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His art (a body of work he prefers to “keep separate” from his surfing life) took root in the 1990s, when curator Aaron Rose drew together a misfit crew – Ed Templeton, Steve Powers and Mike Mills to name a few – put on a series of ad-hoc shows at Alleged Gallery in the Lower East Side, took those outsiders around the world and, in 2008, mythologised their work in his Beautiful Losers film. On the West Coast, meanwhile, Mission School artists like Barry McGee and Chris Johanson were congregating around galleries like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, creating work that thrived in both public and private spaces. Thomas’s folksy homegrown style slid effortlessly into this niche.

“We were just a group of friends making different stuff,” says Thomas. “Some were younger and less evolved, like Chris Johanson was only a kid back then, but something was slowly… percolating. Were we ‘a scene’? Um… yeah. It was definitely a movement.”

Today, a Thomas Campbell original commands a pretty price tag. His most recent solo show – Capture and Release at Half Gallery in New York – brought together his brand new bronzes, recent paintings and ‘sewn paper stuff’, all on offer for $2,500-$30,000. While his ubiquitous style hangs in galleries the world over, at home Thomas does his best to put a shroud of anonymity over a level of fame that, twenty years in the making, he still finds “startling”.

“In my life I’ve created a scenario where it doesn’t reflect back to me very much, because I don’t want it to,” says Thomas of his stature in the art world. “We’re all just trying to find some kind of path that feels good.”

Thomas lives a secluded lifestyle in the mountains above Santa Cruz but travels the globe for well-publicised art events, and tries to temper his role of influential artist with his desire to achieve “balance and happiness, however that’s found”. When asked how he feels about being touted as an influential beacon of surf and skate culture, and a bastion of the DIY aesthetic, he replies simply: “For me it’s about making it. That’s what I’m interested in. I just do it. I love it.”

Countless short films show Thomas documenting the moments that culminate in art, but putting that process into words is another thing. So, how do you get an artist who doesn’t like to talk about his art, talk about his art? Sometimes the best way to understand a person’s story is to wander through the world they’ve created. Thomas’ is more colourful than most.

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