Michael Torquato deNicola is an artist and surfer. Born and raised in Southern California, he draws inspiration from the ocean and the beauty of nature. His collage style allows him to combine a plethora of meanings and references, fascinating the viewer with the color palette, shapes, and visual rhythms.
Fine Art Shippers spoke with Michael Torquato deNicola about his journey as an artist, the way he feels about the world, and his extensive travels.
Artist Talk: Michael Torquato deNicola on Being a Surfer Artist
You grew up in Los Angeles and, as you say, have been influenced a lot by the ocean and nature. What role did the ocean play in you becoming an artist?
Michael Torquato deNicola: I was introduced to swimming in the ocean because I was asthmatic and my parents wanted to strengthen my lungs. So it was first about my health and well-being, but it also had a great impact on my personality. The natural environment is unpredictable. To be a surfer, you have to be alert and able to react to and anticipate natural events.
The sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment that I developed as a surfer is part of being an artist. Because art is about feeling the world around you and trying to convey that emotional state through the artifacts you create.
How do you feel about the ocean? What kind of connection is that?
The Ocean is alive and always changing with the winds, swells, and tides. The act of surfing is a collaboration with this natural and dynamic environment. It teaches us to be present in the moment so we can adapt, predict, and play with the waves. The Ocean itself teaches us lots of lessons. It can reward us with a great wave to ride and humble us with its tremendous power. At the end of the day, the Ocean and Mother Nature are far greater than any of us. They are a life force of our planet, and we all need to be mindful to protect our natural environment and do our best to keep it healthy, alive, and thriving.
How did you start making art? What motivated you?
Growing up, I was always painting and doodling. My father was an avid photographer and I loved watching him develop film in the darkroom. My grandmother, who was a teacher and also worked for the Getty Museum, often took me to museums. From a young age, I was surrounded by art and had the opportunity to see artists from all over the world and admire different techniques and styles.
Which artists and movements have influenced you most?
I have many influences from a wide variety of artists and movements. As a child and young adult, I was fascinated by Joan Miro’s surrealist painting, his use of unique characters, and the way he created dreamlike worlds in which they lived.
Peter Beard is my inspiration in mixed media and collage. I had seen some of his work and then met him after I had been doing my own collage work for quite some time. He showed me some of his large works and sketchbooks. The rawness and precision and combinations of materials were so beautiful.
Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings always inspire awe in me and give me a true sense of connection and wonder.
Street art has also influenced me greatly. It accompanies me in my daily life. It’s on the streets around my studio in downtown Los Angeles and around the beaches I surf all around Southern California. I also use many street art materials in my practice.
Shephard Fairey is one of the great street artists I admire. I love the concept of phenomenology and the repetition of an icon or logo. His techniques, execution, and repetition of imagery are amazing.
The godfather of West Coast graffiti, Chaz Boroquez, is my inspiration in this genre. And I find it interesting that a Japanese teacher at the Chouinard Art Institute influenced him significantly with the fluid brushstroke with watered pigments.
Please tell us about the Torquato character that appears in your works. What does he represent? What is the story behind him?
Torquato is my middle name. It comes from my paternal grandfather, who is from Italy. Growing up, I had never heard of anyone with that name, and I was a little embarrassed. I tried to look it up and could not find a definition or background for it. It seemed strange to me and I did not want other kids to make fun of me, so I called myself Michael T. deNicola.
Much later, when we started creating websites for our art, the domains like Mikedenicola.com and MikedeNicolaart.com were already taken by other people. It was around that time that I began signing my work with my middle name Torquato to distinguish myself. And naturally, I used that name for my website as well: IamTorquato.com.
At that time I had made a surfing game called Five X, sponsored by Red Bull. I created the game itself and all the artwork to support and activate the 5X game out in the world. All the marketing and promotional materials, the animations on TV, etc. were based on my collages and stencils on which I placed the Red Bull logo, two bulls going head-to-head. I also invented Torquato, a character that animates one of the bulls and brings it to life. However, Red Bull did not like me playing around with their logo, so I put the character aside.
But there was something about it that I loved. So over time, I started writing a backstory for the character and incorporating him into my paintings and other artwork. I gave him my middle name and created a definition for the Torquato character: Born of water and stoke, Torquato is the Action – Hero inside each of us who says, “Yes You Can!” This goes all the way back to 2005.
Besides Red Bull, you have collaborated with Marie Claire and the Olson Company. What kind of work was that?
I met the fashion editor of Marie Claire at an art show in New York. Their team was heading to Paris for the couture shows. They came to my studio after the shows and told me about their experiences and the trends they had seen. They asked me if I had any ideas, and I wrote a little story and sent it to them as a sketch. A few weeks later, they called me and said they were shooting my idea in Iceland. They sent me a ticket, and I joined them there. The team they assembled was great. We got great images that were well received.
A year later, they called me again and asked if I had any more ideas. I had just returned from the Galapagos Islands and showed them pictures. They put together the same team as the year before, and we went back to the Galapagos and Ecuador for another shoot. It was an incredible collaboration.
As for the Olson company, it all started in the late ’90s when my parents submitted some of my artwork to the Surf City USA art festival. It was accepted and won first prize for mixed media. At that show, I met the owner of the Olson Company, whose home building business was booming. I had been making a lot of artwork but not showing it. He bought a couple of small works and asked me if I had more, as he was moving to a large facility to keep up with his company’s growth.
I rented a truck and put together a personal show of about fifty works for him in the new space. He was thrilled and purchased more artwork. As their business expanded to San Francisco, San Diego, and Ventura, I became their official artist. My work filled their interior spaces to promote a creative and positive work environment at each of their locations.
You have traveled extensively, including to hard-to-reach and exotic places. In what ways do your travels feed your art?
I find the people and cultures, their traditions, architecture, surroundings, and the natural color palette of the seasons and landscapes fascinating and inspiring. These things intrigue and interest me very much, and I’m very grateful for these experiences. My work is often like a journal where I’m trying to capture the essence of these experiences and inspirations, first out of gratitude for them and later to share them with others.
What natural environments have impressed you the most and why?
Oh, there’s been so many. The first thing that comes to mind is the Galapagos Islands, where nature is preserved and alive. You can see turtles, stingrays, and sharks, and play with sea lion cubs in the water. When you experience this for the first time, you realize how fragile nature is and how important it is to preserve each element to keep it in balance.
Thus, I have traveled to some remote parts of Indonesia where the natural environment is completely destroyed. If you walk on a deserted island, you will see vast amounts of plastic waste accumulated in the sea because of the winds and currents. You can see our impact on the environment, and it’s terrifying.
How would you like viewers to feel about your art?
I think the best-case scenario is feeling inspired, curious, hopeful, engaged, and empowered to be the best version of themselves. I want people to feel good and hopeful.
Photo courtesy of Michael Torquato deNicola