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Chelsea Woody On Rebellion, Textured Waves, ‘Cadavre Exquis’ & The Beauty Of Deep Connection

Chelsea Woody is a Santa Cruz based healthcare provider who, when not deep at work in her scrubs, seeks the soothing tonic of surfing to wash away the day.

Her discernible style and sense of play, plus her work as the co-founder of Textured Waves, a grassroots collective that has powerfully amplified the voice, role, and participation of women of colour within surfing, saw Vans come courting in 2020, with Chelsea joining their talented crew of female riders shortly thereafter.  The brand’s latest release Cadavre Exquis was created by the women of Vans’ surf team, featuring an all-star cast who contributed surf clips, art, and music, including Lee-Ann Curren, Margaux Arramont-Tucoo, Ainara Aymat, Leila Hurst, Lola Mignot, Pua Desoto, Karina Rozunko, Bella Kenworthy, Hanna Scott, Holly Wawn, and Chelsea Woody.    

Cadavre Exquis, a compilation of art, music and film that came together in 2020 amongst a group of friends and fellow Vans Surf family members at a time when the world was on pause. The French term Cadavre Exquis, meaning “Exquisite Corpse,” is a method of collectively sourcing and assembling words or images from a group of collaborators, with each adding to the composition in sequence while only allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed.

SE: Cadavre Exquis is an awesome melange of surf and art, culture, music and style. Has surfing always had a connection to these things for you? 

CW: I feel like since I’ve discovered surfing I’ve grown closer to my own self-expression through different mediums. I’m very interested in how cultures that may not have had a large platform in surfing might influence surfing art, music etc. I think there is so much more to discover as more cultures inject a piece of themselves into surfing. Art often takes a political and rebellious stance and it would be cool to see more surfers use their surfing platforms to showcase their rebellion. 

SE: What do you think of the format of the movie, with each of the featured surfers sourcing their words and images to add to the movie composition and only seeing the finished result at the end? 

CW: It was a beautiful idea for a surf film, so amazing that Lee Ann (Curren) was able to manage editing and corraling so many different moving pieces and people. It really is a tall task to make so many different ideas work together and I am so impressed. 

SE: Were you given quite a lot of creative free reign as a talent and artist in the film?

CW: I really appreciate that the artists and athletes at the Vans family are really given freedom to express how they feel and how they want to be represented. At least in my short time on the team, it appears that way. Lee Ann empowered us to create what was on our hearts and fully supported our individual visions.  

SE: Who’s part did you dig the most?

CW: I really loved Holly’s part. I feel like she is such a powerhouse of confidence and shredding. And I loved how she burned everything down at the end. 

Lee Ann Curren & Hannah Scott in Cadavre Exquis. Frames courtesy of Vans.

SE: You’re a co-founder of Textured Waves, an awesome collective of women of colour within surf that has gained so much momentum the last few years, including beautiful short films like SEA US NOW to work with other major brands and businesses like Adidas and Roxy. What has the impact of Textured Waves been a few years down the line? Are you seeing any changes in the lineups and in the industry that you may have hoped for?

CW: For a long time there was a void of representation for black and brown women in surfing, especially African American women. We were invisible, partly because there was an illusion that we were non-existent in this space. Since Textured Waves formed, I have seen so many more collectives and organizations sprout up, especially during the pandemic. It has only been a few years but I can already see new communities developing and dedicating their efforts to growing a new generation of African American female surfers and that is inspiring. 

I think there is still an idea that it is only important to support organizations dedicated to youth-based initiatives in surfing and aquatic spaces. But I have learned that you also have to focus on the parents, and a lot of times that is the mothers. So Textured Waves is empowering black and brown women to occupy space as well, that is vital to passing it on to the next generation. 

SE: There’s a short moment showing you getting your hair braided in the movie. You have talked about in previous interviews that a barrier for women of colour within surfing has often been not seeing people who look like themselves within surfing and that the highly limiting beauty standards for hair, especially for black women, has been unrealistic and often a massive barrier to entry into surfing. Embracing natural hair must be so vital for young girls to see in surfing? 

CW: It is vital for young girls to feel that they don’t need to conform and that they don’t have to abandon their culture to participate in whatever they love. Textured Waves was born out of the idea of marrying your natural hair texture, something black women are often criticized in society for, with flowing water. We want folks to know that the two are in agreeance despite what society might say and we don’t need to straighten our hair, unrealistically abandon leisure, or the elements to exist.

Initially, Lee Ann asked us to add a piece of ourselves to the film through art and culture. In my community hair braiding is an art form passed down from generation to generation. My mother spent hours braiding my hair and her mother braided her hair and so on. It is a tradition where there is storytelling and bonding in salons and barbershops which is deeply rooted in African American culture. It was also meant to be a metaphor about weaving our collective lives and surf stories together on the team. 

