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Even the art of The Beach Boys' 'SMiLE' album tells a story

'SMiLE' artist Frank Holmes shares the story behind 'Two Steps to Lamplight,' the image created to accompany The Beach Boys' song 'Surf's Up.'

By Frank Holmes
Finding an image to reflect an idea or situation has always been the job of an artist. That is, if you are not using abstraction to express an emotion or sensation, you need to think things through in a specific way.

There is a requirement to cultivate and court the thought process in order to bring something forward in the way of concrete imaging. This works somewhat like the chickens scratching in the yard, trying to find something to eat. What are they thinking at that time is anybody’s guess — maybe this is a pebble, this is food, I guess we can use both. This works the same in any creative endeavor with literature, music or art. It has to do with thinking of a direction to peruse and divining the imagery to go with it.

Frank Holmes art for SMiLE

Frank Holmes used two points of view for this image, which was created to accompany the song "Surf's Up" on The Beach Boys' 'SMiLE' album.

The imagery in “Surf’s Up” is rather loaded. I wanted to focus on a simple concept and use a limited reference to nature and enlightenment. This would be a way to get the drawing going without a lot of detail getting in the way. I began to draw with this basic limited outline. I used Asian art influences and some pop art ideas that were available and fitting for this work.

(Explore the music of Brian Wilson.)

The 1960s were a dramatic time of change. All aspects of society and the arts were undergoing a massive transition. This was especially evident in music and art. The change in painting began with the fading of abstract expressionism. It had begun to disappear, like the buffalo, as artists jumped ship and began to return to the image. This, along with the demise of the Beat generation, began to change my connection with both of these entities. This change of directions affected me, and I began to get interested in replacing it with the significance of pop art. I was finding my way by depicting ordinary concrete images. These images could be found in everyday life in the commercial popular art of our culture. Comic books, magazines, objects and elements of advertising, all of this was delivered by a lowbrow form of art that achieved a highbrow status on its own merit.

Some of the best images representing our culture are found in music. It is the poetry of an American culture put to music, and a great source of inspiration. This drawing of “Surf’s Up” is a reflection of the lyrical reference to the song “Surf’s Up” in the “SMiLE” album by The Beach Boys.

“Surf’s Up” was written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks in 1967, the same year I did this drawing of “Surf’s Up.” This drawing is in the form of a circular motif, drawn with India ink, colored pencil and felt-tip pen. It is done in a loose style with the intent to avoid the refinement of the commercial work I was borrowing. I was a student at a fine arts institute where highly finished work was considered frozen and without expression. I was avoiding this and exercising an attitude of casualness that would contribute some freshness to my work. There was no need to claw at the work, just relax and do it. This attitude facilitated my execution of the work with ease.

In this drawing I have used two points of view. There is an aerial view of the floor and a normal head-on view of the wave. This indicated the surreal world of two realities in a dream state. You get more for the asking than a one-on-one investigation of the elements. The wet surf is up, and the wooden floor is down. I arrived at this through the surfer expression of inside-outside wave, a navigation position of where you are in relationship to the wave. I also had access to the song “Surfin’ USA” (… inside, outside, USA …); the lyric line I used was surf’s up inside. I composed this idea with the blue surf wave about to break inside a room with no walls and separated with a white baseboard going east to west. Above the wave is the blue sky with a glowing red sun and a few white clouds. This is a standard cliché and one that ties us to nature. This is where life began and life exists. As the viewer is confronted with the two situations, you realize one belongs to nature and one to man.

On the rustic floor is the depiction of a dance step. There are some arrows, dashes and two footprints denoting the step. This is a pop art idea derived from an advertisement for Arthur Murray Dance Studio lessons found printed in magazines and on matchbook covers to advertise the studio and promote business. The purpose of this element was to direct the eye and create movement to the oil lamp sitting on the floor in a circle of yellow light.

This lamp refers to a simpler time, when there was no electricity and fewer concerns than face us now. The dance-step diagram has a double meaning. It was my chance to employ some wordplay. One is the two-step (a dance) to lamp’s light, and the other is to step (the infinitive) to lamps’ light. The inference is leaving the darkness and stepping to the light or enlightenment. Or, dancing the two-step to the light or enlightenment; it doesn’t matter how you do it, just get it done. We are living in the present and looking at the past, where the light and enlightenment were elusive guideposts.
The red sun represents eternal light through nature. We connect with the force of nature and rely on it to be there when we need it. Just as the wave breaks on the shore in rhythmic patterns, we recognize the similarity to our own patterns in life. All of these elements, both direct and indirect, reflect the mood and atmosphere of this one important aspect of “Surf’s Up.” This work is a result of my freedom to create in a personal way by interpretation without acknowledging any suggestions from the outside. Having had this opportunity, I realize and appreciate this rare occasion of how this can represent the true reflection of a free spirit.