Meet Ricky Lee Gordon
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1984, Ricky Lee Gordon is an artist who creates natural landscapes using pigments and dyes found only in nature. It's a deeply personal process that Ricky compares to meditation, using natural materials to paint nature. His work centers around the idea of interconnectivity of all things and that we are all nature. He enjoys painting nature WITH nature IN nature - sometimes painting outdoors amongst the very materials that he's using in his painting.
Ricky incorporates natural materials into all of his work including a variety of Natural Earth Paint products: Earth and mineral pigments, Natural varnish, Natural Impasto Medium, Gum Arabic, and Methyl Cellulose (plant-based adhesive).
In his public practice, Lee Gordon is known as one of “street art’s 11 greats”(National Geographic) for his large-scale artworks bringing to light social and environmental issues with commissions for organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Nations, for which he recently created his largest work to date, in Downtown Houston, Texas, a 40 x 30-meter mural drawing attention to the state of the oceans.
Having moved to Cape Town in his twenties and founded A WORD OF ART Gallery, the Colour Ikamva school rejuvenation project, and the Andpeople advertising agency, Lee Gordon went on to live in Los Angeles in 2015 where he studied anatomy, classical drawing, and painting at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. With the ocean remaining an ever-present source of inspiration, Lee Gordon is now based between the Śūnyatā artist residencies he founded in Sri Lanka and Bali, Indonesia.
Ricky Lee Gordon in Conversation with Xerxes Cook for MAIA Contemporary
When did you paint your first mural?
I was 16. It was on the street, in Alexander Township. I grew up in a gated community in Johannesburg, but across the highway was the township. One day, I walked across it and asked the grocer there if I could paint his wall. I had an interest in graffiti, but it didn’t resonate as I didn’t want to destroy anything – the system in South Africa already was broken. Instead, I had an intuition that I could make the corner more beautiful. I realized there was a way to give love and make a difference to society, and to be invited into communities as a traveler rather than a tourist through mural painting.
Had you always wanted to be an artist?
I never wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a ringleader, encouraging other people to be artists. I think that came from growing up in South Africa – there were bigger problems than art. Art felt like a selfish pursuit. I wanted to be practical. I wanted to create a business that would be able to employ and empower people, so after I moved to Cape Town in 2015 I started A WORD OF ART gallery, an experimental, unpretentious space in a warehouse in the docklands similar to what I had seen in Berlin and New York. We gave a stage to anyone who needed it, and over time we hosted over 50 international artists in residence, curated over 50 shows and produced over 100 murals. When the 2010 World Cup came around, Adidas recognized what we were doing for the community and asked if we could host something for the World Cup for them. I pitched the idea of turning the whole building into a creative space: the first floor was a gallery, the second a skate park, the third a viewing area to watch the games. There was also restaurant and a pool hall, DJs every second day, and weekend parties – a whole scene that spanned the 30 days of the World Cup. It won the Loerie advertising award that year for experiential marketing, which led me to setting up an agency where we connected clients like Adidas, Bacardi, Levi’s and Redbull to the art and music scene. I’d also set up the Colour Ikamva project, empowering kids through creativity by transforming the spaces in which they learn, their schools. I convinced Dulux, the biggest paint manufacturer in the world, to finance a five-years of rehabilitating the infrastructure of schools, everything from fixing up crumbling walls to plumbing, as well as transforming the classrooms through color. But it didn’t take me long to realize the values of the brands and boardrooms behind them weren’t aligned with my own, and that instead of trying to fix the world I needed to fix myself. I needed to find my own path in art, and to seek my personal truth, so one day I just walked away from it all. I had my mid-life crisis at 27.
What happened next?
The day after I quit, I got an invitation to take part in an artist’s residency at a Buddhist meditation retreat on an island in Thailand. For two weeks I had my own studio and the time to ask a thousand questions. It was my first foray into meditation, and it changed my life. It was also the first time I had a space just to make art, because before then I was a ‘Sunday painter’: I would work Monday to Friday and then on the weekends I would paint murals in the streets for fun and beautify under-privileged neighborhoods.
These murals often feature motifs of mountains, waves, and horses – why are you drawn to this dynamic of presenting scenes from nature in urban environments?
They’re a reminder of this intrinsic connection to nature that man already has, but has lost. We know how to read the waves, the wind, to track an animal – but the more noise and information we add to the world, the further away this connection becomes. In the middle of a city, these murals offer a window into that universal truth. They are a reminder that we are elemental.
What motivated you to then go and study fine art?
I was 30 at the time, and as someone who had been around hundreds of artists, I knew the first thing an artist should do is get the foundations. To learn the foundations so you can break them, as Picasso taught. You can’t be conceptual, or a minimalist, without first knowing about structure, balance and composition. So I applied for a few scholarships and got accepted at Naropa in Colorado, which was founded by the famous Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and where Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac set up the writing department. Obviously, I was really excited to go there, but when I visited it became apparent that the heydays of that school were behind them. The dean of arts there, Sue Hammond West, actually encouraged me to go to the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. “You don’t need schools, you need teachers,” she said. “Go to LA and seek them out.”
And who did you find?
She pointed me in the direction of Enrique Martinez Celaya, who taught a workshop on natural pigments every year out in the woods. Enrique was a physicist who decided to become a painter at the age of 40. I couldn’t afford the workshop, but I still learnt a lot from him: this concept that the studio is your temple, and that it’s not about the outcome but the process of making art. It’s like how in the Japanese tea ceremony the cup is equal to the guests; the serving is equal to tasting, and the guest is equal to the washing up. Every moment prefigures another, and if you have reverence for each moment of the process, even sweeping the studio floor becomes the most profound act.
