Clearly Unknown: The Inside And Outside Aesthetics Of Artist Geoff Mcfetridge
Words by Geoff McFetridge, Photos from Geoff McFetridge and Ely Phillips
Top Photo Courtesy of Ely Phillips
Artist Geoff McFetridge is one of those lucky individuals that has known from a young age just what he wanted to be. That early start got him a gig at 24 years old as the Appointed Art Director of the Beastie Boys magazine “Grand Royal,” and the impact of his singular creativity has been expanding in the universe ever since. With an impressive list of solo and collaborative work from film to furniture, and art that’s shown around the world, one might be led to think Geoff never slows down. But he does and he does it well, with an emphasis on simplicity, essentialism, functionality, and whenever possible, style. He recently took time during a road trip with his family to share the connectedness of his art and the way he experiences and moves though the outdoors.
(From outside Salida, Colorado and then Evanston, Illinois, June 2021)
For our readers who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, where are you from, and from where are you currently doing your thing?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and currently live in Los Angeles, specifically the Atwater Village neighborhood on the East Side of LA.
When you're not actively engaged in the creation of artwork (or maybe, relatively speaking, you always are), what kinds of other pursuits are you drawn to? Do art, and these activities feed each other?
The studio, where I spend so much time, is really balanced with family time and time spent outdoors.
I have known what I wanted to do with my life since I was a teenager, and really, I have been doing what I do now since then. At the same time, the big project has been about creating a unique personal practice.
Artmaking is sort of bottomless; it will consume as much as you give it. So, it is up to the artist to decide what the limits are, what exactly the studio produces, and how it is made.
I had my first defining show (the Rock Machine) around 1999. I bought our house in 2000. Our daughter Frances was born in 2002. Around the same time, I was becoming enraptured by surfing—specifically longboarding. More specifically, surfing single fins in Malibu.
So, in a short period of time, this template was cast. The base materials were developed to what I continue to work with.
To get back to your original question, I think that surfing was the kernel-like teacher of how to have this external alien activity become integral to my creative life. I came from skateboarding, and I have always skated, but the ocean/surfing was like being introduced to something new and deep but at this very defining and adult time. From there, I think my paradigm shifted. I craved new things and a sort of depth of outdoor experience. Backcountry skiing, riding bikes, trail running, fly fishing. As a family, our summers and weekends were spent on trips in our van.
These activities are important to me and have come to define my life over the past decades.
From daily rides to the studio or reasons to do big trips. It is hard to separate these activities from how I have evolved as an artist. They have connected me with people and worlds and deepened my confidence in myself.
Yet, I am always a sort of outsider. I want to ski with the locals, but really, I am just this art guy. I have never lived in the mountains, and my time is always limited, but I like that. I like to be in places where maybe I am not expected to be, where I never thought I would be. Outside as an outsider.
A quick search on the internet reveals your expansive body of work in mediums from graphic design to film and that the way you convey the things you see, both real and imagined, is felt and enjoyed by people around the world. What do you think your art taps into?
When I started this body of work (some of what you saw as you googled me), I had a few defining goals for the work. The most important one was to be clear, to be legible. The thinking behind my art continues to evolve, but my ability to express or access it through artmaking is something that, to this day, I work on.
I think that is what is appealing in my work. There is something to understand in it, there is clarity, but there is also a sense of something more. The clarity leads the viewer to that unknown, which is where I want the work to take me.
I use my own work to understand things for myself even; that is the big project.
What parallels can you draw between your artistic style and how you travel and engage in your preferred pastimes outside?
I think I get pretty deep into things. Deep and fringe-y. I first raced my bike as cyclocross, and I became more engaged with skiing when I learned to telemark. I didn't get interested in fishing until I saw Tenkara. I don't run road races, only trail runs. You can see a pattern here. I am not embarrassed to go directly into the deepest (trendiest?) zone of the margin—the single-speed of EVERYTHING.
This is where the stuff I like is. For a while, I had a skateboard company (the Solitary Arts). We made boards that were narrow and some that were impossible to ollie on. The goal was to use approach. Gear. Materials. In a new way, in a way that could create a new understanding of the familiar.
