The breeze whistles carrying with it the cleansing smell of sea salt. Fine grains of warm brown sand funnel through bare toes. The sun dances on a blue-green foreground giving way to navy and then an eternity of dark gray in the distance. White caps create abstract forms and the cascading spray patterns Pollock’s drips. Waves crash like symbols and rumble with bass to a never-ending rhythm. The true taste of freedom is introduced to a yearning palette. The harmony of life can be heard here… the art of Wolfgang Bloch.
Bloch’s paintings attempt to do with imagery what E.E. Cummings did with words. Woodworking taught the artist and poet about nature’s texture, and the romance that can be unearthed by carving into it. Much of Bloch’s life has been spent on a surfboard, and the sea has always been his sonnet. He understands the sensitivity of a short-lived wave and the optimism of the breaker behind it. “A wave happens and then it’s gone,” he says. “The next one is completely different but just as elegant. Each one has its own little personality. It’s almost hypnotic.” After an inspiring rise, the tide tumbles producing power in possibility. The relaxing decrescendo from an evaporating wave adds sweetness to breathing. Bloch’s canvases tell the ocean’s soothing tale by ridding distraction and preserving its sensory experience.
Shadows dance throughout Bloch’s Laguna Beach workspace as the sun seeks refuge below the Pacific. His studio is tucked in a canyon, up the road from the famous Pageant of the Masters venue. Prisms of light filter through a west-facing window and hit a near-finished painting on the easel giving shimmering colors life. Crusty, near-empty tubes litter a brown cart on wheels, and extracts have found their way to the floor. Waxed surfboards intermingle with resin-coated artwork all fastened to the walls. Bloch’s studio is a sanctuary to the sea; his work is his therapy. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and a flannel shirt when it gets cold, along with a sandpaper beard. Strands of his hair jump everywhere. Photos of Bloch’s wife and two children are attached to a corkboard above a calendar detailing his ever-filling schedule of book signings and gallery openings.
One side of Bloch’s studio is for painting, the other is a messy, but functional, museum for found objects. Driftwood, boards from demolished buildings, metals and a mixture of raw materials are hoarded high on desks and stacked on long, pale shelving units. He has a saw for every occasion and lets the dust fly as he cuts, bangs and grates on a spacious workbench. He lets intuition guide the tools allowing notches, divots and termite tunnels to become beauty marks. “There’s no planning involved – no step one, two, three, follow it, and do it the same for every painting. It’s really one piece at a time with a true connection to the material. I’m always touching it,” he says with multiple cuts on his hands to prove it. “The wood is organic. It came from a tree, and then maybe it became part of a home. It has a scratch. It has a story to it.” Bloch writes its next chapter by turning it into fine art.
Sometimes Bloch will push boards together, marry wood and metal, or even paint on the back of an antique cake pan. The artist is always searching for the same layer of depth and dimension that the surfer saw at sea. He works with such focus that a trance takes hold of his tools and brushes. Material dictates the pace. Imperfections add character. Color happens. A dark mix of earth tones turn grainy textures to sand, grooves make a stream of kernels appear to drift and nail holes become rocks. Blues, yellows and whites signify a changing atmosphere, while creases form clouds and brushstrokes give the sky movement. Just above the horizon, where the two layers meet, a jagged white line forever preserves the unique outline of a breaking wave. Profoundly she rises to have her portrait taken at anticipation’s height. Sound is suspended until the viewer can fully soak up the abstract setting. Then, the climactic crash can be released on imagination’s command.
Wolfgang learned to speak landscape’s language in his native Ecuador. Born in Guayaquil in 1963, he grew up taking work trips with his dad to Quito. The seven-hour journey in the family Volkswagen bonded Wolfgang with his hero and also with the various terrain of the South American country – from the majestic equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean to the lush farmlands and into the grand Andes Mountains. He constantly drew and painted as a kid, and his dad would introduce him as “the artist of the family.” Wolfgang surfed his way through high school, and avoided mandatory military service because of his torn up feet. He spent four months after graduation living in a tiny, doorless house on stilts in the fishing village of Engabao. He woke up to moonlight, hitched a ride to the point, surfed all day and then helped fishermen drag their boats up the beach at low tide. His reward was a few fresh fish and an unforgettable day alone with nature.