How did this lead you to swap the streets for working in a studio and painting with natural pigments?
It happened from living in Sri Lanka. I first went there on retreat at the Na Uyana monastery, living in a hut in the forests of the Dummīya mountains, and a few years later, in 2019, I returned and spent a year converting an old fisherman’s house by the beach into a studio. The plan was that once the house was built I would try to discover the art that made sense to me. I had brought all my oil paint from LA, but I had left it so long that it had started to go off – and at the same time, Covid had just hit the country and I was starting to question the stories I wanted to tell through my work. I didn’t know what to paint, and I almost got into a bit of a panic. Then one day I reminded myself that I had everything I needed: a studio, a surf break, and peace. What more could I need? I saw the ocean in front, and I decided to paint the ocean every day for 30 days and share the journey on Instagram. Halfway through I had the idea to make charcoal from the bodhi tree hanging over the house from the temple next door. Making that charcoal was the most profound and beautiful moment in my career. I had finally found reverence for the practice.
Is the act of painting the same landscape every day a process of becoming aware – mindful – of the ongoing moment?
It all came from the charcoal and the canvas. As I was using store-bought Gesso canvas, the front is layered with plastic base paint, and because the charcoal couldn’t penetrate the plastic, I would use the back of the canvas. I could feel its fibers on my fingers as I ran the charcoal over the canvas. It felt very elemental and soon it became like a meditation where I became aware of every breath and every moment; the birds chirping, the crashing of the waves, the sound of the brush on the canvas. I stopped thinking about what I was going to make, I was enjoying the state of making instead. So now I don’t start with a reference or a picture in mind – it’s become more intuitive and based around movement: my shoulder goes left to right, up and down. It’s like my body is anchored in this dance, or a form of ceremony.
And why are you drawn to painting the ocean specifically?
It’s a question that has come up as I’ve wondered why my paintings seem to resonate with people. We are 90 percent made from water, and there’s a book called Blue Mind that lays out all the research into why we are drawn to water. The ocean was always recurring in my murals, but during the Covid lockdowns, looking out at the waves I would surf every morning and evening made it really dawn on me that the ocean is my muse, my teacher. It’s vibrational, and my paintings are infused with my intentions, with that feeling of utter peace and immersion in the moments of their creation. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s not only the ocean that gives us this profound feeling of peace but green spaces, and wide-open spaces where we can see the horizon too. Now I want to paint nature with nature. Mountains, waterfalls, rivers, deserts, jungles. I want to go to the cradle of humankind in South Africa, to the site where they found the bones of our earliest ancestors and harvest rock into pigment and paint right there in the same landscape.
How did you come to add plant dyes to your palette?
I spent a year working in black and white. In one of these lulls of the pandemic I flew over to Bali for a solo show with The Slow of these new water paintings – Bali is where I discovered surfing back in 2017, and the deep connection and understanding of the ocean that comes with it. In Bali I was introduced to an indigo master, Sebastian Mesdag, who is also an artist himself. He encouraged me to create my own relationship with indigo, and he took me on a journey up to the highlands to harvest the plant, to touch, feel and get to know it. He taught me how to grind it down into this deep purple paste. It’s like it’s from another planet. Then, over the next 24 hours as it reacts with the oxygen in the air, the color settles into this beautiful blue. Painting with indigo is such a joy. It’s so fluid, lush and bright, it’s like I’m massaging the dye into the fabric rather than pushing oil paint around a canvas. The whole spectrum of blue can be found in indigo, from the early morning light to the sunset’s reflection on the ocean, right through to the midnight sky. Now, I’m experimenting with the yellows of mango, the browns of coconut husks, the blacks that come from the Ketapang leaf, which is similar to the Indian Almond, and also incorporating batik-style printing into my paintings using beeswax. I source raw cotton canvas made on a handloom Sri Lanka, and I make my own frames from Suar wood in Bali and Mara wood in Sri Lanka. I am also working with metals, copper, oxidization, acid engraving, cyanotypes, lithograph and wood carving, and soon brass castings with The Woodstock Foundry in Cape Town.
As with naturally dyed clothes, plant dyes can fade when washed or exposed to the sun. Is this a concern, or part of the dynamic of working with natural materials?
It’s this concept of entropy that is intrinsic to the universe, which artists like Robert Smithson explored with their great Earthworks out in the desert. An idea that’s very much connected with Buddhist ideas of impermanence, and the suffering that comes from attachment. If my paintings were kept behind glass and out of the sun then they could last for hundreds of years, like those indigo pieces you can find in Japanese museums. But I don’t want my works to be bought as commodities, locked inside some storage facility – a monk doesn’t drink water and not enjoy it. I want people to be able to touch the paintings, to create a tactile relationship with them, and to savor the small and otherwise unnoticeable changes that will reveal themselves over the course of a lifetime. They then transfer the energetic resonance that comes from the materials of their creation, and the joy of their creation.
What are your intentions for the Śūnyatā studios you’ve built in Sri Lanka and Bali?
Śūnyatā is a Sanskrit term for the Buddhist teaching of emptiness – form is emptiness, and emptiness is form – and they are intended as a refuge to create. But unlike other artist’s residencies, I’m not asking people to submit a project proposal, I want people to come empty of expectations. I want to help others by inviting artists who are frustrated with the cities they live in, and their careers, to reconnect with creative selves, their true selves, by giving them the time and space to find inspiration and new ideas that would be hard to reach back in their cities. Śūnyatā Sri Lanka is the kind of place where you can get away from it all, while Śūnyatā in Bali offers the chance to make connections with other artists, craftsmen and collectors. Both are connected by the ocean.
Where can we find out more about your work?