhat large painting that Picasso did of his studio and you turn around to a Calder painting that’s roughly the same style thing of his (studio). So, just thoughtful, interesting, and a different take on one of my favorite places to go to.
Do you have a go-to museum when you’re out there or is that kind of the one?
No, I always go there (Picasso Museum), I always go to the Pompidou. The Pompidou had a Dora Maar exhibit. You hear about Dora Maar being the one that Picasso ruined and drove insane. But it didn’t have anything to do with Picasso, or her relationship to him. It was all about Dora Maar, her professional and artistic life. So it had drawings and paintings of hers and all of her agency based fashion and photography work that she did, which was super sick. There was a ton of stuff I’d never seen before, um… just her photographic stuff which was really cool and interesting. They had a whole section of the Pompidou dedicated to her, there was that much work, paintings and photos and stuff, which you never get. All you hear about is the poor tortured lover of Picasso
Yeah I just watched that National Geographic series, have you seen that series? It’s Antonio Banderas playing Picasso (laughs)
There’s a chunk of it that covers his relationship with her and I definitely think that it portrays it that way, where he drives her nuts and like he does not care. At least the way it’s portrayed you know, it’s pretty wild.
Yeah he doesn’t give a shit, yeah exactly… So that was cool though. I went to some place I’ve never gone before. This, like, museum of nature and science or something like that? But it was the most bizarre - it’s a spot not far from the Pompidou actually, but it literally had rooms full of taxidermy. There was a falconing room, a room with skeletons carved out of bone that were all boning. It was full of orgies of skeletons with sausage dicks and stuff. It was so bizarre, like a horse carcass, a skinned horse, like a life sized horse skinned. Yeah weird, it was a sight to see. It was strange. And it felt really strange too because it was in this really beautiful old Parisian building that had all these strange things displayed similar to if, you were in the Louvre looking at an old masterpiece. (laughs) So ridiculous.
Haha, that’s a little different. How did you stumble upon that?
A friend of a friend had suggested going there and we were like “let’s just go, check it out”. It was wild. It was super sick. It’s there all the time. It’s crazy.
When or how old were you when you started putting it together that you wanted to spend your time making art?
Oh geez… Umm it’s funny again, at the risk of sounding super hokey when you answer, especially if you answer honestly. When I was literally in kindergarten I had this kindergarten teacher, you know there’s the teachers and little kids, they do art projects and all that? It’s getting close to Easter time so everyone’s going to draw a rabbit. And I drew a rabbit and I remember handing it to my teacher, and my mom picking me up from kindergarten, and her handing the rabbit I drew to my mom and going, “Russell’s a very talented artist” and I was like Oh shit, I’m a talented artist. Actually thinking, literally thinking I’m totally an artist. Because at 5 years old my kindergarten teacher said so. But I had an uncle that was a painter, an oil painter – super talented and it was around a little bit in my Grandparents house because of that, but I really feel like that was what kicked it off. I never stopped drawing and I’d spend time learning how to paint with my uncle. It’s always been a part of my life. Skateboarding and art have always been there since about the same time period.
Yeah, would you say you stumbled upon skating at age five or were you a bit older?
It was five. My dad made me my first skateboard when I was five. He literally cut out a board out of a cabinet and painted it up, painted these hang ten feet on it and then we went to this toy-store, the town I lived in had this toy-store called KB toys and KB toys sold all the bits to be able to build semi-precision bearings, you had to buy the ball bearings and pack them in the races. I remember going with my dad and he bought me all the pieces and assembled the skateboard for me. So my first board I got, my dad made for me and I was five years old.
Was that San Luis Obispo or where’d you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Salinas
Oh Salinas, yeah
You know where Salinas is?
Until high school I lived in Salinas and then I moved to Morro Bay and went to high school there which is coastal San Luis Obispo. Until high school, I lived in Salinas, I was born in LA and before I turned one I moved there. Basically from one to fourteen I lived in Salinas.
Yea I went to elementary and Jr. high school with Justin Gerard
Oh you’re kidding?
No way, were you both doing art back then?
I don’t think he was, but I don’t know he may have been. I think he’s a graphic artist, so I feel like it came after school. I feel like he went to school to become a graphic artist maybe?
