The Long Strange Growth of Ornamental Conifer
Art can be judged on an almost infinite number of criteria from technical skill, monetary value, importance in an artist’s body of work, etc. The best criteria, we feel, is judging art based on how it makes you feel. When viewed in that context, the art created by Ornamental Conifer (aka Nicolai Sclater) is awesome. Looking at it, it’s hard to not be happy. In a world like this one, that is something that has a value more than money.
Nicolai’s story begins in England. He was born to a Norwegian father and a British mother who always encouraged him to paint and draw. They further encouraged this by not having a television in the house nor allowing him to play video games. The family spent many summers in Norway where a young Nicolai found himself drawn to traditional Norwegian furniture, covered in writing. He always preferred to write and draw onto objects and surfaces rather than in a sketchpad or notebook. He also found himself interested in comic books, their neat lettering and bright colors clearly serving as an early influence.
At the age of fifteen, Nicolai got himself kicked out of school and found work in a mechanic’s shop doing oil changes and changing spark plugs, and by night he was out painting trains with paint stolen from his unwitting employers.
“I thought working in a garage I’d be building custom cars but I wasn’t. I was just changing spark plugs.” said Sclater. “But the upside to that was that I could go out the back, and they didn’t know how much paint they had. Though, that didn’t last long.”
After a couple of years painting trains and generally being a “graffiti bum”, Sclater figured he’d try and turn art into a career. Armed with a less than crystal clear idea of how he’d do that, he enrolled at Middlesex University in their graphic design program.
“Since I’d been kicked out of school at fifteen, I had no real qualifications so the bigger, more prestigious uni’s wouldn’t have me. The great thing about Middlesex was the fact that I was able to use all of the different facilities, rather than being stuck doing only graphic design. I could design something and then take it to the screen printing lab or the wood shop or whatever.”
Despite not actually wanting to pursue a career in graphic design, Nicolai’s interest in typography pulled him through and he graduated. After school, he found a warehouse space with several acquaintances from school that offered both incredibly cheap rent, and ample space to work. Soon after, he met his wife Stephanie. She encouraged Nicolai to make a serious attempt at turning his art into a career.
Sclater’s first big commercial success came with a commission from British clothing label Ted Baker to work on a large installation in New York’s meat packing district. This led to a relationship as an unofficial ambassador for Edwin, a Japanese denim brand. The relationship with Edwin led to greater international exposure as well as a regular buyer for his work. Eventually, Nicolai and his wife left England for her native Australia, which had the unexpected benefit of establishing Conifer as a global artist, rather than a “London artist” and more and more commissions poured in as a result. It was also during this time that Sclater met the folks who run the famed Australian surf/moto/clothing/art/coffee collective, Deus Ex Machina. This would prove to be one of his most important relationships and one that he maintains today.
Despite being deeply involved in and associated with motorcycle culture, much of Ornamental Conifer’s work transcends that, or at least shrugs off many of the stereotypes associated with moto culture. His work eschews many of the aggressive, serious tones of “biker art” and instead focuses on lighter colors, specifically pinks and blues and more positive messages. In fact, some of his work takes lighthearted jabs at the seriousness and toughness of biker culture.
“People refer to someone who rides a motorcycle as a biker, and that’s a term I don’t really like. I come from BMX and graffiti, you know, I listen to hip hop. The whole beards, tattoos, and hardcore chopper club, Sons of Anarchy thing doesn’t apply to my friends and I. So, my application of lettering onto leather jackets and helmets, that’s quite common in the motorbike world, but not the way I do it. I make sure its poking fun at yourself or poking fun at the culture, without being offensive.”
So, it’s because of this outlook that “If you don’t belong, don’t be long” turns into “If you don’t belong, don’t worry” and other phrases enter the Ornamental Conifer pantheon. He even manages to take words that are loaded with cliche and turn them into something that comes across more as a genuine celebration rather than repeated jingoistic claptrap, such as he did with his “Freedom earned from throttles turned” which has found its way onto more than one leather jacket.
After a year in Australia, Nicolai and his wife thought it was again time for a change and decided to try life in Los Angeles. After what I can only imagine was a tedious and nerve-racking moving experience, they arrived and settled in Venice. Long a hub of surf and moto culture, Venice has been undergoing a difficult period of growth and gentrification. What was once something of a sanctuary by the beach for the down and out or the left of center is now unbelievably expensive and packed with young people of the new “app class”. They call it Silicon Beach. Still, the famous Los Angeles light and lifestyle started to bring new things out of Nicolai’s work. What was once a palette of blues and pinks now started to see pale greens and browns added to mirror the palm trees that are so ubiquitous throughout the southland.
Sclater also began to draw inspiration from and lines of similarity to artists like David Hockney, also a Brit, who’s own California period so drastically differed from his earlier European work. Hockney’s use of bright color and sharp lines and flat surfaces stood out in a new way when those colors surround you and that flat modernist architecture is everywhere you look.
Having recently returned from a trip to Bali on behalf of Deus to set up a show of his own work, Conifer was set to leave for Australia again in a few days. He’s busy now, a good thing for an artist. When asked about his plans for the near future he talked about a couple of gallery shows happening in Los Angeles over the next year. He also mentioned wanting to start offering small pop-up collections of his work on his website that would retain the special, limited feel of things but make it more accessible to more people.
It would seem that despite tremendous odds, Nicolai Sclater aka Ornamental Conifer, has done the impossible and built a sustaining career as an artist in the age of the internet. He seems to have done it having made a minimum amount of concessions to other people, and remained true to his ideals and interests. Work continues to come in, he continues to travel. Having followed his work for several years now, it’s incredibly exciting to see someone like Nicolai succeed and we absolutely cannot wait to see what he does in the coming years.
For more information about Ornamental Conifer, check out his Instagram: www.instagram.com/ornamentalconfier
For more information on his work with Deus Ex Machina, including some of their capsule collections of clothing featuring his artwork, visit: www.DeusCustoms.com