When college called, Bloch left the sandy shores of home and planted his feet 2,000 miles north in Pasadena, California, where he enrolled at Art Center College of Design. It was a seamless surfing transplant and more than the right place to begin operating on an art career. “The school was like an art boot camp where they expected a lot out of you,” he reflects. “I’d do homework till midnight, then drive out and spend the night right on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). I’d wake up and surf for a couple hours and then arrive back at school with sand in my feet and a smile.” After graduating with a degree in graphic arts and packaging design, Bloch became an award-winning art director for surfwear giant Gotcha.
He later re-designed the logo for Indian Motorcycles revving up sales for that nostalgic slice of Americana. In between, he learned the intricacies of woodworking by helping a southern California cabinetmaker, and gained notoriety for his hand-painted T-shirt designs for Rusty, Quicksilver, Tavarua and many others. “The surf industry was very avant-garde in the ‘90’s,” he says. “It embraced people like me who were willing to push the limits and break the rules.” Bloch’s watercolor and gouache drawings stood out among the other digitized designs and became bestsellers. Paul Naude, the president of Billabong, was one of those who took notice. He gave Bloch his big artistic break in 1999, commissioning him to create an eight-foot tall painting for the lobby of Billabong’s corporate offices. The switch from cotton to canvas would eventually become a blessing to his creative vision, but achieving the scale, depth and texture he desired for his work would be a challenge.
Bloch describes that segment of his career as the “pretty paintings” era. “I’d finish them and they were the perfect cliché paintings of the afternoon light and beautiful colors. Everybody else would look at them and say, ‘Wow, that’s gorgeous!’ But they just didn’t do anything for me. I struggled with representational because I wasn’t enjoying it.” Although they were technically correct and painstakingly rendered, Bloch became frustrated with his emotional detachment to the work. He was wrestling with the specifications of a palm tree one day when he finally got pissed off for good. “I took all the paint I had and a big brush, mixed all the colors together and just did bold strokes over the whole canvas. I did it to cover everything up essentially and start over. But then, somehow, the colors collided on this line that signified the horizon and I saw this little wave breaking.” So he took some white to make it a little more pronounced and got a chuckle out of his colorful coincidence.
Days later he revisited his Bob Ross-like “happy accident” and, locked in the layers of abstraction, he found what he’d been searching for – feeling. “It seemed so simple, yet I got such a strong reaction out of it,” he proclaims. “So I decided to explore it a little bit more and be conscious about it.” From then on waves became his obsession. He saw them everywhere… “little cracks in concrete, paint peeling somewhere, or a raised section of carpet,” Bloch says obviously shortening the list to seem sane. “I wasn’t looking for them; I’d just stumble across them.” His only mind game remedy was to recreate them on canvas, wood or metal. As Bloch’s style evolved, the visionary Malloy brothers celebrated his unique work during their first-ever Moonshine Festival (a surf-spawned art, music, and film event held in Laguna Beach in 2004). Best-selling musician and world-class surfer Jack Johnson held a concert during day two of the festivities and left with four Wolfgang Bloch originals. “Jack came up to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘You know, these are beautiful. It’s the first time I can put some surf-related material up on my walls that my wife actually likes.’” Bloch has heard that compliment several times since – but Jack was the first.
From the shining seas of America to the warm shores of Ecuador, Bloch’s art begs the world to slow down and appreciate the sand beneath our feet. People head to the beach everyday, but in a true sign of today’s fast times, they’re also throwing Frisbees, grilling out or looking after their dogs. They watch sunsets, but they’re listening to iPods, playing on the rocks or obsessing over photographs. The beauty about Wolfgang Bloch’s work is that it gives those same people a second chance. They’re frozen moments in time that never should have been taken for granted. The ocean makes up more than three-quarters of our planet, but is largely unexplored and often misunderstood. Bloch’s paintings preserve the mystery of its abstraction while unlocking the magic of its existence.
Written by: Ben Bamsey