I just always think of his New Deal, Pinball Wizard deck when I hear that his name…Salinas, that’s like Steinbeck zone?
It’s Steinbeck Country, the Salinas valley. Steinbeck’s house was right next to this shitty house that I grew up in. It was literally like three blocks away and there was like a little hip next to the Steinbeck house, it’s still there, a historical landmark and the house had this little rose garden and this weird little bank up to it. Like it had a hip because it turned the corner. I would literally go on skinny board, road-rider wheel, continental truck days, and ride that bank.
So you had a bank at Steinbeck’s house? (laughs)
Right by Steinbeck’s house yeah, not at it yeah.
Did you get down to Big Sur a decent amount then?
For sure. As a kid we went camping and stuff all the time. Then when I moved to Morro Bay I spent more time in Big Sur than when I lived in Salinas. I spent a lot of time in Monterey and in Santa Cruz, but I didn’t spend as much time in Big Sur until I moved to Morro Bay. But when I moved to Morro Bay I used to go like every other weekend and go camping. We’d go in a Westfalia camper van, my wife and I, and my son when he was really just a baby, then later my daughter too, and would go up there and camp every other weekend.
I’ve only been to Big Sur once…
Yeah, you got to go. It’s amazing. My wife actually spent summers there. Her dad lived in Big Sur so she part time lived there. Her parents were divorced so she would do all summer in Big Sur. So there’s a bunch of stuff like state park stuff like Esalen and Pfeiffer State Park. Her dad built stuff there, so there’s a little bit of a connection there for us.
It seems like you dig living on the east coast, what’s one of your favorite things about living on the east coast? What’s something you miss about living on the west coast.
Dude, east coast is just so beautiful man. The seasons are amazing, I’ve never appreciated spring like I’ve appreciated spring in New England. California, even if you’ve grown up in northern or central California, the seasons happen but the change is so minimal and if you’re in southern California, which the last few years before I moved to the east coast I spent in southern California that doesn’t change much at all. Here you have some real dramatic hard seasons, almost everywhere and millions of trees. There’s no comparison, the quantity of trees that are in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, I don’t know fifty times the trees there are in California and they all change colors and it’s just beautiful, the temperature is so nice and you get to winter and you get this ridiculous fresh snowfall. White everywhere and there’s a fair amount of evergreens here, so you have these evergreens that are loaded up with snow. By the time you’re just getting sick of winter… you know, I didn’t growing up shoveling snow, so I still think it’s still beautiful when it’s snowing… we get to spring and the first bits of green that pop up are so crazy. You’re like “oh my god it’s green”! Then two weeks later it looks like everything was painted with green paint, it’s that green. That’s where we’re at right now.
I was on the freeway from JFK to get here yesterday and even off the side off the freeway its so green right now. There’s green overgrown everywhere with ivy growing up trunks of trees to a super green tree, and I forget that because I’m just in California now (laughs).
Yea it’s nuts. There’s so many natural fresh water rivers and lakes. The ocean here is super beautiful, where we live we’re a bike ride away from our favorite beach spot. It feels like a California beach but a little more rugged cause it’s east coast. It still has that same feel, like a beach break surf spot with sandy beaches and stuff. It’s really cool man, and I like the food options, it’s so close to Europe it’s really great.
What about the west coast? What do you miss?
Latino culture, I miss Mexicans. Like literally, and I mean that respectively. Specifically the Mexican population in California, I love it. I love the music, the people, the smiles, the cars, I love all of it. From the full cholos to the traditional cultural stuff, you know? The food… I don’t care what anybody says, there’s not a Mexican restaurant here - even run by Mexicans - somehow they don’t quite get it right. There’s good ones, but not great ones. There’s just great one’s everywhere in California. That’s probably what I miss the most. Also the spots you can’t get here, like Big Sur. I miss Big Sur and being able to go to Santa Cruz and Yosemite and places like that. But for the most part, I don’t miss much, man. I really, really love it here.
I totally get all of that. Totally makes sense to me. Alright some other specific stuff. Over the years you’ve created multiple projects, multiple brands, and you still do it now. What is it that keeps you creating these projects. Even from the early days of Scarecrow and then Creature up until now with Transportation Unit.
