For most people, work and leisure are separate entities, but local artist and entrepreneur, Chad “Cheeta” Ruis, is one of the lucky ones. For Ruis, work and play appear to blend as fluidly as the waves that caress the shoreline — where it just so happens he spends most of his time.
“When I’m not making art, I’m probably out surfing, and when I’m not surfing, I’m making more art,” said the Holmes Beach resident, whose art studio is in his house.
Creating art has always been Ruis’ livelihood, but only in recent years has he focused on pursuing his passion as a full time artist — a dream that a small percentage of artists ever fully realize.
Originally from Plant City, Ruis grew up dabbling in the arts. At an early age, he became immersed in the skateboarding and break dancing culture, where he earned his nickname: “Cheeta.”
As a teenager he developed his own brand, “Sk8 Ghost Wear,” and drew custom designs for his friends’ clothing and skateboards.
Ruis left Plant City and attended Tampa Technical Institute. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in commercial art and began a career in advertising and marketing.
While working for GTE to create ad designs for the Yellow Pages, Ruis started his own club promotional business in Ybor City called Cheeta Designs. He quickly realized that he was doubling his salary at GTE and left the company in 2000 to focus on his own business.
Ruis opened an ad agency in Tampa where he did graphic design, advertising and branding for corporate clients until 2007. Later, he went on to work as an art director and consultant, helping other ad agencies streamline their production.
In 2004, he took on two hobbies that would redefine his future: painting and surfing.
“When I started to paint, I was also just starting to learn how to surf,” said Ruis. “All the sudden, it felt like a page flipped in my life. All I wanted to do was paint and surf.”
After moving to Anna Maria Island to be closer to the beach, Ruis made the bold decision in 2009 to begin showing his work.
“I was very timid about it because I had never done it, but after getting my first sale at my first show, it kind of sparked for me. I thought ‘Oh, yeah, I like this,’” Ruis recalled.
In 2010, Ruis abandoned the advertising world entirely to strike out on his own as an independent artist, and as far as he is concerned, the world is his canvas.
“If it has anything to do with art, I’ll do it,” said Ruis. “I sell original pieces as well as commission pieces, I make signs for businesses, I do vehicle wraps and t-shirts and I still work on graphic design projects.”
Bright colors and fluid, curving lines dominate the scenes in Ruis’ work, much of which incorporates his love for surfing in the motion and energy of his signature rolling waves.
“Like surfing, making art is a progression and mine has evolved every year,” Ruis said. “I developed a really specific wave style with these ornate curves and just ran with it. My style is always changing, though, as I experience different emotions and inspirations.”
Other themes in Ruis’ work are trees and characters like his simple yet iconic “Little Karma Bird,” who made a huge splash when Ruis introduced him at the Surf Expo in 2009.
“I got really into making trees and realized I needed something to go in them, so I made this really simple little guy to place in the branches. All the sudden he was a huge hit.”
Ruis is the first to admit that forging a career as an independent artist can be challenging.
“As a full time artist, you have to hustle all the time,” he said. “It’s all about exposure and putting yourself out there. A lot of artists have a tendency to let their art sit in their houses or studios. They could be amazing artists, but no one is seeing their work.”
When Ruis began making art in Bradenton, he threw himself into doing live art at festivals, meeting with city commissioners to discuss public art projects and getting involved in volunteer projects like the 9th Avenue mural. He also approached Keeton’s Office & Art Supply for sponsorship.
“Like with anything, I believe in getting out there and just opening doors because you never know what kind of possibility lies behind them," Ruis said. I walked into Keeton’s looking for sponsorship and I have to give them a lot of credit— they’ve been a big help in my being able to create art in this area.”
In addition to actively seeking out opportunities, Ruis is disciplined about setting a new goal for himself every six months, like gaining media exposure or breaking into selling his art internationally — which he achieved in 2011 and 2012.
Currently, he sells most of his art from his Facebook page and continues reaching out to the community at various events in Bradenton, Sarasota, Tampa and other surrounding cities, but he’s always content to return to his studio on the scenic beach paradise that is Anna Maria.
“I really have it made here,” Ruis said. “It’s just such a great place to work and create. When the surf is up, I go do that, or I ride my bike around the island or go fishing. And when I’m not doing that, I spend the rest of my day painting. I couldn’t ask for a better lifestyle.”