Words and Photography by Linnea Stephan
Wolfgang Bloch is a painter, surfer, father, and above all things; artist. Hailing from Ecuador, his images of abstracted seascapes are noble and vast. Bloch has spent the past few decades in his local So-Cal studio, where we met to talk about his painting process, it’s greater purpose, and why we could all be a little more grateful at the beach.
LS: Hi Wolfgang. Tell us some details about your background in design and painting.
Wolfgang Bloch: My initial passion is fine arts, and drawing as a kid turned into drawing for adulthood. I did a little bit of everything in school, and went to Art Center College for Design in Pasadena. It’s very structured and beautifully organized. I went and got a graphic design and package design degree, and felt like I was a more well-rounded artist. I went on to work for Gotcha Sportswear. Surfing has always been part of my life so it seemed like the right connection to work in that industry, but fine art was always my true passion. Being stuck in front of a computer brought a really strong sense of detachment and I still tried to do my sketching by hand. I was a dinosaur not wanting to participate, so I left to be a freelance artist. I was creating t-shirt artwork for surf companies but I was now outside of the corporate world. A few jobs were also out of the industry, like Indian Motorcycles who I designed a logo for as well as interiors and parts of the motorcycle and color palettes. I just don’t fit into the corporate world – I think a lot of artists can relate to that.
When did the transition from design to painting start to fully set in?
I was doing a lot of artwork for t-shirts but I was still fighting the whole computer thing. Paul Naude, who used to work at Gotcha, got the license to do Billabong. He approached me wanting a large piece for his new building. At this time I worked in this tiny little single car garage and all my pieces were small. Being asked to make larger works forced me to get out of there. I subleased a space in the canyon in Laguna with a flower shop that had a separate entrance. That first large painting was what pushed me in a new direction and I realized that if I could make a painting for Paul, maybe I could do that for others. I was painting and designing at the same time but slowly transitioning to paint. You get to a cliff and at some point you just have to trust your gut and dive in.
Would you cite surfing as an artistic medium in your life?
Surfing is an activity that I do. It’s more about being in the ocean, it’s about joy and fun. That joy and fun sneaks into my paintings as a wave peeling over the horizon, but that wave has so many other meanings aside from the literal meaning of surfer looking at a wave. I don’t see my work as being related to surfing, everyone else sees it the other way around. Maybe in the beginning, in really early work that was more about composition and design where the wave was more prominent, but now it’s definitely not about surfing at all.
What other artists are you looking at lately? Or musical artists that accompany you in the studio?
I’ve always admired Robert Rauschenberg’s work because of how timeless it is. Paul Klee is another German artist who used to mix crayons, oil paint, pencil. He would just play with all these various materials and make it work well. When you’re kind of stuck, it’s good to go out and see what other people have done or are doing. I also always listen to music while working, from opera to reggae music. I love the way piano sounds but I’m really picky about what type. It has to be a recording from a church, something where the tones reverberate and it’s not as clean. A crying piano. I listen to movie soundtracks because it’s such a different experience than a song that starts and ends, it’s a sound that comes in and out and doesn’t distract me.
What do you think that exploration does for a person?
I love to be in open spaces where it’s quiet and there’s nobody. It opens your eyes. Personal experiences; that’s everything, that’s life and art. Because of change in my personal life, it has almost boosted an open canvas to start and try new things and just do whatever I want. I’m really interested in figure drawing which I used to do all the time. I have all these things that I want to go into and it’s exciting.
You grew up in Ecuador. How has Ecuador changed since you were a child there?
The space is very different but the people are the same. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change. That’s the good part. Sadly, the city I grew up in has enormous problems with poverty and social issues and it’s so vast. If you were to try to help, where do you start? That struck me even as a child. My family wasn’t wealthy by any means but we had a nice house and my mom didn’t’ have to work. She drove a little Volkswagen and at the gas station kids would come up rushing up to clean the window for money. Those are my first memories of noticing the contrast of what we had verses what was hard in Ecuador.
How often do you get back to your roots there?
I haven’t gone in nearly six years but I need to go. I still have many friends that I keep in touch with who still live there. I keep going back to changes in my personal life, and my recent divorce, but, you live your life a certain way, thinking that everything is okay and really my art was in a rut and I was struggling to paint. I look back at the work I was making when my kids were born, the colors were vibrant and there was a true energy in that. It tapered away and was going flat for a while and now it seems to be regenerated. So next is going back to Ecuador.
What do you think water teaches people?
There’s something about the ocean. Running and jumping in as a kid, I still have that. You can watch people on the beach during the afternoon, families that are all running about and playing .When the sun sets everyone pulls out a camera and photographs it and then when it’s dark they go back to what they were doing. I think that people miss something by doing that. If you just sit and wait and listen and watch, the sky and the ocean are actually much more beautiful when the sun is down anyways. The colors change constantly, warm light turning into cool light. I don’t really understand what is is. It just fascinates me, the quiet and calm that is brought with that open vastness.
What is the best way to use your craft to get through something personal?
That question is both very important and very personal, and I just lived through that during my divorce. Luckily, I have very good friends and one is an artist who told me to go to my studio and just paint. It was very difficult. I remember coming in here and applying paint like I normally did. I did my whole routine, the routine that gets you away from the list of all the other daily things you are supposed to do. There was such a disconnect and what I was making looked child-like. For almost two months, I thought I had lost it and began to wonder, “Was she my muse? Was she everything? Now that I don’t have that, maybe I can’t paint?” But people reminded me that, yes, you can still paint. Charles Hespe from Hespe Gallery in San Francisco offered me an open show in May. It all started with a big painting with really wild strokes and I completed the pieces in about four hours. A friend of mine came to visit me and when he saw the painting, his face was everything. His eyes, his expression, he was just blown away. Then for ten days straight it all came out, almost like throwing up. I was just producing all this work. You can see the progression of all the emotional changes. If you’re going through some struggles, let it all come out. I try to be more aware of it every time, and then I noticed when I want more color. I never really used vibrant colors and I think I’m in a better place and that is indicative of it.
The We Are Ocean benefit show called “Quiet Gestures” features Wolfgang Bloch and sculptor Alrik Yuill and opens March 21st at Jamie Brooks Fine Art in Costa Mesa, California. The organization works to bring peace to cancer patients or survivors through “surf, sail, paddle, swim and dive.” Learn more about the organization here.