Surfing Artists Go with the Flow

Photo by Chris Burkard.jpg
A surfer catches the tube in this untitled photo by Arroyo Grande photographer Chris Burkard.

Blame The Beach Boys. Ever since Brian Wilson and his bandmates invited listeners to join them on a "Surfin' Safari" in 1962, surfing -- that water-skimming sport invented by the ancient Hawaiians -- has been associated with Southern California.

For some in the Golden State, surfing is a pastime. For others, a passion. And in San Luis Obispo County, where college kids share the lineup with clean-cut professionals and grizzled, gray-bearded hippies, it's a way of life.

Here are four Central Coast artists who draw their inspiration from surf culture.

Untitled photo by Chris Burkard
Untitled photo by Chris Burkard

Chris Burkard, nature lover

In the fall of 2006, Arroyo Grande photographer Chris Burkard set off on an unusual odyssey. Together with fellow surfer and Central Coast native Eric Soderquist, he spent two months surfing the California coast, traveling from the Oregon border to the Tijuana Sloughs in a 1978 Volkswagen bus.

Their adventures, chronicled in the 2009 book "The California Surf Project," "really resonated with the residents of California," recalled Burkard, the overall winner of the 2010 Red Bull Illume photo competition. "It really paid tribute to California as a whole."

Now a staff photographer for Surfer magazine, Burkard travels the world in search of the perfect wave.

"I aim to document the natural world. That's where the beauty of surfing lies," said Burkhard, who's traveled to such exotic locales as Iceland, India and Indonesia. "It's about taking a look at the landscape first, and having that be the most important element of the photo. Waves are secondary."

According to Burkhard, who got his start snapping black-and-white photos of his friends in community college, surf photography can be challenging, even dangerous. "You definitely have to feel comfortable in the ocean," said the photographer, who sometimes must get within inches of his subjects. "You can't allow fear to creep in when you've got a surfer riding a fiberglass board aimed at your head."

Still, he said, "The way light plays on water is one of the most stunning things you can ever witness. There's nothing like it. Nothing can compare to the ocean in all its moods."

Although Burkhard loves landscapes, he's always careful to include a human element in his photographs. "There's something really magical about someone watching or being in the lineup," he said, who's currently working on a companion book for the bodysurfing documentary "Come Hell or High Water." "It's all a matter of selling the dream ... of people being able to place themselves (in) the moment ...

"The aim behind my art is creating a timeless aesthetic that people appreciate not just now but [years] later."

Colleen Gnos, surf siren

"Beach Party" by Colleen Gnos
"Beach Party" by Colleen Gnos

You could say Shell Beach artist Colleen Gnos has saltwater in her veins.

Her ancestors were sea captains in the Azores. And her maternal grandfather began ferrying boats between the islands at age 7, later immigrating to the United States to work as an abalone diver and Navy diving instructor.

Gnos, who grew up near Sacramento, can trace her own fascination with the ocean to childhood trips to Avila Beach. "I couldn't wait to turn 18 to get back the coast," said Gnos, who enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. "Everything in Santa Cruz (was) inspiring. There were deer running the road. There were mountains. It was just like paradise."

Still, Gnos wasn't satisfied with the arts education she was getting in Santa Cruz. "I felt like I needed to go somewhere to get a good solid foundation in painting," said the artist, who spent a year studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy. "I was going out in the streets and sketching 800 year-old buildings, 500-year-old statues ..."

Back in Santa Cruz, a friend taught her to surf. "It took over my life," Gnos said, as well as her art. "It just changed my entire direction. I was doing some pretty heavy, angry political pieces. Once I got happy, [my work] took a turn."

"Malia" by Colleen Gnos
"Malia" by Colleen Gnos

Gnos' love of surfing is evident in her work, which ranges from wave-lashed landscapes to Renaissance-style portraits of sultry sirens, bikini-clad surfers and deep-sea divers in bulky, old-fashioned suits.

One painting, "Beach Party," takes its inspiration from a 1949 snapshot of a gathering at San Onofre State Beach. A public art piece in downtown San Luis Obispo recalls her grandfather's harrowing underwater encounter with a 15-foot octopus, while a mural at the Lompoc Aquarium celebrates biodiversity on the Central Coast.

"There's something so beautiful and intense about our kelp forests our here. They're so full of life," Gnos said, describing them as "way more interesting than Hawaii or the coral reefs in Tahiti."

"It's wonderful being out in the ocean and seeing new ways to capture water," said the painter, who loves the way liquid lends color, distortion and texture to images. "Art is light. When you throw water into the mix, it gets more complicated."

"Land of Daucite" by Charlie Clingman
"Land of Daucite" by Charlie Clingman

Charlie Clingman and Chris Pedersen, artful friends

The first time Morro Bay artists Charlie Clingman and Chris Pedersen met on a surf trip to Mexico, the two 15-year-olds quickly discovered two common bonds: a passion for surfing and a love of doodling.

They stayed at a shack covered with the inscriptions of past guests. "Being high school punks, we took the drawings to the next level and just covered the whole wall with caveman art," Clingman recalled.

As the years passed, the two kept in touch. Clingman pursued a career in architecture before a surf trip to north Africa persuaded him to study art instead, while Pedersen became a freelance artist who designed surf-related Christmas cards on the side. (One popular card sported the slogan "Cancel Christmas -- Santa's Surfing.")

Finally, frustrated by marketing jobs that valued salesmanship above creativity, the two came together to launch a line of greeting cards under the name "Forever Stoked"-- "a positive, happy little phrase," Pedersen said. Soon, they were selling Forever Stoked artwork at surf shops across California.

Since 1998, the Morro Bay art collective has "taken on a life of its own," Pedersen said.

"Shock Wave" by Chris Pedersen
"Shock Wave" by Chris Pedersen

At Forever Stoked's retail store and gallery, which opened its doors in December 2011, the pair sells apparel, accessories, stickers, limited-edition prints and original artwork by Clingman, Pedersen, Peter Pierce, Jordan Haughey and Dave O'Brien. Seasonal art shows also feature pieces by the likes of local painters Shirley Pittman and Ken Christensen.

Clingman describes his personal style as an impressionistic blend of abstract art, traditional plein air painting, and fantastic "dreamscapes " fueled by his own fertile imagination. "Sometimes I'll combine two categories. It keeps it fun and fresh for me," he said.

Pedersen, meanwhile, specializes in surreal landscapes populated by impossibly smooth, sculpted waves. "Some people paint waves that are really windy and choppy. Being surfers, we paint waves that are perfect, waves that look fun to ride," he explained, adding that surfing helps trigger his creativity.

There's an element of wish fulfillment in Clingman's work as well, he acknowledged. By painting the perfect surf spot, "You're creating something that's hard to find in real life," he said. "In the process of creating it, you're going there and believing it.... You're creating the ultimate scenario."


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook and Twitter.

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes