Fish-eye perspective

Cocoa Beach artist starts cashing in by connecting local scenery to canvas

BY MATT BADOLATO FOR FLORIDA TODAY November 1, 2009

Propped on a wooden easel in Big Art Studios on a bustling Cocoa Beach afternoon is a nighttime painting of an Indian River canal, the dark water ablaze with neon bioluminescence as glowing fish shoot away from a skiff.

On a nearby wall, a 5-foot, olive green tarpon nearly leaps off its canvas. Rainbow splatters of paint are strewn across a workbench. And nestled in the corner of the room are a trolling motor and fishing rod.

The artwork and tackle belong to Rick Piper, an award-winning artist whose imagination stretches the boundaries of reality. He's as tall as a tree, but as down to earth as people come.

A former senior design engineer for the space program, Piper traded his lucrative career for life as a starving artist.

"I kind of grew up poor, so it was an easy transition," said Piper, 52. "But I've loved art since I was a kid and I knew that's how I wanted to leave my mark on the world."

And he has left marks. Paintings he once sold out of his Cocoa Beach driveway for grocery money now fetch up to $4,000. Thanks to a clan of collectors throughout Florida, Japan, Hawaii and the Caribbean, most of his new pieces are sold before the acrylic paint dries.

Using a funky, fish-eye perspective, he bends his viewer's perceptions around lush mangrove islands or through deep ocean reefs. His curvy horizons and psychedelic waveforms make for surreal landscapes, yet there is an essence of beachside culture in every painting.

"I call it barrier island style," Piper said. "I try to interpret what it's like to live on a narrow strip of land, the river on one side and the ocean on the other. I've had people approach my paintings and say 'Man, that's what it feels like to be here.' "

If anyone knows what it's like to be in tune with the beachside lifestyle, it's Piper. Since moving to Florida from the Midwest as a teen, he's been fascinated by the water and fish.

But despite his long hair, laid-back attitude and love of waves, Piper isn't a surfer. He attributes that fact to one surgically removed Achilles tendon and a self-proclaimed lack of balance. But that hasn't stopped him from creating mystifying surf paintings that have been featured in the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum.

"When I'm outdoors, I'm fishing," he said. "I love wading in the backwaters. It's a quiet, connected approach to fishing. You're right there where everything is happening."

He's also an avid surf fisherman, with pompano among his favorite catches. The high-energy surf zone fills his imagination with images that find their way onto canvas. For example, his piece titled "Storm School" portrays a pod of beach-run mullet swimming for their lives while being attacked by hungry snook during a thunderstorm.

Piper's favorite fishing memories revolve around time on the water with his son, Justin, who is now 28 and living in Connecticut.

"My dad was one of those tough, hard to get along with guys," Piper said. "But he and I bonded through fishing. It was a natural step to start fishing with my son as soon as he could walk. Fishing keeps the generations connected."

Along with their friend Mark Earle of Cocoa, the Pipers would fish every day during the summer months. Sight fishing for redfish was, and still is, one of their favorite ways to spend a morning.

"I can count how many times I went fishing with my dad," Piper said. "But Justin and I have spent thousands of hours together out there."

The artist has taught his son and friends more about the Indian River than just how to fish it. He's showed them how to respect it.

"Fishing isn't a blood sport," he said. "We love the fish and the habitat, so we're not out there just to kill, kill, kill."

One of his paintings, "Water Under the Bridge," harkens back to the halcyon days of shrimping.

A Picasso-like interpretation of the Melbourne Causeway in its days as a drawbridge, the painting features initials of his old fishing buddies inscribed on the bridge's pilings.

"I remember going fishing out on the causeway at 3 a.m. and everyone would be hanging out, joking around, trying to net shrimp out of each others' lights," he said. "Some nights there'd be literally millions of blue crabs and shrimp coming through. There were huge trout just sitting on the surface, too full to move because they were stuffed full of those shrimp."

Like "Water Under the Bridge," There's a story behind every painting.

His "Lemon and Reds" was inspired by a trip to Sebastian Inlet on a day when redfish were schooling on the surface in the outgoing current. As anglers reeled in reds, Piper watched as a 17-foot lemon shark feasted on 20-pound redfish.

And just as the giant shark in his painting is seizing the moment, so is Piper. He's taking in the world around him and showing its deepest beauty to anyone who lays eyes on his pieces.

"I like to evoke a sense of authenticity about my work. I want people to think, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like that before.' "

Contact Badolato at triplehelix@mail.com