If there is such a thing as “art roommates,” Coco Barrett-Tormey and Kyle “Juice” Johnson could be the poster children for the concept. Johnson runs a custom surfboard shaping and sign painting shop, and Barrett-Tormey is a potter best known as the artist behind Coco Chispa pottery. The pair share a studio in the center of the industrial Westside. Amid the clamor of constant construction and in the shade of the afternoon light, they aren’t so much nestled as sprawled.
“You should have seen our old studio. Oh my gosh,” Barrett-Tormey exclaims. “It was tiny.”
“Like it came out to here,” Johnson says, shaping his arms into a box in the corner of the room. “Maybe 20 by 20 feet.”
“We luckily got along really well at first, because we couldn’t escape each other,” Barrett-Tormey says. “Our businesses are so different, but because we are so physically close to each other, we help each other out and encourage each other. Each success lifts the other person up, too.”
Barrett-Tormey and Johnson relocated to their present, much larger studio about a year ago. Between Johnson’s studio downstairs and Barrett-Tormey’s mass of of mountain mugs stacked on the upstairs balcony, the two have created a two-story artistic oasis. They can now comfortably fit dozens of surfboards, hundreds of mugs and a big fluffy white dog in their space.
The two somewhat solitary acquaintances found themselves sardined into a tiny studio out of financial necessity three years ago, but now they can’t imagine not sharing a space. “Juice knows me so well that he is constantly reflecting back on me who I am. That makes me feel a lot more confident,” Barrett-Tormey says. “In a lot of ways the community in Santa Cruz does that for me, too.”
The woman in cheetah print heels making mugs and the surfer dude creating one-of a-kind boards have more in common than it initially seems. They are also both avid outdoors people. Barrett-Tormey’s signature handmade mountain mugs and cantines are inspired by backpacking trips in the Sierras, and Johnson’s board-shaping is a natural extension of his passion for surfing. They have collaborated on a few projects, including a surfboard with Barrett-Tormey’s mountain designs on it and a few mugs.
“We are both practicing skills,” Barrett-Tormey says. “Sign painting and making surfboards—those are skills and will never not be important. It’s the same with pottery. There are older people who are way better at it, but a handmade mug is something that will always be special.”
It’s interesting, though, that the nature-loving artists chose a space in a noisy, industrial space surrounded by construction and building.
“I like the contrast of going out to surf, then coming to work here and there is clanging steel and high beams around,” Johnson says. “It’s an industrial space, but with our work the human touch is all over it.”
Barrett-Tormey started making pottery in Santa Cruz five years ago, eventually getting her own wheel and kiln on Craigslist. She started selling her work in Santa Cruz, and has since expanded to retailers across the country. She’s recently signed a deal with REI and is in the process of shipping them 1,000 mugs.
“I’ve been lucky enough to feel like there is this momentum, and all I have to do is keep up and make sure it doesn’t snowball away from me,” Barrett-Tormey says. “Pretty much every day, Juice and I remind ourselves that we are so lucky. That’s important, to remind yourself that you are lucky all the time.”
When he’s not shaping new boards, Johnson is behind seemingly every local business sign around, including Companion Bakeshop, Marianne’s, Mutari, Specialized Auto and Davenport Roadhouse. Originally from Los Angeles, he moved to Santa Cruz 10 years ago to shape surfboards alongside some of the local legends at Arrow.
“When I tell people that I paint signs and build surfboards for a living they say, ‘Oh, that’s fun!’ And yes, I was initially drawn to both crafts because they are fun, but they’re also professions that I take very seriously; there is a lineage and set of rules to follow with each one,” Johnson says. “I never thought I could be a sign painter nobody ever told me that’s a real job, but it is if you make it one.”
The two artists say that even though they probably have the means to move into their own spaces, they probably wouldn’t. The feedback they get from each other is important, and the daily conversations about art, waves and life are invaluable.
“We are so close now, we have our own little jokes that no one else will think are funny,” Barrett-Tormey says. “It’s pretty easy. That’s how it should be.”