Visa versa, Creature then Scarecrow
That’s right, I got it backwards. I would say those were my first introduction to that aesthetic, darker, spookier, haunted vibes, like ghoulish stuff. In skating, or otherwise, that was my first introduction to it. What influences did you have, and when did you come across that, and how did that take hold in your taste in that period of time? What were you super into back then in terms of film or music?
For me, always since I was a little dude there used to be this thing called the Monster Mash that came on, on the weekends, and I would watch it with my grandparents. I’d be at my grandparent’s house every Sunday and they had the Monster Mash and it had this dude with a white fury suit who would walk out and he’d put on a Borris Bobby Picket album and he’d do the mash to the Monster Mash. The fury monster would dance to the Monster Mash on the record player.
Then they’d play an old Universal or Hammer horror film so you would have the original Dracula, the original Nosferatu or even films from before that. You’d have the original Mummy or Frankenstein. But not that hokey shit that came later, the real old black and white one’s I was so hyped on. The original Universal monsters and a lot of the Hammer Horror ones too were what I was most excited about. So when I started Creature it was 100% based on the style of artwork that was used in the posters for those films. Even all the colors that were used in boards, I was matching pantone chips up to old faded horror film posters from Dracula, The Thing, The Phantom of the Opera and all that. So pulling out these purples and these golds and greens that were off like a dirty mint, you know, those were the colors they used. Even better when they were slightly faded. Creature later became more hesh and just a little different, but it was originally pretty strict like horror film themed you know and Scarecrow was too.
Yea I remember that, I remember all that. That it was very OG, to your point. The OG stuff.
Not like Scooby Doo. I don’t mean this as a blast to anybody else because whatever anybody is into is cool. But I was more into a slightly more sophisticated line, a certain period of time and it wasn’t as tongue in cheek or as hesh. But what’s done now is totally cool and appropriate for what other dudes are doing today. Just making it real clear that I’m not saying what’s done today is bad, just wasn’t my shtick.
For sure, because the original Nosferatu, that’s like serious business, dude. It’s like real (laughs)
Yeah! Max Schrek. The original Nosferatu is super dope. Metropolis, you know, that film was made in the silent era of film. The original Phantom of the Opera too is from the silent era of film.
See Metropolis spooks me too, and I’ve never seen the original Phantom of the Opera.
The original Phantom of the Opera you should look up online, whatever, youtube I’m sure.. If you crank up the music and watch it, it’s super dramatic you know. These were art pieces and if you read about them, how they were made, those sets were actually built, you know there was no fucking green screens. So dudes built that stuff in those crazy cities (Metropolis). For me it was all art based, it was art film.
Getting into Transportation Unit and The Thursday Man, what kind of stuff do you now look to for inspiration?
I think that the horror film thing definitely ran its course with me. I still appreciate that stuff quite a bit but I’m not jumping at it all the time like I was then. I was making art that was in a similar vein to what I’m doing now but everything evolves for sure, it’s probably more sophisticated (technique) now than it was then and going to school for art back then. But I wasn’t using that stuff on skateboards on purpose. So I had artists that actually drew that stuff, I didn’t draw the stuff for Scarecrow or for Creature. I creatively directed and we had artists that did that stuff. So I would grab pantone colors and a dude would draw in the style of those movie posters, which clearly isn’t the way I draw or paint.
And so how would you say Transportation Unit differs, now, from those past projects?
Transportation Unit was literally born out of a love making stuff, you know? I love skateboarding and the act of making skateboards and picking colors and putting together graphics that look cool and make me want to go ride a skateboard. I had so many people asking “Hey when are you going to do another board project? When are you going to do another board project?” Even other distributors and stuff would say “Hey would you consider starting a new brand with us?” But every time it had something to do with something else. So with Transportation Unit I was like I’m just going to do my own thing. I took the money I made from an art show, literally cashed the check from the gallery put it in a coffee can and was buying boards from Schmitt with cash out of the coffee can. I was like whatever ends up in the coffee can is the budget for making this skateboard company. It’s not going to cost extra money from me, if there’s no money in the can, nothing gets bought. I only make shit that I dig, it’s not being made for anybody else. If people like it cool, if not I’ll just give the shit away because it doesn’t matter…and people bought it (laughs). I have a handful of guys that I give stuff to and it kind of hasn’t changed in the short amount of time it’s been around. I just take the art I like and put it on something that’s shareable, where as a painting that costs $6000 or more, or less, whatever, may be out of someone’s price range. A $60 skateboard with the artwork on it, to me, that’s where I came from and you can share that. Anybody can get that. Just putting art on things we use every day and sharing them.
