This past August, Huck Magazine did a piece about the connection between skateboarding and creativity. It turns out that not only is there a sense of resilience in common (“they fall off, they get back on”), there is also the idea of improv, self-reliance, honing a craft. Add to this that the skater culture is very involved in the design work of their own boards. Graphics are often unique, catchy, colorful and abstract.
Enter Charlie Coatney. By day, he works in the fashion industry as an artistic designer. On the side, when he’s not in the skate park himself, he’s organically building a body of art that is best described as primitive collage work highlighted by brilliant tones, capturing the mood, passion and essence of jazz. Coatney hails from southern California and says he is particularly inspired by mid-century album covers. He adds his own interpretation of the subject matter with surprising color combos and blocky type.
What is your training in art?
At first I was self-taught. Some of my skateboarder friends were multi-talented and creative. I picked up on it by watching how they would paint, draw and take photos. I went home every night and tried to make my own projects, emulating pre-existing skateboard art and graphics. As I got more involved, I started taking art and photo classes in school, then eventually took art, photo and design in college. But I will always consider myself self-taught.
When did you know you wanted to do this for your career?
Being a young skateboarder surrounded by creative people who had their own businesses, the idea of putting your art on products was very appealing to me. After my first commission, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living. At first, I had no idea that making art/design was even a possibility to have as a career.
What was your first commission?
My first commission came by luck, a right place/right time situation. I was on the streets and ran into a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years. We talked for a bit and the topic of design, art and photography came up.
He then explained he was a marketing manager at a lifestyle apparel brand, and was in charge of creative. He asked me to send some scans of my artwork and photographs.
The next thing I knew I was on the phone with the owner of the brand talking about projects! I got an offer on a couple of jobs. It all came together very organically. When the samples came in, I could not believe how good they looked.
What draws you to jazz as a subject matter?
The connection between skateboarding and art lead me to being a fan of jazz music. When Jason Lee and Chris (Dune) Pastras started Stereo Skateboards it totally changed the way I looked at skateboarding, skateboard graphics, art, photography and music.
They made a video titled “A Visual Sound” which featured music from the avant-garde jazz group “Ululation,” lead by baritone saxophonist John Lee Krasnow. I liked it so much I immediately began looking into jazz as a whole, and started buying records.
The whole aesthetic of the genre attracted me. I studied musicians’ lifestyles, and researched the designers who made the covers of the records. Artists, to name a few who have really inspired me, include Francis Wolff, Reid Miles, William Claxton, Neil Fujita, Tom Hannan, Bob Weinstock, etc.
I began to take a more minimalist approach to my art and photography, and minimizing in every aspect of life. That’s pretty much how jazz came about for me as a subject of my work.
Do you meet your subjects in person?
I have not met most of my subjects, sadly for the reason most of them are no longer with us. I do try to make it to as many shows as possible, whether in my home town or through visiting other places. I’ve had the opportunity to briefly meet some of my subjects, but more as a fan of the music at shows.
How do you choose the color palette- and do you create the musician’s pose or use inspiration from existing photos?
I usually choose my color palettes while at my day job. I might be working on a project and see some colors I like that I’ll put aside for later.
A lot of times I listen to records from a certain artist, and become intrigued by the colors on the cover. I may choose right then and there that this person is going to be a subject and I sample some colors from the cover. If I’m doing a collage, I look for interesting images of the musician and start from there.
Is your art digital only or do you paint it?
Most of my work for the last few years has been by hand, whether it’s collage with paper, acrylic painting or ink drawing. However, when I am in between projects I enjoy making some digital art as well. I’m working on being more well-rounded with the mediums I choose while keeping it as consistent as possible.
What is your primary love: illustration or photography?
Illustration has always been my primary love, by hand or digital. But my interests change all the time. Picking up a camera and shooting photos is something I have done just as long.
I usually have a camera with me everywhere I go. Documenting life as I see it is something I feel is important. Later on I can look back and memories will re-appear.
What era of design are you inspired by? The collages are reminiscent of the 1960s.
