In-Depth With Greg 'Craola' Simkins

If there's one thing we hate at Empty Lighthouse, it's the term 'low-brow'. Not only does it sharply divide art, but it excludes a vast array of talented artists. Luckily, many artists break that divide, and one that truly shatters the moniker is Greg Simkins.

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Simkins began with graffiti when he was 18, and used the name 'Craola'. His street works were detailed, clean, and bordered on museum quality surrealism. Luckily for the world, he quickly took what he learned on the street and applied his work to canvas, expanding his range and developing beautiful style characteristics. He later went on to get his art degree and work for Activision on video games like Tony Hawk 2X and Spiderman 2. So why would anyone leave a career at Activision to take a shot at being a full-time artist? Well, that is exactly what we ask him in our interview.

Simkins has his latest solo exhibition at Merry Karnowsky Gallery on April 6th entitled 'Stop Haunting Me'. As to be expected with most Simkin shows, the line is expected to be out the door. We wanted to ask him a few things, including what we can expect from his latest exhibition:

When you were younger, did you think fine art would be an attainable career for you?

Not at all. It was something that I only saw in museums and coffee table books. Whenever my family would travel, we would stop into the museums of the towns we'd visit. I was always in awe of different styles of art, my heart always leaning to creature and animal based as well as renaissance paintings. I figured I'd always draw as a hobby, because all my free time was spent drawing, and that I would be a veterinarian or something along those lines. As I got older and saw myself progressing in the direction of fine art, it started to make sense more and more what I had been working towards.

You were once working on video games for Activision, why did you decide to leave and become a full-time artist?

I was painting late hours after work everyday and weekends. My obsessions to make and art and paint with acrylics had long overtaken my desires as a texture artist for video games. I was daydreaming all day and sketching up ideas and worlds that I couldn't get out of my head. All along I had been posting my work and sharing it with friends, getting into small group shows here and there, then one day while I was working on Ultimate Spiderman, I got two unrelated emails, one from Gallery 1988 and the other from Upper Playground, expressing a desire to work with me. We (my wife and I) planned appropriately, gave my notice and it has been snowballing ever since.

Does each piece contain a singular narrative or is there a long-running narrative to all your pieces?

Depends on the piece. There are a lot of one offs that I just had to paint, then there are pieces I call "Outsiders" that fit into the overall world "The Outside" that I create into when I paint. That is one of my general motivations when I create. It doesn't need to make sense here as long as it makes sense there.

Now that you are a popular surrealist artist, is it sometimes difficult to keep up with the creative demands?

I don't think I'm popular for starters, there are thousands of amazing artists out there, it is an honor to have a voice amongst and with them all. My creative demands are self imposed and my frustrations are my limitations. I sketch a lot and plan many pieces that I never get to paint. It kills me, there are so many things I want to paint and find the ticking of the clock to be deafening. Most of the time it is too many ideas and a lot get shelved or pop up in future shows. It is also a blessing sometimes because I get to revisit these ideas and tinker with them a bit and watch them blossom into something far greater than my original vision. It is as if the technique catches up with the idea over that time span, and I am thankful for it.


Does your mind alone generate most of the ideas, or do you need a stream of inspiration from books, music, movies, etc?

I sketch in my small black books a series of notes and "flows" which are compositional elements that make up interesting layouts. If anyone was to look at these painting ideas, they would think a toddler with Tourettes got a hold of a pen. So the ideas begin without reference. I then search out reference, say I am painting a teacup. I'll grab one of my grandmothers old teacups, light it and photograph it, or just have it sitting next to me as I redraw it. I then assess what animals are in there, if it's blue jays, I gather pictures of blue jays, because I want to draw the patterns on there correctly. This process of image collecting is very satisfying and I have folders full of wildlife photos, landscapes, random antiques, swords, blood splatters, you name it.

These days, I allow myself to just start painting, a lot of the sketching being done in my head. It is very satisfying and I believe my muscle memory has caught up with what I like to paint so that it looks more blueprinted when in fact a lot of spontaneity went into the piece.

But the ideas come together first, in my head or on paper. I think these ideas are just a culmination of growing up in the late 70's and 80's compounded with my interests thereafter, It is hard to say the fuel for the fire is any different than anyone else out there, the fire just has it's own way of expressing itself in each individual.


These days do you ever lose a painting? (i.e make mistakes and have to start over?)

No. I have only started a painting over a couple times, either i needed the canvas for a different painting or damaged one. It is very rare though.



You curated your first show in 2011 at Gallery 1988. What was it like to curate, and would you do it again?

It was difficult, and mind you I had help from Jensen, Katie, and Amber at the gallery as well as my wife Jenn on my end. The positive parts of it was that the theme was from one of my favorite books of all time, Richard Adams "Watership Down", having so many artists whom I admire add their voice to my favorite story was amazing. Thay all put 100% into the project as well, which I was very stoked on. The negatives, it is hard communicating with 124 different artists and keeping things scheduled properly. I can't see doing to many more of these. I like painting and putting together solo shows way more. It is where I feel more comfortable.

What has been your favorite collaboration to date?

Every time I paint a wall with Dabs and Myla. It is always fun, they are two of my favorite people as well as dedicated and amazing artists. Not to throw anyone under the bus though, I like all the collaborations I've done, from Alex Pardee, Lola, Matthew Bone, Bob Dob, Gunnar, Adam Hathorn, Amy Sol, Deph, Sub and Ces,the CBS, WAI, and Bashers crews, and the list goes on. Each means something to me.

What can we expect to see at your show on April 6th at Merry Karnowsky Gallery?

The Show is called "Stop Haunting Me" and a few of the pieces discuss the rolls of predator and prey and what if they were flipped. The lion who hunted the Giraffe and gazelles on the African plane now finds itself in the death embrace of a Giraffaconda, or a room full of wolf snakes in sheeps clothing find their new victim a bit unsettling in "Prey". As with all my shows, one piece inspires elements of the next and as ideas begin firing, I let the paintings lead me. April celebrates the anniversary of 20 years ago, when I took the name Craola and began doing graffiti. It was at that point that everything changed for me. So there are some nods and pieces specifically made to honor this occasion. There will be prints available of never before seen pieces as well. Also, we will have a special announcement for all in attendance at the show in L.A. so if you can make it out, it may be something you are interested in.

We would love to see you and Dali sit down and have a drink. What do you think you would talk about?

Probably our language barrier, maybe a lot of hand gestures with words like "ELEPHANT" and "CLOCKS", perhaps he'd comment on whether it was a good idea I got all these tattoos and what do the parents at my kids PTA meetings think about them. seriously, all jokes aside, I wouldn't allow myself to talk much. I would just listen and ask questions. When in the company of such a genius, my opinions hold no weight. I would take the opportunity to listen and learn, and perhaps discern later if he is full of it, or had a good grasp of why he paints what he paints, because when looking introspectively, I don't think I know entirely why I paint what I paint, I am just thankful to have been given this desire and have all of creation to look at for inspiration. It is a wonderful, dangerous, painful, beautiful world we have been given, I'm just leaving some paint stains in the middle of it