Easier to share and more accessible for people to enjoy and experience.
Yeah and I love skateboarding and I love skateboarders too. I still have the desire to give stuff to certain people whose skateboarding makes me hyped.
How was the Subliminal Project show?
It was cool man, it was great. The gallery director Sara is really awesome and Sheppard is super epic. The gallery space is good, a ton of people showed up, all the stuff Grotesque made was great, and all the stuff that Yusuke (Hanai) made was really awesome. It couldn’t of been better. It was a nice excuse to come spend a week in LA too, in Echo park. We found a cool house and brought my whole family, I don’t get time just to hang out in LA. Usually I feel like when I come to LA there’s a schedule of things going on and I’m just running around. I curated the hanging and they have a really great staff that actually handles the hanging so I didn’t have to spend hours in the gallery doing those things. They took care of all that effort. So I decided where everything went with Sara, and then went, had coffee and went and looked at art. Went thrift storing and walking, it was cool.
Do you have anything coming up?
Yeah, I’ve got a solo show at a kind of small place in New York called the Over Under Room. It’s a gallery underneath Pilgrim Surf Supply in Williamsburg. That’s in October. Then after that I have a solo show in May in Shibuya, Tokyo at a gallery called Target. So those are the next two things that I’m painting for right now.
Sick. So you’ll get some quality Yusuke and Hi-Dutch hangtime.
Haha yeah for sure. CB from Heshdog’s, Kato, Pilgrim crew, everybody. Japan is the best man, everybody shows up. If you come, they’re so good about making time to make sure they can spend time with you. They’re all such awesome people.
What is a skate video, maybe an older video that you’ll just go back and watch? Like you can go back to like a good album?
I can always do Blind “Video Days’. Especially the Gonz’s part. The first Stereo video too, Jason Lee’s part in that was pretty awesome and Ethan Fowler’s part was really good. Fuck and Frazier…
Yea! I think that vert part was maybe one of the best vert parts ever filmed because stylistically how it was done, it kind of kicked the system of like, dudes dragging a pad bag up and putting on stinky pads. They showed him in a coffee shop listening to good jazz music, it was artfully produced. It presented vert skating in a different sort of way.
Damn I never thought about it that way.
Know what I mean? Everything else I wanna say is almost kinda jocked out, like all the other vert parts and I love vert skating. I love Jason Jesse’s vert part in the old Wheels of Fire video. Pretty macho, it’s like arghhh, you know it’s really great and amazing. But it’s not like the other thing you know…. that was a really well done video.
That’s true, I feel like even when the era of hip hop came in really strong to skating, vert parts remained…they had a very specific soundtrack and very specific feel.
Yeah like Danny Way’s part in a DC video he’d be skating to Metallica or Slayer and I love both those bands but the visual aesthetic I appreciated was the other, like you know Neil Blender’s part in G&S footage. It was one of the all-time best video parts you now. Anyway those are really great I think.
How about an album, I’m sure there’s plenty but maybe if one comes to mind?
Dude there’s so so many. Like if I had only one album I could listen to for the rest of my life? That conversation?
Yea, or if it was one of ten? (laughs)
Yea cause I think there’s three? Yeah there’s three pieces of vinyl, it’s everything - there’s New York hip-hop in there, there’s traditional 70’s style punk, there’s reggae dubstep type shit and then full new wave shit in there. That album is great. I can give you fifty favorites, all over the place from Brazilian music that I’m pretty into, good jazz, to French and blues music. But that one has so much in there that it’s probably my all-time favorite.
What about your art setup? What is your go-to set-up in terms of what paper do you like to use? What if any style of ink? I know you run ink like crazy so what’s your ideal paper/ ink setup?