Traveling light and fast in the mountains is a way to see them in a new way.
Skiing telemark is not the most efficient way to move in the mountains, but it has really efficient qualities, and it also has unquantifiable qualities. Style is unquantifiable, yet it affects our experience.
I am an aesthetic person. How something is done has always been important to me. It is not shallow to understand that "style is everything" (think back to pioneering legend Tony Alva) in skateboarding. Nobody cares if you land a trick if it looks gross.
In the mountains, style might be more abstracted. It isn't as simple as how you position your hands; it is more simply; how you do things. When you make these choices, you know that your style will directly affect your experience.
At the same time, I loved when I started running ultras around 2007; I loved how raw and ugly the style was. I loved the chaos of different gear and footwear, over-preparing and under-preparing. Now it is so standardized, efficient. Uniform.
So, my art is simple, but it takes on the complexity of expressing humanity. There is an opposition there. In the outdoors, I think I adopt the same approach. There is a place for efficiency, but there is room for other things as well.
Your art has been described as "deceptively simple." Do you agree with that, and if so, when is something just "simple," and when or how does it become more complicated than that? Which end of the spectrum are you most comfortable in and why?
I guess I led us into this question.
With my work, yes, the images are often really simple. Yet, I compare it to poetry. Spare-ness is common in poetry. In poetry, we understand the use of a simple vocabulary to service complex thinking.
I am able to express things in my artwork that I am not able to express in conversation or in writing. When I am in the studio, I am rarely conceiving thoughts and then developing visuals to express them. More often, I start with an unfamiliar point in space to aim for, and then through drawing, I try to create a path to get there.
This unfamiliar point in space is often just one step away from the familiar. This zone is what is most interesting to me. This place that is directly adjacent to understanding.
When I am drawing, I feel like I am using words that I understand the meaning of but have never heard before. (Ahh, the life of a bad speller.)
While the parameters around the term or practice of "ultralight" aren't always black and white, your chosen tools for exploration–like the bicycle and the fly rod–seem to lean that way. With the seemingly unlimited options for gear and ways to be outside, what about a stripped-down, buttoned-up kit appeals to you?
(Ironically, I am writing to you from the back of my Sprinter Van, which is absolutely full of my and my family's stuff! I think I brought 12 books on this current summer road trip.)
But yes. In the stuff I do, lightness and efficiency are really important to me. Packing only stuff that I will use or be glad I have when I need it. Often, I carry stuff that is also about being of use to people I am with. A Benadryl, or salt tabs, a baby nail clipper, safety pin, or a SPOT device.
What constitutes the core elements of a typical packlist for you?
Rather than core elements, here is my list of totally extraneous stuff that sometimes I carry:
A headlamp when you know for SURE you won't be back before dark.
A minimal first aid kit for trail running that I can move around depending on if I am using a vest or waist belt, or handheld.
If I am in the real deal mountains, I always have an extra layer. (Size depending on pack size) Something non-breathable: a Patagonia Houdini, a Montbell down vest, or a hooded Patagonia R3. Only if I have to stop for some reason.
I have a tiny watercolors kit, and I use soft cover moleskin books that are just normal (thin) paper. A Pencil.
I carry a small water container too. It's not worth using a cup you drink out of because: then you can't drink coffee and do a watercolor at the same time!
I find even a basic sketch in my journal to be so much more memorable than iPhone photos.
I have a three-weight rod that is light for on the bike but also Tenkara rods. I started fly fishing with Tenkara, so being comfortable fishing with one is nice. They are so light they are easier to justify bringing when a rod and reel seems excessive.
So really, the way I do things in the outdoors is always working towards my style, but you know, I know I will never really be done. I let my socks get taller. I work to weed out the plastic clothes. I realize I don't need adjustable ski poles in the backcountry, so I use poles from the '50s that I found in a trash can. I continue to telemark ski even though there is more efficient gear out there.
I am a fan of Hyperlite because I love good gear. Gear made by people who use it. I don't like to carry or use things that I do not connect with. Or maybe it is simpler to say, I love using things I love while doing fun stuff.