Russell Crotty ponders the universe. Literally. Night after night, he peers through the telescope in his backyard observatory in Malibu, noting detailed observations of the moon and planets. These later are translated to drawings, books and Lucite globes.
His work can be seen in "Russell Crotty: The Universe from My Backyard," an exhibition on view through Apr. 22 at the Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Organized by curator Stephen Nowlin, the exhibition features eight globes as well as large drawings and books (2 x 4 ft.) documenting the ever-changing condition of the night sky.
The 44-year-old artist is tanned and tall, blonde and blue-eyed, looking every bit the surfer that he has been since the age of 13. With his wife, graphic designer Laura Gruenther, he moved to Malibu eight years ago as caretaker of a property on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Leaving his former digs in Los Angeles' Ramparts district meant a vast transition -- from dealing with urban gangs to dealing with blistering windstorms.
"It had a profound influence on the development of the work," Crotty says, sitting with a cup of coffee in the dining room of his house and looking out to sea.
Between 1990 and 1993, Crotty had developed a reputation for his repetitive, sketchy drawings in ballpoint pen of tiny, stick figures surfing enormous waves. Ironically, moving to Malibu where he could look at the coastline all day and surf whenever he desired, dampened his drive to continue his surf drawings.
One night, he stepped onto the front porch and looked up to see the crystal necklace of stars and planets scattered on velvet darkness. "It was like 'Aha!,' he recalls. "I knew I could make work out of that for a long time."
A member of an astronomy club as teenager, Crotty had a basic familiarity with the positions and appearances of stars and planets. He could identify Jupiter in the constellation Leo by its whiteness, for instance. In order to pursue his idea of drawing the universe, however, he dedicated himself to a program of study.
Crotty read books about astronomy, and learned how to make scientifically appropriate visual observations and detailed annotations. "It was a challenge for me, like a discipline I needed, like something lacking in my life," says Crotty, who admits he has no aptitude for science or math.
Once he was mentally prepared, Crotty built a corrugated metal shed about 500 feet from his house and commissioned Ed Grissom, a local amateur astronomer, to build a telescope facing away from the lights of L.A. and toward the deep black sky over the ocean. His Solstice Peak Observatory cost some $3,000.
Crotty was admitted to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, an organization of amateur astronomers who assist professionals. He met fellow members for star parties on Mt. Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest, far from any city light reflection and perfect for star gazing from high-powered portable telescopes.
This sort of visual observation of the stars dates to the Neolithic Age, but these days, astronomers rely less on looking at the sky and more on looking at computer data produced by high-powered telescopes.
Crotty is committed to the astronomy of the 19th century, a discipline still suffused with romance and mystery. "I am going back to the origins of visual astronomy," he says. "I like being out in the cold, with my paper on a clip board, making drawings of planets."
He makes straight scientific illustrations that are published in the journals of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. These serve as a departure point of his artwork. He began by making grids of drawings of the galaxies, similar in format to his surf drawings. Then he focused on a circle format that gives the viewer the impression of looking through the eyepiece of a telescope, a point of view that includes them in the experience of discovery.
In the mid-1990s, Crotty began commissioning the manufacture of giant sketchbooks in which to make his planetary drawings. Similar to oversized atlases, the books, which are chronological, allow the viewer a chance to experience the observations and changing celestial view from Malibu -- in a surprisingly intimate way: just by turning the pages.
A year and a half ago, he started drawing on paper-covered Lucite globes measuring between three and four feet in diameter. For example, in one three-dimensional version of the Earth, he renders the horizon line as seen from Malibu in dark silhouette, backlit by the reflected light of the city. The skies are tethered to manmade manifestations of architecture as well as spiky stands of pine and oak.
Critic Holly Myers, describing the show at the Williams Gallery, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "With its patient craftsmanship and ardent attention to detail, Crotty's conscientious fusing of art and science brings honor to both disciplines. Walking through his maze of cosmic spheres, it is difficult not to feel infected by his eager fascination."
Like so many artists, Crotty's work has its origins in his childhood. His father, Harry, was a sculptor; his mother, Jean, is a ceramist and jeweler who lives in Sausalito. Crotty grew up in Northern California in a milieu of artists and poets. His own house is full of paintings and pottery by his parents' friends including ceramicist Peter Voulkos.
