Artist Interviews 2023

Curtis Stokes  
By Johnny Otto

So tell us about how you started as an artist. What was the driving force and what was your early work like? Where did you grow up, etc.?

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Like, totally awesome, you know what I mean? Like, "gag me with a spoon" type of valley. Like in the eighties when it was Valley Girl and everything. The valley was. Yeah, all of the movies. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and all that good stuff. So, yeah, I'm one of the only people from L.A. living in L.A. That's from L.A., even though it's the Valley, it's L.A. County. You know, whatever, it still counts. So, yeah, I grew up in the valley, and the valley is—it really is like a mix of everybody. Like L.A. is a big mix, but the valley is a BIG mix.

How did I start as an artist?...

I mean, I was just born, right? Like, it depends on what we're talking about. Being an artist is if an artist is just like the state of mind of being an artist. Yeah, you're just born into it. But if starting as an artist means, like, the first thing I got paid for is The Cut. I started cutting hair when I was in high school. Back in the nineties, I was cutting hair, shaving crazy designs, and doing all of that silly stuff. But then my first real job was airbrushing t-shirts at Universal Studios, and I actually did that while I was still in high school.

I started doing that in '91, '91, or '92. But yeah, while I was still going to school. So fun. That was my only real job ever. So literally, I've been an artist forever. That's the only thing I have done, even though a lot of it is stuff that I don't care for or couldn't be super proud of. Everything I've ever done in my life, everything I've ever owned, every trip I've ever taken, everything I've ever done, has been in trade for me painting a picture on something for somebody. I think that's pretty cool, besides the hair part.

I was still living at home. So going back further, my first artwork when I was trying to be an artist still in high school, when I guess it wasn't really, I don't know- can you say it wasn't real? Because nobody paid me to do it. But I guess paying for it sometimes ruins it because then you make it geared towards what they want rather than what you want. So maybe this was my first and only true art. Because I was in the valley and it was so diverse, I hung around with a lot of black people and families, and I was somewhat raised by their families, I could say. Ex-girlfriends and whatnot. My running theme in my old artwork back then, like in my teens, was like anti-racist stuff. It was kind of stupid, but, you know, it is what it is.

My actual first work was airbrushing t-shirts. You know, I actually started airbrushing stuff while I was in school. At school, I saw other people doing that when I was cutting hair, and I was like, "Damn, that looks fun. I could do that.” So for my 16th birthday, I got an airbrush and just figured it out on my own. Actually, it was pretty cool that I did it on my own because I got a double-action airbrush. I don't know if anybody knows what that is, but you press down for air, pull back for the paint. So the more you press down, the more air, the more you pull back, the more paint, blah, blah, blah.

Those are the two actions, but I used it like a spray can, which I was not versed in. But still, you can screw the little trigger back so that when you press down, it’s whatever thickness you set it at. So I started by learning how to airbrush sort of as a spray can. And so once I got a job at Universal Studios, they had these script letters and these palm trees and stuff that I had to do and I couldn't really do it that way.

You know, you had to be able to go thick and thin with the lines. So I had to relearn it because of this whole thick and thin line aspect of what they needed there. And as I relearned it, it became pretty clear. So I relearned everything. And once I did that, I was really excited that I knew how to do it both ways because that gave me different techniques that most people don't use. And just a mix of the two, whatever's best for the desired effect I'm trying to get. That's what I'll use, or a combination of them. I started airbrushing in high school and, you know, I would go to school all week. I would get orders from people and then my little high school girlfriend at the time, she went to a different school, she would get orders from her friends by wearing the stuff that I made. You know, with dumb cartoon characters on it and words, just silly stuff that we used to do on overalls and such. Once I was still at Universal Studios working at the theme park during the day, actually day and night, I then somehow got into the party business. I had a friend that had a little brother that had a - and this is embarrassing - but bar mitzvah, you know, whatever. I was young. I started doing decor for these bar mitzvahs. Then I started airbrushing t-shirts at these parties and my business started that way. I started hiring other artists to do the same. And I got really crazy busy. We were just doing that nonstop. I wasn't even doing one or the other. I was always doing decor, and then I was always working at events on the weekends. And it wasn't just bar mitzvahs, but that was a big part of it. So a lot of my old work was that, which to me is just work, you know? To me, it's not an art. I shouldn't say that. I don't want to be offensive to the people that do that and love that. But mass-producing things for people as fast as you can, in my opinion, is not what I want to be doing. It's not how I want to express myself. So I started to not like it. I kept doing it and I kept hiring people to do it. But then as years went by, I started losing artists and then I would book stuff. And then I even lost my amazing assistant. Not for any bad reason, I just did. They moved on, so I started having to do too much myself and my heart wasn't in it, I didn't like it. So then I'm booking things and then not having anybody to cover it. Then I have to do it myself and then I show up all grumpy. It took me all the way until the pandemic for me to actually just cut it off 100%. Even though I was barely, barely doing it, I still was like, “Okay, that's it.” I gave all of my stuff away so I would never be tempted to go back to it in any kind of way. It's just too big of an ordeal for me to get back into it. So, I mean, that was fast-forwarding decades, really.

