Living His Dream/Artist finally finds fortune

Space worker-turned painter cashes in on his leap of faith


Rick Piper is making up for lost time. At 50, the award-winning Cocoa Beach man, drawn to art since childhood, says he spent too much time caught up in making money as a design engineer with the space program and not enough time living an authentic life.

That all changed 10 years ago after he watched a PBS special about artist Alexander Calder. He was struck by the sheer volume of Calder's work and knew he had to get busy painting.

"At that moment, this thing flashed through my head -- I don't have enough time left," Piper said. "I've lost 20 years of good work by listening to my father say, 'You can't make a living off art.' "

Piper is now a popular artist whose work is sold almost as soon as it is made. He has amassed 12 new pieces, plus some unusual lamps he's fashioned, into a one-man show opening Friday at Juice 'n Java Café in Cocoa Beach.

Piper's dazzling, curvilinear, surreal seascapes advertise companies such as Quiet Flight and Monte Alegre Vineyards, hang in upscale homes and small apartments, and have shown twice at the Brevard Museum of Art and Science. He also has painted murals for homes and businesses such as Coconuts in Cocoa Beach, Salty Marine in Titusville and Boom Fitness in Cocoa Beach.

"I see him expanding his popularity and ability," said Tony Sasso, executive director of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum. "He's one of the handful of artists in the community who is very much beloved. He's part of the Cocoa Beach culture. We're very proud of him."

Last month, he accomplished the near impossible: His painting, "Flowing Oak and Rocketree," won best of show and the purchase award at the museum's juried show.

"I think he's found a unique way to portray a lot of the natural beauty that people gravitate toward here," museum curator Jackie Borsanyi said. "So many times you see it just head on and it's kind of flat because it doesn't capture the reality of nature. Because of his funky perspective and his fish-eye view, you really feel like you're immersed in it instead of being an observer. I think that's the difference between him and a lot of people who are painting the same scene.

"But he's found a way to pop it, to get your attention and really give you that sense of place."

But it took a leap of faith 10 years ago to get Piper to that spot.

A tall, gregarious man with a ready smile and handshake, Piper gave up his $75,000-a-year space industry job creating 3-D computer models of astronauts floating alongside the International Space Station, moved out of his four-bedroom canal home and began living the life of a struggling artist.

And he couldn't have been happier . . . or hungrier.

He ate at friends' homes, advertised his work by setting art out in front of his tiny home on A1A and sold his work for ridiculously low prices just to buy food and the next canvas.

"I was known as the guy with big paintings on Eighth Street," he joked.

Now, his work sells for up to $4,000.

"I work more than I ever worked," he said, beaming. "I have blissful days."

He typically stays up until 4 a.m. painting at his Cocoa Beach studio. He turns out about two or three large paintings every week. His work reveals his fascination with nature, especially water and how it refracts light.

Piper imbues a figurative sensibility to his distorted landscapes and seascapes. They rise and fall and lift into lines leading the eye around the lush canvas.

Like Piper's disarming lack of pretension, his paintings have a raw authenticity to them.

Surprisingly, the highly saturated hues come from a combination house paint and artist's acrylic paint.

While his work showed at last season's "Art of Surf Culture" exhibition at the Brevard Museum of Art and Science, Piper eschews being classified as a "surf artist" and said his work extols the amazing beauty of water.

Which, of course, is ironic since he doesn't swim. Indeed, he said he sinks like a rock despite his father, an evangelist preacher, who tried to teach him to swim by throwing Piper into the deep end.

"I'm not a good swimmer at all," he said. "I was always terrified of water."

Being raised in a strict Church of Christ household, Piper read the Bible frequently and went to church five times a week. Prayers were commonplace and an adherence to Biblical teaching was expected.

Although he's not convinced of any religious connection to his work, the fascination with water and fish and the circular forms evoke classic religious iconography.

"Not to mentions sometimes when he has his face or some other face up in the clouds looking down through rays," Sasso said. "I see some of that, too. He'll center attention up in the sun or clouds, like it's on high looking down."

Piper likes to take surprising points of view in his work. One he's still working on, "A Stallion Sea," shows emerald waves galloping toward the beach.

One of his most recent works, "Dreaming in the Sea Bed," began when he contemplated falling asleep on the beach. He started thinking of the ocean as a blanket and the "strange state of mind" one is in after awaking on the beach.

"The art of moving water, that, to me, was fascinating," he said. "I can get into a whole rant on that. I talk about that a lot with my art. A friend labeled it a 'common primitive.' Why people are looking at the waves on the beach. It's akin to why people are mesmerized by watching fire. The movement of the flickering flames, the same kind of curve."

Calling himself "visually inspired," Piper was recently diagnosed with type II diabetes. He takes walks twice a day to maintain his health. On those walks, he'll keep an eye out for images that will morph into a vision.

He might see a needlefish darting out of a curving mangrove, he said, and that will start his artistic vision. But it has to be authentic and profound to him before it will move his viewer.

"I'm going to do what I was put on this Earth to do," he says. "I have enough ideas for 50 years."


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Somewhere beyond the sea. Rick Piper's work, "Dreaming in the Sea Bed," symbolizes a snooze on the beach, with an intricate wave acting like a blanket and a subtle bed frame hidden in the blue sky. Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY
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Rick Piper's "A Stallion Sea"
Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY

The details
What: "Rick Piper: A Showing of New Original Art" exhibition Where: Juice 'n Java Café, 75 N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach When: 7 p.m. Friday Cost: Free Information: Call 783-6943 or 604-0817 or visit More: Rick Piper's BIG ART Studios, 18 N. Brevard Ave., Cocoa Beach