The Most Interesting Man in the (Art) World
Adventurer and TOMS Shoes artist Tyler Ramsey doesn’t always make backpacks, but when he does they’re upcycled from billboards
By Christina Campodonico
Life and art are one big odyssey for Tyler Ramsey.
In his previous life as a television producer, Ramsey went rogue in a remote African jungle — until he ran out of booze. He once spent five days living in a glass box on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. And he very nearly, as The Atlantic reported, served as celebrity cover on an international human rights mission to rescue activist blogger Ali Abdulemam from Bahrain.
In keeping with such boldness, the Playa Vista-area painter has never owned a paintbrush. He would rather color outside the lines than be hemmed in by them.
“I think of myself more as an adventurer,” says Ramsey, who applies paint by splashing it directly from the tube or by hand. “My art is a collection of guided explosions. I embrace the element of unpredictability.”
Take a peek into Ramsey’s creative process on Tuesday when he opens up his studio at the CTRL Collective startup incubator to celebrate a new collaboration with Rareform — a Southern California lifestyle brand that makes backpacks, totes, surfboard bags and other accessories by upcycling old billboards.
The free art, music and food event is the second installment of the “Art Lives” campaign to raise awareness of sustainable fashion alternatives.
Best known for his colorful, Pollock-like paint-splatter designs for TOMS Shoes, Ramsey is working with Rareform to create a limited-edition line of bags from an art piece he made for a billboard in downtown Los Angeles.
Ramsey describes the raw material for this project as a sunburst with images streaming out of a cartoony version of his head. He based the design on a photograph taken of him around the time that he learned he was going to be a father. Ramsey and wife Jacquie Berg were driving back from Burning Man when she told him to pull over, pulled some balloons out of the car, told him they were having a baby and captured the Kodak moment. They expect their first child in May.
“It was a really special moment,” Ramsey says.
But it took a while for Ramsey to arrive at a sense of personal happiness and find peace with his artistic life.
Before transitioning to art full-time, Ramsey was a reality TV producer on shows such as “Survivor” that took him around the world, from Fiji to the Amazon. While working as a producer on “Survivor: Gabon” in 2008 he met his wife on the small African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, where kicked-off contestants were secluded from the press.
“I lost myself in this atmosphere [and] fell in love with my wife,” says Ramsey.
The exotic and whirlwind romance came with one major hiccup however: Producers weren’t allowed to fraternize with contestants. When the bigwigs at “Survivor” found out, they fired Ramsey. He packed his bags and all the alcohol he could find — Ramsey had a severe drinking problem at the time — and fled into the jungle with a Portuguese translator he had hired.
“I’d never been fired before, so I thought, ‘If I’m going to get fired, I’m going to start an international incident,’ so I disappeared into the jungle.” Ramsey told Nylon Magazine in a 2013 interview. “But after, like, two days, I had to come out for more alcohol.”
Ramsey eventually made it off the island and out of a hairy situation with local police through the help of a fixer, and turned his life around following the incident. He checked himself into rehab and ran a marathon to prove his love to Berg, a running enthusiast.
“I had to really put on the full-court press,” says Ramsey, who proposed to Jacquie in 2009 and married her a year later.
Turning over a new leaf also gave Ramsey the opportunity to pursue his passion for painting with greater commitment. Since childhood he had long dreamed of becoming an artist, like his grandfather, who first introduced him to abstract art.
“One of my earliest memories ever, I wandered into his art studio and instead of shooing me away he took time to explain his abstract painting. He was explaining how the circles and squares were about his experience in World War II. More interesting than storybooks,” he recalls of being immediately entranced.
Ramsey sees his official entry into the art world as TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie’s 2006 invitation to create splatter-painted shoes for the company, headquartered just around the corner from CTRL Collective.
“It took a hardcore entrepreneur to guide me from a creative place and turn it into a business,” says Ramsey. “That, at the time, forced me to go from zero to 60.”
Ramsey hasn’t stopped living life in the fast lane since. When he’s not painting, he might go on a 4,000-mile moped road trip with his buddy actor Armie Hammer or race sailboats around the marina with Mycoskie. That, and the thrill of becoming a father, are all part of his life’s great adventures.
The “Art Lives: Friendship is Magic” launch party happens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 15, at CTRL Collective, 12575 Beatrice St., Del Rey. Free. Visit facebook.com/rareform and ctrlcollective.com for more information.