Let's go back a little bit and I'll stay on the party track for just a minute. So besides those parties, I did get into really cool stuff. I used to do all of the Playboy Mansion parties, all of the decor for Hefner's personal parties, and then other people would rent the mansion for their own parties. We did a bunch of that stuff as well. I worked with the company Monster Stage that does a lot of good things, and we used to do all of the clubs in Vegas and other cool events. So it wasn't just those silly events. And when I said I stopped it cold turkey, I stopped just having artists for the live stuff. I still do decor, but only for really cool things. Not for those parties, but for the big clubs and events and themed things like that.

So now moving way back again. At the same time that I started working at Universal Studios and doing t-shirts, I did start slowly getting into murals. I started doing murals for friends, neighbors, and then I would get small jobs from there. I really got into it and started making that into a business. So I'm doing murals and I'm doing these parties at the same time, which is great. And everybody on the outside is like, "Oh, it's so great that you're doing what you love." But I was like, “I don't love this”, but I never really did anything about it. You know, I'm not here to complain about it. I kind of just got into it for the business and did not evolve and move on probably around the time that I think that I should have.

But I did change. I don't want to say change, but I did bring extra creativity and extra funk to that field, I guess. For instance, like with the parties, I was going to parties back in the days and I was going to raves and whatnot. I started getting into blacklight stuff from those events, most likely. But I didn't really start getting funky with blacklight until the invisible blacklight paint came out. Once that came out, I was fascinated, mesmerized, and I just jumped into it, needed to figure it all out, and just mess with it and bring that into my field, which was the parties and murals. So I didn't start doing canvas work for a while. I was strictly doing murals, and all of my work was actually for clients. I went most of my entire life never doing anything for myself or just because or just to express; everything was for somebody else. So again, a slight bit of complaining, but the reality is, that's where I'm at right now. I'm finally doing what I want to be doing, which is getting into the world of canvas work, galleries, museums, whatever. And you know, that's not the important part. The important part is that I'm just doing my work for myself and then connecting it with people who can resonate with it and love it. I'm not thinking about pleasing anybody else and tailoring what I do to fit their desires.

I brought a lot of insane creativity to the murals, and I brought a lot of this blacklight stuff. But like I said, all in all, at the end of the day, it was for somebody else. Most of my craziest ideas never got to come to fruition because they're too nutty for the regular folks. And again, most of the time, it's for their homes.

How important is a theme or a storyline in my artwork?

I used to think it was really important to have a theme. All of my work has been for other people, so I always have to start with their theme and then interweave my own style and statement. But really, in my opinion, art is meant to provoke an emotion, so if you need to tell a whole story to provoke an emotion or to teach, that's one way of doing it. But at the same time, specific colors and patterns can provoke an emotion. So it all depends on what you're going for. And now, if I had to pick an emotion, I would say my underlying theme based on emotion is tranquility, some sort of meditative state, some sort of peacefulness, and wonder. I like that state of being. I think that most of what I do kind of holds that in it, besides whatever the other theme colors or whatever else is. I believe there's that semi-tranquil underlying thing.

