Skateboards and surfboards dominate the work of Atlanta illustrator Caleb Morris.
Sifting through Caleb Morris’s colorful illustrations of surfers, wooden ships, gigantic octopuses, and other icons of the ocean, you might assume he spends most of his free time riding waves. But you’d be wrong.
“I’m the worst swimmer ever,” he admits. “If I tried to surf, I’d be dead in 10 minutes.” The inspiration for all of those images comes from a childhood spent on the Mississippi coast, countless hours of fishing and crabbing, and long days just goofing off at the beach. “Now that I’ve been in Atlanta for six years, I feel landlocked, and it’s a source of some anxiety,” he says. “The more homesick I get, the more I end up drawing sharks and ships and surfers.”
Morris came to illustration as a profession later than most, only rediscovering his childhood love of drawing in his mid-20s, after a stint with a band came to an end in Los Angeles.
“When music didn’t turn all of us into millionaire rock stars, I started visiting a nearby comic book store, out of boredom,” he says. “There was also a lot of great street art in L.A. at the time, and being surrounded by all of that, I started drawing again.” And he kept on drawing, during uneventful shifts as a security guard in Gulfport, MS, and whenever he had time away from the grueling job of constructing Mardi Gras floats in Mobile, AL.
“I would go to the West Mobile Public Library and check out books by the Hudson River School painters like John Singer Sargent and Frederick Edwin Church, and illustrators like Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker,” he says.
Eventually, he carved out his own style, inspired by more contemporary illustrators like Peter de Sève, Michael Siebin, and Evan Hecox. Morris polished those skills during several years at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Before he’d even graduated, editors at HOW Magazine saw one of his promos and asked him to illustrate portraits of contributors for the front of the March 2012 issue, a project he completed on his winter break. “I must’ve redrawn those portraits 100 times because I wanted them to be perfect,” he says, laughing at himself years later.
Now he stays busy with a mix of client projects, most recently collaborating with agencies on work for Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Blue Moon. An unabashed animal lover who sports a tattoo of his last dog on his forearm, Morris volunteers his time creating portraits of dogs to raise funds for Lonestar Akita Rescue in Texas.
[Related reading: Character Study: The Whimsical Illustrations of Peter Donnelly | Southern Influences: The Identity & Illustrations of Matt Lehman | Turning Words into Images: Illustrator Mark Smith]
Morris is also passionate about skateboarding and the art and graphics associated with the sport, which, like surfing, is an activity that he enjoys from the sidelines.
“There was very little concrete where I grew up, so I’d watch skate videos with Christian Hosoi, and I’d even ride my Steve Caballero board back and forth in the kitchen,” he says. “But I never really got to participate.” Until Girl Skateboards flew him out to their California offices for a project; upon its completion, employees told him to help himself with anything he liked from their warehouse. “I grabbed an Evan Hecox board and spent the next 6 months half on the board and half on the ground, sore every day,” he says. “You definitely won’t be seeing me at the 2020 Olympics.”
“None of us had every run a gallery before, so it took a little while to get it figured out,” he says. “But it blew up pretty quickly—at many openings, you can’t even get in the door.” Neighbors have embraced the space and thanked Morris and others for adding to the city’s cultural landscape; the site is routinely listed as a hot spot in Creative Loafing, a site documenting the city’s arts community. Paper Ghost hosts Drawing Night every Tuesday, where you’ll often find students from SCAD, animators from the FX show Archer (produced in Atlanta) and locals just hoping to put their pencils to paper for a few hours. It’s one of the many things that helps make Morris feel more at home in the city.
“When I first moved to Atlanta, I had every intention of leaving as soon as I was finished with school,” he says. “But the longer I’ve been here, and the more I’ve gotten to know the neighborhoods, the more I’ve become enamored of the city.” That connection is clear in his “Atlanta Neighborhood” series, a project he assigned to himself with the goal of exhibiting at the gallery; in the process, he’s explored the unique character of each area, and discovered the specific places that locals hold dear. Posters are sold throughout the city, and sell out frequently, everywhere from Cameron Park, home to Paper Ghost, to Midtown, where Morris is probably inking an illustration this very minute.
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