"I always knew I wanted to be an artist," Crotty recalls. "My father used to give me 500 sheets of paper a month and I would go through it doing drawings."
At 13, Crotty started surfing and translated the experience into drawings. The following year, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and confined to his bed for extended periods. He escaped into his imagination by drawing cartoon-like scenarios with surfer characters and beach settings.
Around the same time, Crotty's father died of a heart attack. His mother bought him a telescope as a way of distracting him from his grief. Eventually, he became involved in an astronomy club and learned the rudiments of the discipline.
Yet, all of these youthful passions were forgotten when he went to the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating with honors and a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1978. He went on to the graduate program at UC Irvine but the culture shock of Orange County versus North Beach was traumatic.
"I couldn't even get an espresso!" he recalls. He so disliked the area that he moved back to Northern California after graduating with a master's degree in 1980. Yet, in 1984, he moved south again. "I realized there was much more happening in L.A. My friends were getting studios and shows."
Crotty tried his hand at painting for five years while covertly filling canvas notebooks with his ballpoint-pen sketches of surfers on waves and terse, poetic texts. He wrote lengthy commentaries on the covers of the books and signed them with pseudonyms. The books intrigued artist-curators Jan Tumlir and Kevin Sullivan, who selected them for a show called "Frontier Tales" at the alternative space L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions in 1990.
Crotty says, "It was a turning point. I realized that painting was not happening for me." He also realized that what he had been doing as a sideline all those years was actually his real work.
During the early '90s, he pursued the surf drawings, at times expanding them as grids of repeating images as large as an entire wall. Around that time, cartoon-based art was achieving critical appreciation in the work of artists like Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon. Crotty was swept along with the wave.
"I didn't think the work would be accepted, but the opposite happened," he says. "A lot of people acquired the work." He had gallery shows and his work was illustrated on the cover of Art Issues magazine in 1991.
Meanwhile, Crotty and Greunther, who had married in 1988, took a belated honeymoon to Europe in 1990. "It seemed every little town in France had its own art space with good work," Crotty recalled. When they returned, they moved into an old Victorian house in the Ramparts district.
They converted their extra room into what they called the Guest Room and showed the work of artists who were having difficulty getting exposure, Carter Potter and Kathy Chenowith among them. Art critic Michael Duncan, then a screenwriter, wrote his first piece for their small catalogue. "It was totally noncommercial but we would have parties for each show and it built a community," Crotty says.
Two years later, by moving to Malibu, Crotty became less connected to that community of artists but more connected to nature. "I've always been a country boy," he says. During Santa Ana conditions, when winds whip through Malibu at 60 miles per hour, Crotty climbs into a sturdy oak tree and hangs on to experience the surging power around him.
Due to the overcrowded waves, he surfs at night and often camps out on the beach. He reads John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson and wonders at artists who cling to theories that insist cultural conditioning prevents us from having an authentic experience of nature.
Loping along the path overlooking the gunmetal ocean, amidst the fragrant sage and old oaks, Crotty asks rhetorically, "What is this? This is not an intellectual construct. This is actual. I'm not a fan of theorists like (Jean) Baudrillard. I like Carl Sandburg."
At night, when he is alone in the observatory staring for hours at distant planets, making painstaking drawings illumined by a tiny flashlight held in his mouth, he feels part of a world much larger than that of art. Back in the studio, he expands and alters these first hand impressions. Although he does not consider himself a writer, he sometimes adds his own "bad poetry" or observations.
The response to this work has been gratifying. He's represented by Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica, and his work, which sells from between $5,000 and $20,000, is slated for inclusion in a Museum of Modern Art drawing exhibition to be held in New York in 2002.
"The main thing is the awe of it all," Crotty says. "The awe of looking through a telescope at the 'ancient light' of the planets. That's the phrase used by poet Kenneth Patchen. Ancient light. It's simple but it expresses so much."
"Russell Crotty: The Universe From My Backyard," is on view at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida Street in Pasadena through April 22, 2001.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.