The theme is more an emotion, or an emotion that you're trying to evoke from the viewer. I've even gone over this in some of my abstracts to where I make all of these colors and patterns, and what I want to resonate with people is the emotion I'm feeling in the moment. You know, that passion, that love, whatever it is that I'm experiencing as I do it. That's what I hope shines through and what will eventually attract the right person or place that the painting will live with for however long. What I'm thinking about in a painting, especially in abstract, is often totally different from what somebody else is thinking. So I don't even want to title some of my abstracts because, let's just say, I put the word "waterfalls" in one of them. Now I'm already making the viewer think of waterfalls when they look at it, when that same person might have seen it as buildings.

You know, those streaks look like buildings to me, I didn't even think of waterfalls, because we all see life through our own filters. We interpret what we see through our past experiences. I kind of like the idea of not naming a lot of them, not having a theme, not telling them what I want them to think, but just allowing the art to speak to them as it would. And that the underlying feeling of wonder, passion, love, and all of that, hopefully, that still comes through, whether they think it's buildings or waterfalls, you know what I mean? So that's what I think about themes. At the same time, though, in my other work, it's so intricate and so time-consuming. So much of the process involves stenciling and taping, and there's just a lot of time spent on it that you do want to make sure you're conveying a message rather than just throwing random things on the canvas. So I believe in both sides, having a full-on story or having no suggestions at all besides the primal colors, patterns, brushstrokes, streaks, drips, and everything else.

Do you think art can change the world?

Yes, I do. I totally believe that. And I'm going to go deeper into that in a moment. But first, we're going to start with the super basic – well, not exactly basic, but my initial thought is, you know, like I said earlier, you're born an artist. I believe so. I've seen the world through the eyes of an artist my whole life. I see things as I would paint them, and I think in brushstrokes. My mind wanders, and I imagine paint combinations. It's crazy. Yeah, I just think of art. I think in terms of art.

My first basic thought was like, "Oh my God, imagine the world without art. Holy smokes, this place would be dull." Well, I mean, we'd still have nature, but then, whatever created that is the greatest artist of all time, you know what I mean?

So imagine a world where we didn't even have graphic design or text, just the basics of art. Imagine if we didn't have that. Imagine if there was no creativity. Oh, God, even just the wonderful graffiti pieces we have next to our freeways.

Speaking of changing the world, like... Yeah, imagine no music. No music in the background. I mean, you know, acting. No shows, no movies, no TV. No entertainment on those levels. The world without art would be awful. So art has already changed or shaped the world into what it is right now. I mean, mostly everything is art, so... yes, Go Art!

Now I know what you mean more by "cannot change the world," as the last question through our message. And I'm in. Yes, of course. Of course. That too. Do I want to change the world? Yes, yes, of course, I want to change the world with my art. Well, I shouldn't say "of course," but yes, I do. And I have a different version of changing the world. It's totally less about a story and more about a feeling and a vibration. So I'll give you my take on that. So I've thought about it for a while. We all have this gift, our specific gift, and mine is in the arts, of course. We're supposed to use that to improve the world in some kind of way.

So I feel like I've avoided using it. I don't want to say it in the wrong way, but, you know, if I'm talking about doing parties and whatnot, yeah, I'm changing the atmosphere and creating a vibe, and I'm making an awesome experience for people. The same thing applies if I'm painting a room. But when it comes to canvas work, where the real message lies and where it can be seen by the masses rather than just one night or one specific place, I used to think that was the goal. I believed that I needed to convey my messages on canvas and share them with the world, and the more people who see it, the better.

Then, at some point in my life, I realized that changing myself, constantly evolving, was far more important. I became interested in personal growth and shedding some of the baggage we all carry, our defense mechanisms and negative behaviors. I don't mean to focus on the negative, but I wanted to evolve. I've been on a spiritual journey, in a way, since I was 15. I hesitate to use the term "spiritual" because it might sound egotistical, but I've been focused on self-improvement. However, I recently realized that I've still been doing it wrong. It's only been in the last few years that I've truly delved into the real work.

