Photo by Duncan Macfarlane

Otis Carey: Artist, Pro Surfer, Deadly Icon

Words by Vaughan Deadly, photos by Duncan Macfarlane (unless noted otherwise)

Otis Carey loves baking veggies.

He loves fishing in the river for flatties and hunting for muddies at night with a torch and his bare hands. He loves mangoes and video games, getting blown out of pits and launching big ol’ fucken staleys off punchy end-section ramps. He loves getting tattoos in painful spots (neck, chest, shins, elbows, collarbones, gooch). He loves an all-night heater followed by an all-day Netflix binge and cuddlefest. He loves his heavily pregnant lady, Sophie, and his 7-year-old son, Beige. And he sure as fuck loves sitting in one spot for weeks on end pouring his heart and soul into some of the most brilliant contemporary Aboriginal art you’re ever likely to come across.

I know all this because for the past year Otis Carey–artist, pro surfer, deadly icon–has been my housemate. Together with our girlfriends we share a quaint little two storey beach house on Alcorn Street in Suffolk Park, a gridded little community just south of Byron Bay that’s transformed from being bitter divorcee capital of Australia to a thriving million-dollar suburb populated with artists, athletes, musicians, writers and other creatives who can’t afford to buy there but who begrudgingly pay off other rich cunts’ mortgages thanks to excessive and unrealistic rental prices. That has bugger all to do with Oaty, but we both complain about it heaps, so I figured I’d chuck it in.

Anyway, I love living with Otis, not only because we’d been friends for years prior to us moving in together, but because in the time we’ve shared space I’ve enjoyed a front row seat to the processes that go into his paintings. And let me tell ya, it’s a mind melt to watch.

A major canvas, two by two metres, takes up to six weeks from start to finish, and that’s working from 10 am through to 10 pm six days a week. What’s even more startling is the intricacy of the work and the way it comes to life, creating visual illusions and movement that are almost hallucinatory. Stare into ancient spirals for that long and you’re not just painting, you’re travelling to other realms.

“Oh fuck yeah, it’s exhausting,” says Oat over a couple of mangoes at the Byron Bay Golf Club one arvo. “It’s really tedious, and at the end of every session I’m pretty much ready for bed. But that’s because if I’m gonna paint something, I make sure it’s coming from deep inside of me, ya know? I do it with energy. Not just physical energy but spiritual. It’s not just about the detail, I see a lot of work that’s very intricate and has clearly taken a lot of time to make, but it can still be stale. To me, the work has to breathe, it’s gotta move and it’s gotta tell a story. It has to have life in it. Otherwise, why bother?”

Why bother indeed. Anyway, here’s a story I wrote about Otis Carey. It goes like this…

Photo by Alex Brunton

Otis Carey was born and raised in Coffs Harbour, a massive coastal town that poses as a city in the middle of Australia’s eastern coast. Squeezed between the lush green mountains of the surrounding hinterland and one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, Coffs sits in the heart of Gumbaynggirr country, and Oat’s mob have been part of the fabric of this land for thousands of years.

The city itself is an odd and sprawling landscape of vintage resorts, holiday apartments, industrial zones, banana plantations and housing estates, with two or three communal centre points depending on which part of the joint you call home. It’s never had much of a hip reputation, but Coffs is not without its charms or activities. Back in the ’90s you could spend a day patting maimed dolphins at the Pet Porpoise Pool, or buy a bag of speed from bikies at the Hoey Moey, or, if you positioned yourself just right in front of the town’s most famous landmark, you could capture a photo of yourself with a Big Banana for a dick. Glory days.

The town is a lot more wholesome these days (barring the endless inhabitants of Wicked vans lining up to get dick shots at the Banana), but even back then if you were a kid who loved riding ya pushy, jumping off bridges into rivers or going surfing and fishing with ya mates, Coffs was a filth place to grow up.

