Welcome to Planet ReeL

Deciphering the visual philosophy of an abstract artist.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by T Christian Gapen


rik ReeL is a force of nature. He’s imposing at 6 feet, 5 inches. He is verbally and physically expressive. His long arms move through the air when he is whirling-dervishing around his Ventura painting studio. His thoughts — and there were many — l will attempt to unravel in a moment.

Influenced by his artist mother Joan, who painted beach scenes, Erik (now 64) first experienced artistic validation from the public as a teenager. Joan exhibited her watercolors in shows around Puget Sound and the young Erik, who grew up in the gray, rainy climes of the Northwest, tagged along. 

“These exhibitions usually had three divisions, each with their own show: student, amateur and professional. When I was 15, I entered one in the student division. When we went to the show, my work wasn’t there, but I hadn’t received the usual rejection notice. So we asked, where was my work? They said, ‘Oh, the judges disqualified you from the student show, they insisted it had to be in the professional division.’ From then on, I was outlawed from all but the professional division in the regional shows,” he recalled, noting that his father, a gifted mechanic who worked for Boeing, was disappointed when the eldest of three sons decided to become an artist.

The budding artist took the early acclaim to heart.

In high school, ReeL remembers his art teacher, Miss Wendell, and two important books: Jung’s Man and His Symbols and the original version of Sir Herbert Edward Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting.

“I still consider these two of the best books on art written in the 20th century. If only a good fraction of our art writing achieved even half the depth of these two works, things would be a lot different in the art world of today. International-class art critics who have not read Sir Herbert Read do so at their own peril,” the painter warned.

Erik ReeL’s art is surprisingly accessible, but deep. It requires time, space and thoughtfulness to truly appreciate his language. He is a thinking person’s artist. He taught briefly — and it’s sort of a shame that he’s not teaching at the moment, as his brain contains a warehouse of information that should be shared with others. 

ReeL wants viewers to engage, experience and develop their own interpretations of his pieces. His works are not static, but change not only with the light, but also with the viewer’s mood. When a person is feeling happy, a work of art might seem happy. Viewing when depressed might reveal a darker aspect. ReeL’s work invites such encounters, although I have to say he errs on the side of joyous.

ReeL’s liquid acrylic canvases invite introspection. He has created his own hieroglyphics and it takes a Margaret Mead approach to decipher the language. My impressions during a visit to his Front Street studio (where a number of other artists work under the radar) included these thoughts: musical, chop suey, love, flotsam and jetsam, joy.

ReeLs’ website is titled “Visual Art and Philosophy.” If I’d noticed that before I visited his studio, I may have been less surprised by his rapid-fire espousal that included a lesson on Raphael’s tondo (round) painting, a survey of Northwest painting influences and the artist’s musical tastes, which range from East Indian ragas to improvisational jazz. Also significant, his lovely muse, Rhonda Hill, the publisher of EDGE, a voice for emerging fashion designers, who popped in and out for a quick hello and a goodbye kiss. 

Looking over my notes, his jazzy dialogue on the page looked like his paintings — a bit staccato, stream of consciousness and definitely open to interpretation. For example: neon tennis shoes, might take off, been drawing since 6 years old, oldest of three brothers, leftover shelf paper, specific triangle patterns, math major, animation, Boulder, Santa Fe, Seattle’s economy, Wagner’s The Ring, industrial insurance and local tax laws, Alex Ross, Bill Gates, fog smoke fires explosions, birds flocking, Morris Graves, Puget Sound, Sumi-e painting, Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, Albers color theory, screen saver, Beethoven, fluid acrylics, health care, uneven income, Pulse nightclub massacre, Korea, Ojai. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Although ReeL lives in Ventura with Hill in an elegant Midtown condo with a view, he considers himself a Northwest Coast artist. He cites an Asian and softer-imagery connection to Seattle-area artists, in contrast to SoCal leanings toward Latin/pop culture/Hollywood/hard-edge imagery. 

The artist admits to being influenced by Northwest School painters such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Other influences include Northwest mystic/Works Projects Administration (WPA) artist Guy Anderson (“a very good painter, virtually unknown outside Puget Sound area”); painter and muralist Kenneth Callahan, who wrote for the Seattle Times; George Tsutakawa, well-known for his fountains (ReeL studied sumi-e and sculpture with him at the University of Washington); and Paul Horiuchi, who created large Japanese paper collages.

ReeL is settled now, far from rainy Seattle climes, in sunny Ventura County, which also informs his canvases.

One could probably write a book about Erik ReeL’s life and art. Better yet, he could — and perhaps the artist and well-read thinker has one in the works. I’m sure he’s thought about it . . . and a whole lot more.

“I get treated a lot like I’m from another planet,” ReeL said to me as we wound down our visit. 

Those who enjoy mental and visual space travel might want to take a trip to Planet ReeL. Better yet, book a ticket to his entire galaxy. 

For more on Erik ReeL, visit

ARTISTIC MOVEMENT: His Ventura studio may be walking distance from the Southern California coast, but ReeL considers himself a part of the Northwest School, where Asian aesthetics and the cool, misty environment of Puget Sound combined to produce works known for their muted tones and subtle symbolism.

ABOUT FACE: ReeL holds up a piece of early work, a portrait on paper, that’s much more literal than his abstract murals and yet still holds a certain unfathomable quality.


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