So, it has become my life's purpose to change for the better. During this journey, I've learned – and forgive me if this sounds a bit unusual – about vibrations. My goal is to elevate my own vibration. If I can raise my vibration and create art, and if that art can elevate your vibration, and then you share it with someone else and elevate theirs, in the long run, no matter how small it might seem, I'm still contributing to raising the Earth's overall vibration. Where's my vocabulary? I mean, I've effectively increased the Earth's average vibration. So, when I see it from this perspective, the more art I can produce and the more people I can share it with, the more I can contribute to raising the planet's vibration. Right? Right. However, as I continue this journey and learn from others, I've discovered that it's actually more beneficial to focus solely on working on yourself and raising your own vibration actually raises the Earth's vibration. It may sound more selfish, but somehow, the higher you ascend, the more you can influence others who aren't even doing the work. That makes sense, even though it might sound somewhat unconventional. So, I don't know either way. I transitioned from thinking that the more work I do and the more I spread it around, the more I'm going to change the Earth, raising its vibration, to believing that the more I work on myself, the more I'm going to affect the Earth's vibration. This doesn't necessarily mean creating art. However, when I'm making art, that's when I'm in that space. So, other activities achieve this for me as well, but making art gets me to that place. Vibrations are elevated, and then, you know, it has a ripple effect. The entire Earth is affected. I hope that doesn't sound too far-fetched to you, but I truly believe it.

Who are your greatest influences and who inspires you as an artist?

The word "inspiration" is quite broad because I can draw inspiration from various sources. I could be inspired by nature, or I could be inspired by a multitude of things in the art world. I mean, I find inspiration from a wide range of sources. I almost want to say that singers and dancers, specifically, inspire me even more. I won't get into names because I'm not entirely sure about them. However, a dancer or a singer can easily move me to tears when they perform with such passion, conveying their story and life experiences that have led up to that singular moment in time when they express themselves fully and let it all out. So, I draw inspiration from a wide spectrum, and yes, singers and dancers happen to do it for me on that level because of their passion. When it comes to artists, in that sense, I think of Basquiat. I know his art is predominantly about the story, but what captivates me the most is his passion. Not just his passion, but his urgency. I wasn't deeply into art when I was younger. I loved my own art, but I didn't extensively explore other artists. I began studying and learning about artists later in life, so I may not be entirely accurate about some of these details. But from what I understand, he just had to paint or draw, or whatever he was doing. He had to get it out. He had to not even think about bills and stuff. He's scrounging up doors, you know, anything he can from junkyards or the trash, anything he could get his hands on. He's getting in and painting as if there's just such a need to express inside, you know? The passion is what does it for me the most. So, what inspires me as an artist? I would say Basquiat. Visually what I love to look at the most and what gets my mind and heart going in my imagination is weird stuff and surrealism, like Dali and Magritte. I happen to resonate a little bit more with Magritte because Magritte is kind of on the spiritual side, while Dali is on the sexual side. Magritte is not as controversial. So yes, visually and spiritually, I love Magritte. I love the feeling, or at least at this point in my life, the feeling of awe and wonder and connection versus Dali, who is about sexuality, masturbation, and, you know, the church or dogma or resisting the church. Not fully, but you know what I mean? I do love both of them, however.

What Artists would you like to collaborate with?

I'm going to mix this into the future question about who I would love to collaborate with because who also inspires me nowadays is Jim Carrey. I absolutely love Jim Carrey. I would definitely love to collaborate with Jim Carrey. Like, he's just an artist on every level. He's got the acting down, and his mind is incredible, and his humanity and decency, and yeah, I would say connection and spirituality as well, are on point. So I would love to. I mean, yeah, who knows what he's like when he's creating. I mean, I saw a documentary, so you could kind of base it on that, but he is in front of a camera, so who knows what he's like when he's creating. He could be in the mood of being hilarious and entertaining. He might be delving into some deep levels, or he might be in the zone to be completely silent. And I would enjoy that space in all different ways. So yeah, if I had to choose somebody to collaborate with, I would love to collaborate with Jim Carrey, and he inspires me as well as a person and all across the board.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced or continue to face as an artist in Los Angeles?

As an artist in Los Angeles, the biggest challenges that I have faced, honestly, are my self-therapy time. No, but honestly, I have spent my entire life doing commissions. You know, some of these parties that I still do a little bit, compared to it being a full business before and all these murals.

I've spent all of my career doing commissions and doing things for other people. So, I put my own twist on it. I definitely put in my own ideas, but in the long run, it still needs to be in their space. So a lot of what I come up with doesn't get done. So a lot of my designs that never were are pretty insane.