“It’s the sickest place with the tightest mob, we look after each other,” says Oat with a smile. “We were outside all day. The Gumbaynggirr totem is water, and I was always drawn to it as a kid. When I got into surfing, it made perfect sense to me that that was all I really wanted to do. I never even thought about art until well after I’d left school. Not until I left Coffs behind and moved down to Sydney.”

“His art then was different to what it is now,” says revered freesurfer and artist Ozzie Wright. “I remember the first time I saw Otis, I thought, ‘This guy is sick!’ because he was hanging around in Bondi and he had sequins on his jacket and I was like, ‘Whoa! How’s this Koori kid being a fucken rockstar!’ He looked like a legend and he was surfing unreal. You could fully see the Indigenous energy in his moves and in the way he surfed, to me it looked like the dancing you see in a corroboree. I thought it was an unreal thing to see in the surf. We became mates not long after and began hanging out a lot.”

For Otis, the association with his childhood hero was mind-boggling. “Ozzie was my favourite surfer and my first favourite artist. He was 90 per cent of the reason why I wanted to start painting. I always looked up to him because I saw a lot of myself in the way he represented himself. You could tell he was his own person, that he felt like he didn’t fit in with society but he thrived on it. When we first met, I couldn’t talk to him. I was too nervous. Eventually we became good friends, but I don’t think he knows just how much I looked up to him.”

By this stage it was 2009 and Otis was living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Though he had the talent and potential to become a professional freesurfer, he also had a young family and he put the shred dreams on hold to get some extra work stacking shelves at the Insight clothing factory to make ends meet. This was also around the time he first began to explore painting.

“I had a baby when I was 21, and I was really thrown in the deep end with that because when you’re responsible for this little life you begin to ask some pretty deep questions of yourself, ‘Who am I? What do I want to be? What sort of role model do I want to be and how am I going to create a life that inspires my son but also supports him?’ Being a parent at that age is really scary, you feel so timid and unsure of everything, but the silver lining is you have to get on with it. And I think having a kid was really the start of me stepping into the world of discovering who I am.”

Photo courtesy of China Heights

Otis’s early artworks included messy pop punk slogans and explosive bursts of colour, heavily influenced by Wright, but also from the surrounds he then called home.

“Living in Sydney, the street art was mind-blowing. Shit on the walls in galleries I couldn’t relate to at all. It was just snobby shit to me because I didn’t understand it. But street art seemed so much more expressive and important, not least of all because someone was risking a huge fine and a criminal record to express themselves and share how they feel. I loved the passion driving that, and the art itself was amazing in that era.”

Pretty soon, Otis was being asked to contribute pieces to group shows and things began gaining some momentum, but things took an unexpected turn when some crew at Insight finally saw him surf. “They signed me up and all of a sudden I was out of the factory and going on surf trips,” says Otis. “Everything started moving quickly from there.”

Otis’s surfing career in its own right has been nothing short of outstanding. Though he’s a two time Australian Indigenous Champion and has represented his country at the ISA World Games (the same body responsible for surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics), it’s his freesurfing that’s seen him gain international recognition, global magazine covers, sections in award-winning surf films and, in 2016, his first major sponsorship deal with industry titan Billabong. But it hasn’t all been high fives and free stickers.

Photo courtesy of China Heights Gallery

In 2014 Otis was caught up in an ugly racism incident that would expose some pretty fucken rotten home truths about the surf community in Australia and ultimately define the man he would go on to become. It began with a leading Australian surf mag describing Otis in a way that was deeply offensive and racially insensitive, and ended up becoming a media shitstorm that made headlines from The Washington Times and The Guardian to Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. The problem was less to do with the racism and more to do with an out of court settlement that got leaked to the media.

As Mike Jennings described for Surfing World Magazine a year after the story went viral, “There was an intense reaction from the surf community, swinging the narrative from an Aboriginal surfer allegedly racially vilified in a national magazine, to an online argument about opportunism, ‘money grabbing’ and a country more inclined to hire lawyers than to harden up and grow a thick skin. The fact that Otis was the victim here, not the magazine or its staff, was not only forgotten but reversed.”