For me I am most inspired by design of 20’s, the late 50’s, and 60’s. For many years I leaned towards the Swiss style of design, as well as Bauhaus. Everything about it, the type, the colors, the shapes, and the minimalist approach of it is something I really relate to.
Your Instagram shows a lot of vintage jazz album covers. Do you collect them? Are you inspired by them?
I don’t know if I consider myself a collector, as much as I consider myself just a guy buying good-sounding records. I pick records up weekly whether it’s a musician I really enjoy, or because the art on the cover looked interesting. For me most of the artworks on vintage jazz records are very inspiring. I feel that most of them were made in a great time for music and art. Great photography, color and type are number one for me, so in a sense these record covers are like great text books.
Aside from my day-to-day work and design day job, some of the recent projects I’ve worked on have been really fun.
I just worked on an LP cover for veteran pianist Walt Wagner for Sub Pop Records. I am very happy with the outcome of the project, and it is an amazing record.
Not too long ago I did a board graphic for The Northern Co. which was a jazz-based concept. It was a painting of the BlackHawk night club in San Francisco, loosely based on a Miles Davis record that was recorded live at the club. We also just released a jazz collage-themed series for Stereo Skateboards, as well as working on a new series which should drop soon. Working on projects involving music and skateboards are my main enjoyment.
How do you grow your business?
I don’t really put too much into my own business, I let it happen naturally. It’s all very improvised; if somebody likes what I do and would like to work with me, cool, I’m ready. I am not really out there hitting people up or making this my main income by any means. For me it’s more of a practice and enjoyment. I do work a day job in the fashion industry, so art and design keeps me going.
Most memorable pieces and why?
I think this will always change as time goes by. But recently my most memorable pieces have been four that I created for Stereo Skateboards called “The Horns Series.” The first was a collage of the great Sonny Rollins, the second was Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the third was Hank Mobley, and the last is the amazing Pharaoh Sanders, who is one of my all-time favorite jazz artists. This series represents my interpretation of their music. When the product dropped and I saw the final project on the wall in the skate shop, I was very pleased with the outcome.
Do you play jazz as you work? Who are your favorite musicians?
Yes, I do play quite a bit of jazz while I work. It sets the pace for each project I’m working on. I don’t think there is any way that I could possibly list all of my favorite jazz musicians, because they change so often.
With this genre there is someone new to learn about every day, or each time I am out looking to purchase records. I am constantly looking for artists and music I have not heard to this point. But I can say some that I’m listening to a lot right now are Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Ron Carter, Red Garland, Art Blakey, Don Cherry, Woody Shaw, Anthony Braxton, Ahmad Jamal, etc… I could go on. It’s a forever-changing list.
Talk about the Sonny Rollins piece. Are you collaborating with the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project in any way?
I have done multiple pieces based on Sonny Rollins. I think he is very prominent figure in the grand scheme of music in general. As far as collaborating with the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project, I am not collaborating in any way. It definitely is something I am into, because I think what they are doing is very good and important for the city. Sonny Rollins is part of what makes New York what it is.
Have you received any attention from the jazz community itself?
I have not received much attention from the jazz community, however I do get a lot of attention from jazz record collectors. I do this for the love of art and design, and can only hope others enjoy it as much as I enjoy making it.
I’m not involved in the jazz community itself, but would love to be involved for the love of the music, the shows, jazz in general. So, if it happens one day, who knows maybe I have a little something to contribute.
Where do you live?
Currently my family and I live in the city of Long Beach, CA. We have been here for around eight years. It’s a wonderful place.
What is the arts scene like there? What is the jazz scene like there?
Long Beach has a pretty good arts scene. A lot of great artists and designers come out of this city. I wouldn’t say there is a jazz scene whatsoever here these days. We have one place locally that plays live jazz music. For great shows, we usually have to go out to Catalina Jazz Club, Blue Whale Jazz Club, Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill & Jazz, or SOKA University. They all have great shows from time to time. But there are a lot of local restaurants that showcase local talent, which is always great.
Plans for the rest of 2017?
Just keep pushing and creating new work, concentrate on maintaining a good work flow.
Goals for 2018?
For more information, visit http://www.charliecoatney.com/jazz/.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Second illustration is depiction of Horace Silver.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017