If anyone has listened to the advice “Follow Your Bliss,” it’s Drew Brophy. For more than 25 years, Brophy has made a career from two hard-to-live-on passions — surfing and art.
His artwork — wild, psychedelic, often filled with waves, swirls, ocean scenes, and colors that pop — is collected and hung in private galleries around the world. Surfboards are a common, if unconventional, canvass for the artist. But stickers, T-shirts, book covers, and hats adorned with signature Brophy work abound.
Inspiration comes from a life spent chasing waves. An avid surfer and adventurer, he grew up catching South Carolinian swells. He now seeks big waves as well as expeditionary feats. In 2011, Brophy and a partner paddled 225 miles of the Colorado River on SUP boards.
Brophy, 43, serves as a KEEN ambassador. He works out of his San Clemente, Calif., studio, where he and his wife/business partner Maria Brophy have built a following worldwide. GearJunkie caught up with Brophy to learn more about his mission “to inspire generations of people to live the life of their dreams.” —Sean McCoy
GearJunkie — What inspires your art?
Drew Brophy — The adventures; all the things I’m doing, surfing, meeting someone interesting, going to a new place — that is it in a nutshell. When you go on a surf trip to Indonesia, you come back with a flood of ideas.
You’ve done some amazing things. How are you able to build this lifestyle that allows you to travel, spend time with your family and do what you love to do – art – as a profession?
A lot of people just think we’re rich, that we just do this because we are wealthy, but that’s not the case. As a kid, I was good at two things: surfing and art. I grew up in South Carolina. Nobody cared about surfing for one, and nobody cared about art. Nobody valued the two things that I was good at. I was really bummed
So you decided to pursue your art anyway?
I started looking into art schools, but they are really expensive. I couldn’t get the money together to go to schools. With no other way out, I said, that’s it, I’m going to go surf these waves. That set me on my path of a kind of stubbornness to spite the system that let me down. I really had no other alternative. I asked myself, if I died today, what would I have been bummed to not have done? It was “travel the world” and “surf these places I saw in magazines.” With no other option, I said, well, that’s what I’m going to do!
Where did you go?
Puerto Escondido, Mexico. I went there for about three months and I instantly felt at home. It felt like a puzzle piece that fits. Man, it felt good.
How did this lead to a career in art?
I was picking up work painting surfboards and T-shirts. I painted my surfboard really wild. I remember the guys at the factory where I grew up making fun of them because they were too wild looking, but I thought they looked cool.
Anyway, I felt good in Puerto Escondido. One of the guys there looked at my board and said, “Wow man, that’s a really cool board.” He lived in California and asked me to paint some for him. He also asked if I was going to be in Hawaii for the winter season. I asked him, if I went to Hawaii, could I get a job painting surfboards? He said “Hell yeah!”
That was the first light bulb that went off in my head. Then, as soon as I got back to South Carolina, a surf shop got a call looking for me. It was Surfer Magazine.
A photographer had gotten a shot of me, and the only reason they used it was that the surfboard was painted so cool. That was validation.
What did you do to get by before you made money painting? I’m guessing you had to pull a lot of different odd jobs?
Once I left South Carolina I never did anything but art ever again.
Wow, so you really focused on it and made it work?
There was no plan B.
Do you think that helped you succeed?
Yeah, it’s a mindset. I just didn’t know anything else. This is what I do. There was just no plan B. Once you make that decision, the rocket’s going whether it crashes or not.
So it took a lot of commitment, kind of like paddling in on a big wave in some ways?
Yeah, it’s kind of like the crazy Grand Canyon trip I did. I’d never been on a river board before. I signed up to do it, to just go for it. Doing it to the best of your ability, but not overthinking things.
Maria and I designed this plan many years ago so we could have this lifestyle and we’ve made some conscious decisions to make it work. I had an offer for one job that was really alluring and paid a lot of money, but it meant I’d have to drive an hour every day and wouldn’t be able to go surfing every day. I really want people to go out and push more, to do the things they dreamed of.
How does your love of surfing and SUP affect your artwork?
Artists are always trying to find their niche. That’s something I really did do well. I love surfing and travel. Painting surfboards, I used that to go to surf destinations. Everywhere there was surf I painted surf. I’ve painted surfboards in every country in the world that has surf.
How can your career choices serve as an example to others?
If you’re an artist who loves horses, you need to paint the thing you love and surround yourself with other people who love horses. Those are going to be the people who like your art.
It doesn’t even have to be art, but if you love horses, for example, you should do something with horses or in that industry. It’s a real no-brainer, but there are so many people out there who love to do one thing but their job takes them in a totally different direction. They’re so split. They need to get involved in the things they love.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
An artist wakes up every morning making art and trying to figure out how to make a living as an artist. There are a lot of hobbyists out there, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they are two different things. You’re either doing it or not doing it. You need to let everyone know that’s what you do and live it.
One of the best pieces of advice for young artists is that they’re not doing anything wrong. Art is hard.
You’ve been an ambassador with KEEN for more than five years. What are some of the projects you’ve done with them?
In one project, we got in the car and toured 28 states with a paddleboard and tried to get into as much water as possible. That opened me up to inland water. Those boards got really beat up. We painted the story of the trip on those boards and they’re now in the KEEN headquarters.
Another project we did was called Green Graffiti. I did templates of fish and trees and all kinds of stuff, which a crew would lay on dirty sidewalks and then clean the streets through them, leaving art on the sidewalk.
My thing with KEEN is always trying to do cool projects. I want to align myself with companies and people who are doing those kinds of things.
—Drew Brophy is a KEEN ambassador.