Softly spoken and unassuming, Otis Carey welcomes us as he proudly hangs his latest paintings at the hip China Heights Gallery in Surry Hills, a well-known melting pot for edgy contemporary art. His new body of eight works comprises ‘Gaagal’ (Ocean) the professional surfer’s second major exhibition.
“It’s taken about eight months to paint these works, but… the inspiration comes from the ocean, it’s my people’s totem on my Gumbaynggir side,” Otis says.
The delicate layers of tricolour undulating lines on the canvas create the perplexing visual illusions that have given optical art (AKA op art) its rightful stature in the history of art.
“The works are a combination of traditional symbols, which are the black circles on the bottom and I just exaggerate them out. The colour layering at the top is just my interpretation of the connection that I have with the ocean,” he explains.
A close-up inspection of the paintings leaves me confused. “How did you create this effect? Did you paint the white lines using a brush or a stick?” I ask.
Otis’s explanation of his technique is bemusing. He tells me that the white lines are the canvas at the bottom. He paints wide black circles on top, leaving tiny gaps in between. The layers of colour are painted next, on top of the black.
“I start slowly, slowly, and I exaggerate the circles out until they meet to the edge of the canvas. And then I come up over the top with a different colour and a different type of pattern,” he says casually.
Upon realizing the degree of skill and the amount of patience required to produce such an outcome, it’s even more mystifying how Otis seems to think the laborious technique he uses in his paintings is no big deal.
“I chose these colours because I kind of… pink’s my favourite colour first, but the other colours kind of make me feel how I would feel about the ocean,” he says.
“I think a lot of people these days can relate a lot easier [to this style] than using traditional ways of creating art.”
A balancing act
Once all the paintings are hung on the wall, Otis stands back to contemplate his achievement.
The Gumbaynggirr/Bundjalung man is one of Australia’s most sought-after professional surfers. Having just returned to Australia after an 8-week surfing tour that took him to North and South America, Otis juggles a busy career with fatherhood and is expecting another child in a few months. So having an art exhibition on top is no mean feat.
“Man, I’m so exhausted. I travel so much for the surf. It’s been really hard to get all these artworks done. But I’m really proud of myself for getting there and doing it. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders seeing the artworks hanging on the wall. Yeah, I feel good.”
The next obvious question is, 'how does he combine his surfing career with his passion for art?', both of which relate to his cultural heritage: the ocean.
“I like to keep the two separate if that makes sense. I know it doesn’t make sense because I’m a professional surfer and also paint my interpretation of the ocean, but I think the two are somewhat significant. But I like to keep them separate because to me they’re two different things, even though I surf. I express myself differently when I’m on a surfboard than with a paintbrush,” he explains.
“The painting side of it is like a spiritual release. Not that surfing isn’t, but surfing is more like my getaway, like my time with myself, whereas painting is like my time with sort of… I’m still yet to format that into words.”
From the spray can to the paintbrush
For China Heights Gallery Curator Edward Woodley, having Otis in his stable of artists is “incredibly exciting”.
The two met through mutual friends who had recommended both men should meet and collaborate.
“Otis at that stage was a little bit more… I wouldn’t quite say street art, but he might’ve used a spray can, a bit of illustration, more of a bit of a mix of work. And that’s why we started discussing he really become connected with his traditional techniques.”
Following Edward’s advice, Otis went to study how to paint his totems with his Grandmother and developed a deeper connection with traditional pictorial techniques to represent culturally-significant stories.
“He started experimenting with that, and by the time we decided it was right for his first exhibition, he had created this incredible body of work. And of course, we had that exhibition and it was a huge success. Everyone loved it, [it received] a great response from the crowd,” Edward recalls.
“It was also one of those exhibitions too where the work resonated with people at various levels."
“It was one of those shows where the first impact was this impressive work, but the people were coming back two, three, four, five times to really sit and be with the work and be immersed in it.
"I guess from the success of that show, we then, of course, moved on to the next show because there’s never any definitive moment or show, it’s just one show and then onto the next. So, you’re always kind of moving forward, progressing with the work,” he explains.
Edward believes Otis’s 30-piece debut show, which drew an audience of about a thousand people, was just the beginning. He describes his second show as a more refined showcase.
“That show was really like him launching himself, experimenting with different sizes, formats and techniques… Almost showing his range.
“He really got a strong sense of himself from that work, particularly certain colours and lines he’s using. And this show’s more a condensed version of that.”
In the last year, Otis’s paintings have gone beyond the canvas. Having been known for some time for decorating his surfboards with his designs, many of which are permeated with Indigenous symbols, the surfer was approached by surfing brand Billabong to design a clothing range, which gave the surfer an opportunity to further expand his own brand of contemporary Aboriginal art.
“I have a lot of Indigenous art that I do on my personal surfboards, so it’s nice to travel with that. It’s my way of showing people who I am, where I’m from and what I’m about.
“I like to share my culture with as many people as I can, it’s really important. It’s an important thing to have and to share,” he adds.
Otis says that when he travels overseas, many people ask him about the meaning behind his art and the symbols he uses, including the Aboriginal flag that he sports on his surfboard. Despite taking his identity around the world and sharing it with others, Otis is hesitant to openly call himself an ambassador.
“I’m just doing what makes me feel happy and if that’s going to give me that trademark, I’m happy to take that on,” he says.
“[When people] ask me what that flag represents, it’s a cool way to start a conversation.”
I ask him what he tells them about his heritage.
“I just lay it down, give it to them,” he says while laughing.
“I’m more excited about sharing than anything else.”