Otis maintained a dignified silence throughout until finally revealing to Jennings the extent of what he’d been through and the hurt caused not just to him, but to friends and family, “What people don’t understand is my Aboriginality is more important to me than my surfing career, and that’s what I’m sticking up for. My culture is who I am.”

Otis made a stand, and though it took some time, he was soon being celebrated for it. His art began to change not long after. He began reconnecting to his ancestry, and his early influences started to meld with more with traditional Aboriginal painting techniques. His themes and line work became more focused, and soon the shapes and colours on the canvas would tell a familiar but entirely new story.

Photo courtesy of China Heights Gallery

“As soon as he started doing it, I remember being blown away,” says Ozzie. “It was so powerful. So rootsy and really strong. He’s put his own spin on those stories and those traditional lines. It was tapping into something really deep for him, but it also had that energy of right now, too. It was of its time.”

Within two years Otis was working towards completion of his first solo show, GAGAAL, at China Heights Gallery in Surry Hills. “That was the first time I began to feel like I was making good art,” says Oat. “That show was a dedication to my nan, about her passing away and going back to country. She’d been telling us through certain ways that she’d made it home. One day Beige was driving back from Grafton with Mum and Dad in the car, and he was talking to someone in the back of the car, and Mum said, ‘Who are you talking to?’ And he looked at her and said, ‘Nan.’ And Mum said, ‘What does she want? Is she ok?” And Beige said, ‘She’s back in the water now. She’s home.’ The Gumbaynggirr totem is water, so that was a ‘wow’ moment for me and I wanted to translate her journey into that show. I wanted the show to represent that feeling of homecoming to water. After that, I knew that what I was doing was right, and that I had important stories to share and a way with which to share them.”

It’s been full steam ahead since then. Otis has completed a second sold-out show and his paintings decorate walls and halls from LA to Europe to Hawaii and even Israel. But with commercial success also comes a responsibility to the traditions of his people.

“It’s really hard to use traditional symbols in a traditional way. You kind of limit yourself to what you can and can’t share. When you see traditional Aboriginal art, you kinda know that the full story isn’t always there, so I find it a bit heartbreaking that those stories can’t be completely shared. But to retell stories in a contemporary form, you can tell the whole story without disrespecting the traditional symbols and what they represent.

“I’m at the start of my journey really. I’ve only completed three full bodies of work that have appeared as shows, so I definitely go and ask people who have a higher place than me in my community, a higher place of respect and knowledge, for permission and advice on the stories I want to tell, particularly if there are traditional elements I’d like to incorporate, and they really appreciate that.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of Otis’s rapid rise has been the opportunity to use his art to bring awareness and help to matters that mean most.

“Australia is in a good place. The marriage equality debate made me so proud but then also left me so frustrated. Because on one hand, we had this unifying movement, side by side fight for equality and love. Common sense prevailed and it was so amazing, but afterwards I couldn’t help but feel like, imagine if people felt this passionate about basic Aboriginal human rights and Aboriginal health?

Photo courtesy of China Heights Gallery

“Since the art has taken off, it’s been nice in unexpected ways because I go home and catch up with people and they’re involved in making the quality of Aboriginal life better. A friend said to me, ‘I’ve got a job with ABCARE, do you think you can come in and help make our branding look better?’ And they’re excited about the art because there are not a lot of artists my age with the opportunities I’ve had to share these stories. So it’s nice for me to be able to work with people who I always looked up to as elders and help the community and the next generation. That’s made me feel like I’m learning a lot about the problems in the community and how I can help.”

“It’s such a rare and precious and special culture and he’s such a fit, athletic, super creative person and when you combine those things it’s very unique. It’s pretty special and I think he’s really valuable, he’s a jewel to the community,” says Ozzie, adding “We’re going up to the Sunshine Coast to paint murals in a cake shop tomorrow.”

To get all this and more, you better go and buy MC #58 right here.

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