SE: You signed to Vans in 2020 and are part of a collective of incredible women on the Vans roster. There’s been a fantastic widening of the talent scope now, with brands signing with and working with talented athletes and artists with varied styles, free surfers and competitive athletes, from diverse backgrounds, challenging the stereotypical norms that have dominated the surf industry since its inception. Did 2020-2021 feel like the year that the surf industry sat up and took notice for you? 

CW: I still cannot believe the roster of amazing women on the team. All of whom I admire. I suppose, but I didn’t set out looking for brand sponsorship through the work I’ve done with Textured Waves. I set out to help create a platform that didn’t exist, and I know that you need folks with influence to help push the narrative. You cannot necessarily do it on your own so I’m happy to have the support of a brand that I have always admired. Our mission at Textured Waves has always been to reach a demographic outside the surf industry, because that is when real change will occur. So while I feel that the surf industry is now finally beginning to recognize the absence of black women in their market, more than anything I hope we are reaching black women, and that they recognize that this is a possibility for their lives. 

SE:  What’s the impact been like for you running a grassroots collective: are you seeing more girls and women of colour participating in surfing?

CW: It has been overwhelming, in good and bad ways! Not only do I see more women in my own community coming out of the woodwork and participating, it feels like there is a global community that is also budding as well. When I first started surfing in Santa Cruz, I hardly saw another black woman and oftentimes I was mistaken for the two other women that frequented the same break. Now every time I see a new face I wonder who they are and want to know their story. 

SE:  This movie was made in 2020 whilst the world was “on pause” during the pandemic.  What did that time mean for you, as you are a nurse so I imagine life was busier than ever? 

CW: This was the most traumatic year in my entire life physically, mentally, emotionally and the only time I wished I wasn’t a healthcare provider. There was not a lot on pause for me besides interacting with folks outside of the hospital in a social setting. Health care providers were essentially left to fight this on their own without the comfort of retreating to their homes and working behind screens. I did end up having to go on leave from work because I also got Covid and it nearly killed me. As with many people, my life was greatly impacted and I don’t take this year lightly at all.  

SE:  I loved how in Night Crawler it captured you out at night, taking off your scrubs, getting your wetsuit on for moon-lit surfs…was that pretty factually correct?

CW: Night Crawler was an emotional outlet for me. While I seldom work night shifts anymore, I wanted to make something that my co-workers could relate to and other healthcare providers. I knew so many folks were hurting from being isolated from their families, working long hours. Coming home from work and stripping down in the garage worried I’d bring Covid home to my husband was/ is my daily routine. Due to the crowds and social distancing I did often wait to surf until close to sundown and would emerge out of the water well after the sunset when the tides permitted. Swapping scrubs and caps for a hooded wetsuit and booties to surf during dusk/dark was about the only time I felt normal, unconcerned with the distance between me and another human and a moment of stillness outside of the constant chaos of police shootings, protests, political unrest and of course the pandemic. So that escape I felt was real. Walking or riding my bike home in the dark after surfing and being very much aware of my shadow and being aware of who was allowed to safely wander the streets at night is a part of my daily reality, as a woman and especially a black woman.  

SE: You live in Santa Cruz right? When did you move there and why, was it for surfing?

CW: My husband and I moved to Santa Cruz to be closer to the ocean. Prior to that we had just returned to Washington state after a year and a half sabbatical from work. We both quit our jobs and sold all of our belongings and we both learned to surf together on that trip. After returning to the states our friends who lived in Santa Cruz convinced us to move down here and we decided to give it a whirl. I applied for a travel nurse job at the local hospital and learned I got the job while on a ferry to Tofino to surf. When we got home, we decided to move! I think I took the travel nurse job in the middle of 2015. 

SE:  I read you started surfing at 30 years old, what ignited the passion for you to learn to surf? I heard Blue Crush might have something to do with it?

CW: Yeah I had a pretty late start! I feel pretty proud of that though. I am not trying to pretend I am some young girl, I’m a grown woman with a profession, I’ve seen some things. I really don’t fit in a box and I like that. Hopefully it’s inspiring to someone. I would have never imagined my life would have taken this course and I guess Blue Crush had something to do with it in a roundabout way. I always reference it because it was the first time I ever saw surfing, and that was actually when I was 17. I really wanted to try surfing after that, although it was a fleeting moment because I had no idea where to start and I didn’t live on the coast of Washington. Washington is not the most appealing place to learn and it just seemed so out of reach. I never thought about surfing again until we quit our jobs to travel and found ourselves in Indonesia. We both really loved it after spending a month on Lombok and decided when we returned home we would try and live on the coast of California. 

SE:  What’s 2022 looking like for you, what’s on the horizon in terms of surfing, art, Textured Waves, and Vans?

CW: There is so much on the horizon that I am excited about. Textured Waves has had some really great opportunities that we can’t wait to share with the world. I’m excited to spend more time with some of the folks on the Vans team in Hawaii in January. And to make more surf films and share more stories of unheard voices. I really am so excited about the possibilities and grateful for all the unexpected turns my life has taken me on.

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