There were plenty of times in my life where I felt like I should—I hate to say “should” because everything happens for a reason and it's your own reason. So the timing is one of those things. So realistically, this is fine for me, but I didn't try to move into the fine art world until like now. And there were so many times in my life where that's what I wanted to do, but I just never did. And, you know, based on fears all across the board, fears of rejection, I'm not going to name everything and get into that therapy session. But yeah, I didn't do things. And it's my fault that I didn't make these moves.

So, as of recently, based on all of this, I now know what I'm not going to do. I've realized that I need people in my life who can handle certain things for me that I either don't want to do, was afraid to do, or simply procrastinated on. Recently, I acquired myself a manager who will take care of the tasks I was reluctant to do.

I'm not sure if that's a great answer, but it's clear that I've been the only thing in my way. I haven't put any effort into pursuing this side of the art world, but that's what I'm doing right now. And yeah, shoutout to Christina Harlow, you know what I'm talking about. Regarding the same question, let's dive deeper or expand on it. If we want to discuss my physical challenges in the art world, primarily with murals and similar projects, my biggest challenge is that I'm the one doing the painting. So when I'm working on murals in homes or on various projects, even if it's for video shoots or anything related to TV, the painting always comes last in the process.

This means I have to deal with everyone else who didn't meet their deadlines or encountered problems, forcing me to work around these issues. For instance, in my most recent experience, I received a phone call on a Sunday afternoon for a video shoot scheduled on Tuesday morning. I had only Sunday and Monday to complete the work. So, I immediately met with Todrick Hall, one of my great clients, within an hour and started working. I continued working that night, got 6 hours of sleep, and then embarked on a 35-hour work marathon. I've never stayed up that long before, not even in my rave days. During the shoot, I was still painting while they were filming in one room and finishing other tasks in another.

So yeah, that's usually the biggest challenge. I've worked on several of those old-school Extreme Makeover shows, and yes, I'm always last, which means I'm up all night without getting any sleep. There are always a couple of moments when it's a test of mind over matter, and you just can't go on anymore, but you have to push through because there's no other option.

So my greatest challenge in that world is usually related to timing, deadlines, and the mental struggle of working without sleep while still striving for quality results.

What are some of your Artist Techniques and Mediums?

Let's delve into the details of how artwork is created, starting from the initial inspiration to the final product. So, as I mentioned, I engage in various art forms, from creating large murals and designing parties to producing blacklight artwork and abstract pieces. Let me share the details of one particular painting that I love. This canvas was originally intended for the company Wildfire, known for their blacklight technology and invisible blacklight paint. They were developing a double-image printing process for a project named "Karma." I created several canvases to showcase this new printing technique for them, and these canvases were meant to be printed and sold through Wildfire. However, that actually never came to fruition. So these canvases that I did, they are mine. You know, my ideas. However, I sort of geared them to be a little bit more mainstream and didn't try to get too weird with them. So they're not fully me, but they are me.

Okay, so the one that I'm going to describe that I love is this Buddha, this invisible blacklight Buddha. So conceptually, it's a double image. The first layer is just very light, black and white stencil technique, very simple, very plain, which kind of goes with the whole minimalist Buddhist type of way. But more or less, it's the clearing of one's mind, creating a blank slate, and in the process, connecting with and not just connecting with, but becoming aware of the entire universe that has always been there and is all around you.

So it's not just a blacklight version; it's really a night sky with the moon, but representative of the universe and connection with the source. And you know that thing, meditation, something into, or nothing into everything. Closing your eyes and connecting with all that is.

So the actual process of said Buddha canvas: I photoshopped together some actual Buddha statues and created this image, then put some filters over it to make four different colors. So it's for three or four stencils to make all of these different layers. And so I designed it all on the computer and then I run that through my little stencil cutting machine to make this stencil. And yeah, that whole process is something else. And then I paint all of those layers. That is the daylight version, all in gray tones, all solid, no shading.

So that last process is how I do the daylight version, and then the blacklight version is almost pretty much fully painted with invisible black light paint. The invisible black light paint itself is pretty amazing. It's like precious stones crushed and ground up into a fine powder and then put into a polyurethane clear base. I have to paint the whole thing in the dark.

