Erik Otto is a gifted SF/Bay Area-based artist with over a decade of creative work under his belt. His portfolio includes an impressive roster of group shows and solo exhibitions at art galleries around the country, around the continent, and around the globe. The list of clients for his commissioned work includes major heavyweights like Microsoft and Red Bull, as well as universities, architectural firms, cutting-edge record stores, and even the American Red Cross. Similarly, his work defies easy categorization, deftly spanning an overwhelming range of (mixed) media and disciplines, including found objects. Aaron De La Cruz (interviewed) was kind enough to put me in touch with Erik, and with Erik’s upcoming solo show Searching For Higher Ground set to open at San Francisco’s Luna Rienne gallery on August 17th, it seemed like the perfect time to find out about more about this creative powerhouse and his work.
Where are you today?
Right now, I am currently writing this from my San Francisco work studio. I am based here, but recently uprooted my living to enter a life of continual travel. My theory was by removing my comforts, it would force me to travel more — which it has. I am headed back to Mexico City for the fourth time this Fall for a 4-month long trip to make work for a show and paint a couple of murals. I am beyond stoked for this adventure.
What are you working on?
Remaining calm under pressure. Work wise, I have some big private commissions — one of them requiring my first time operating a scissor lift to create a mural for a new business opening up in downtown SF. The bulk of my time is going towards making a new body of work consisting of paintings, drawings, mixed media prints, a few sculptures and some neon work for two upcoming solo shows.
What was your introduction to art?
When I was super young, I was easily entertained and spent countless hours creating alternate universes with whatever materials I could find — typical kid stuff. My first interest in drawing came from my effort to draw these places I would imagine, and soon after drawing became an outlet and an obsession and I wanted to get better and better. I had a couple of grade school friends that would battle each other in our attempts to redraw characters from Robotech, Marvel Comics, and Disney movies.
Are you self-taught or formally educated?
Both. I grew up with a natural interest in all forms of creative expression — drawing, painting, film, dance, and music. My friends and I had no idea what we were doing at the time, but none the less influenced and pushed one another to get better. I later decided to go to college to get a degree in Illustration and I feel the experience helped sharpen my skills and helped me quickly figure what I wanted to pursue most.
At which point did you decide to make a career of it?
There have been multiple moments, but I do remember as far back as 4th grade I was already saying I wanted to draw for animated films when I grew up. Then like most teens, I went through some rebellious years and I remember growing to hate the world and often became very depressed. The only thing that kept me going was making art. It was a crystal clear moment for me at 21, when I finally committed to getting my life back on track and pursing a life-long career in the arts.
What are some of the ideas you’re exploring in your art?
The uncertain nature of our human existence. Seeing the beauty in the chaos — knowing that destruction is just as important as creation. And multiple smaller concepts that come from the idea of what “home” is — shelter, refuge, protection, necessary foundation, etc.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere. Inspiration is a never ending flow from all around us if we remain open to it…and often from where you least expect it.
You’ve had some impressive commissions from big clients – are there any highlights from those experiences you’d like to mention?
Yes, I have done a few commissions with big name clients, but I often feel it’s the commission work I get from the smaller clients or even individuals paying out of their own pocket that end up producing more rewarding results. I once was invited and commissioned by a friend Yosi Sergant to create a child-size school bus made from materials found in an abandoned elementary school in NYC for an event about education reform. As most of us know, here in the States the education system is fighting a losing battle and the generations below us are getting robbed of quality education due to dumb budget cuts. All the participating artists worked around the clock to collectively pull off an array of work to help spread awareness of this issue and it was honestly a very beautiful thing to witness first hand.
Shortly after that, I was commissioned to create my first outdoor interactive sculpture in San Francisco where we took over a parking space for a year in exchange to create a space where people could stop to enjoy a moment between work and home without having to buy a latte to stay. Over the course of the year, the community grew more attached to it than I could have ever imagined and it was always such an awesome feeling to ride by on my bike and see people using it exactly how I intended it to be.
What are your goals for the future?
More travel. Learn Spanish. More exhibitions, murals, and commission work. I take this life day by day, and tomorrow is not always promised, so I only hope to receive more opportunities that will allow me to continue to create work I am truly proud of.
Is there anything coming up that people can look forward to?
My two solo shows — one with Luna Rienne Gallery (San Francisco) in August and the other with Cultura Colectiva (Mexico City) in November. Between these two shows, I will be dropping into Portland to paint a mural for a new event, Forest For The Trees, and of course, more surprises for 2014.