So I buy a bunch of these different pads. For portable stuff I buy these things call Graf pads by ClaireFontaine. They come in different sizes, just nice paper, they come staple bound. There’s a moleskin sized one and a bigger one, those are my travel ones. They’re thick enough that they hold ink so if you want to use pen ink you can but I don’t usually. With those ones I usually use colored pencils when I’m traveling or brushed tipped sharpies. At home, lately I’ve been using a bunch of brown craft paper, because I’ve been building this new studio space and I have this new stand up table and I was like I’m just going to get a big ass role of craft paper that’s thick enough that you can paint or ink or sharpie on or whatever. I’ll literally tear pieces off this big role and tape down a big section and it helps you be a little more free and you move all over, like a good morning workout. Put a record on…. Then usually I’ll move on from those things to working with paint and brushes. If I’m working in ink, with nib pen sometimes I make these time lapse pieces I call “Morning Workouts”. It’s either FW if I’m using American ink or it’s this Japanese ink and I actually can’t even remember what the brand is. But I usually get them in New York, there’s this one spot there that has it that I get it at every time right by Bryant park. It’s like this little Japanese store. It’s 2 levels, pretty big. When I go to Tokyo I go to Tokyo Hands and I usually buy like a half-dozen bottles of red and half-dozen bottles of black. Twelve bottles of ink will usually carry me through till the next visit.
OK, we’ll wrap it up with a few quick questions. How did you get involved with sml. Wheels? How did the project come together?
I think that early sml. wheels days or at least early for me, I noticed Aaron Herrington riding the wheels and I think he had a sticker on his board and I just liked the aesthetic of it. Like the logo and the name Small, I didn’t even know what it was the first time I saw it. I was like “what is that”? He told me and it made sense. I made a note of the visual aesthetics associated with that, I thought it was cool and looking at it and just kind of watching it over the next couple years it seemed cooler and cooler. All the other wheel companies that are out there, which are all really cool are all giant, they have these unwielding, sometimes unfocused teams – and I don’t mean that as a slam, it’s just, I think it’s natural for some of those other wheel companies that are so big that even if they do a good job graphically keeping a theme or staying on point with a single direction it’s just inevitable, there’s so many types of skateboarders that as you put more and more people on the team, it gets diluted or less focused. I’d say Sml. is the opposite of that, right? Sml. has this very highly focused, tightly curated small group of riders associated with the brand that has this really simple or smart aesthetic that I appreciated. That’s why I took notice.
Did you already know Aaron and James?
A friend of mine John Erickson, I asked, I don’t even know how I knew that he might have connection with the stuff, if he knew anybody over there and he put me in touch with Aaron (Brown). So Aaron and I exchanged a couple messages and packages of stuff. I think I sent him a package of art stuff and he sent me a package of wheel stuff. It just started an ongoing conversation with him and he just asked me if I would consider doing some wheels and I said yes, and that’s how we got here.
How did you go about choosing the pros for the series? Any rhyme or reason? I know you know Aaron Herrington well. Yea how did that come together?
I love the way all those guys skateboard. “Whose wheels do you want to do”? and I sent him a list of some possibilities of dudes I was most excited about as far as just skateboard action. Not to say the other dudes, I think everybody on the team rips, but I knew we weren’t going to do wheels for everybody so I had to narrow it down and pick some guys. So I picked the ones I was most excited about how they ride skateboards. Does that sound shitty? I picked those guys cause they’re the best skateboarders on the team (laughs). I don’t mean it like that, that’s what I was asking? I don’t want it to sound like that. I think Mike rips, I think Aaron rips, I think Sammy rips, just all those dudes rule.
How did you go about coming up with the series name The Lookers?
They’re actually looking at each other across the wheels right? But it’s also The Lookers– the people that are looking around the city. It’s all still social commentary. These two people are looking across from each other look like they’re having a conversation. It’s as simple as that. Two people, non-gender specific, looking at each other having a conversation on a skateboard wheel.
Really, I’m the looker. I look every minute all day and kind of record what I see. So it’s a kind of social commentary through my eyes. The people on the wheels are looking at each other, so they’re lookers. But really it’s like what I’m seeing. If it’s the lookers series its really me looking at things and making drawings from what I see and applying those to the wheels.