So the second layer, I do a lot of airbrushing and a spray gun and whatnot, so I continue to use a lot of stencils. Now I'm using different stencils. I cover the piece that I just did and work on. I'll cover the silhouette of the Buddha and then spray and work on the background, the night sky or whatever. So that whole layer, I have to do it in the dark, in the blacklight. I shouldn't say I have to, I get to, I get to work in the dark, and I actually love it. I love working in the dark, in the blacklight with the music. So good. So the blacklight version, it's all invisible black light paint. I'm using the clear base for all of that painting in particular. I do a lot of airbrushing, but at the same time, a lot of it is hand-painted. And I don't know if there's much else to say about that, since that's all about the technique, I believe.

The final product then is meant to be viewed in the daylight and then in the blacklight, not necessarily in the daylight but in the normal white light and then in the blacklight so you can witness it turning from minimalistic and plain to colorful, shaded, bright, and inspiring.

Because I paint murals, I'm always experimenting with different techniques. Almost every time I figure something out, I continue to use that, and I never go back to the old way. But because I believe that everything is as it should be, I feel like all of the techniques came to me at just the right time, and I don't regret any of it. But if I do have to think of one thing that I kind of felt in the moment that I wish I knew about it earlier, it was spray paint.I began airbrushing when I was 16 years old, and that became my main tool for a good decade. I want to say I was almost 90% airbrush. I didn't really mix it up at all. And then I slowly brought other things in, and I really didn't use spray paint for a long, long time after that because I do some jobs that are graffiti-related, and I tend to hire really cool graffiti artists because I like things to be legit. But I also grab some cans and, you know, do some background stuff just for fun. And when I did that and I really used spray cans that were like the proper consistency and flow, you know, made for this shit. The overspray is so minimal compared to what an airbrush does in the spray paint. The paint just consistently flows with the right constant pressure, and you just change the tips rather than airbrushes getting clogged and whatnot. You know, airbrushes are just harder to use, in my opinion. I guess it depends on what effects you're going for. But spray paint is so opaque compared to what happens with an airbrush. I just love the spray can feel and how it acted compared to a lot of the things that I was doing with spray guns and airbrushing. You know, it's just regular acrylic paint versus enamel - I don't know what spray paint is - so when I discovered spray painting, I kind of wished that it was my thing. And then I got into it ten years earlier, and that doesn't mean I pursued it. You know, I did. I have done stuff just for fun, but it isn't one of my main tools. I use it when I need to, but I'll still when I have jobs that require graffiti, I still hire guys. But yeah, I do add my own touches here and there.

What are you working on now?

What am I working on now? Well, as I said, my goal right now is to move towards fine art and more gallery type of work than a lot of these commissions. Murals and events. So I am working with my awesome new manager again, Christina Harlow. I have a lot of things that are in my mind at the moment that I'm experimenting with, I have all these thoughts of things that I want to do that are either going to be very large semi-multimedia pieces or added to installations or murals. So I have this whole RGV color shifting thing that I'm working on that I'm experimenting with, and I want to add video monitors to add animation, where we're actually putting them into the artwork from behind, like cutting holes, but making it interact with the artwork. I'm working with somebody now that is insane with lighting and LEDs. I'm putting animated stuff into these pieces. Then I am putting lights into the frames that will make the paint do the changing that it does. I'm mixing the RGV color shifting painting with black light and invisible black light painting, plus all these other things. So yeah, that's a lot of testing and experimenting right now, but I can't wait to be doing that or bring that out. The actual job that I'm working on right now happens to be an event and it will be the biggest event I think I've ever done. It's crazy. I mean, it's, you know, “it”. So yeah, I'm in the planning process of this event where we're doing this, this massive space, and I'm incorporating and just a ton of artwork and 3D props and walls all over the room, but we're adding the black light and we're adding projects and video mapping and all kinds of other ridiculous stuff at the same time. I believe next weekend I'm doing live painting at a club or at a private party, club-style type of thing, and I'm going to bring my invisible black light paint and black lights and whatnot. So that is the very next thing that I'll probably be painting online. I'm working on some other party props right now for some big, big country concert events. So that's actually what I'm doing right now today, and finishing up.

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