From surfboard design innovators, to permaculture community instigators, the surfing world is filled with movers, shakers and doers. Among them is a global fraternity of talented artists who make surf culture the subject of the work.
We recently stumbled across one such creative; Aussie artist and illustrator Fern Levack, whose book, called Aloha To Zen, on which she collaborated with partner Damion, immediately caught our eye. It’s a visual encyclopedia of sorts, which takes the reader on a journey through the history of surf culture.
Upon opening it, you are instantly immersed in a rich line drawn world, where wildlife, surfing icons and nature dance freely across the pages in a vivid interplay. Obscure flora and fauna sit alongside empty oil drums, as perfect waves line up in the background.
While the book is primarily a jovial celebration of the richness of global surf culture, the world depicted is not a utopia, with ecological destruction, smoke belching power stations, deforestation, oil spills and coastal development appearing frequently throughout the assembled works.
We caught up with her to find out more about the women behind the work:
Hey Fern, tell me about yourself, where you grew up and where you live now?
I had wild and free childhood growing up on the pristine north-east coast of Australia, during the ‘Age of Aquarius’. My parents moved us there to a hippie commune near Coffs Harbour.
After going to uni and living at Sydney’s craziest city beach, Bondi, Damion and I moved a southern Californian surf town called Encinitas, an hour south of LA. It was an amazing experience as that part of So-Cal is so rich in surf culture and history.
But America is still America and after 3 years we were keen to get home to the light and space of Australia. We are now just south of Sydney, near the beaches in the Royal National Park. We found a cedar A-frame cabin built on poles amongst the trees that was owned by a English writer who used it as his wilderness writing retreat. The uncrowded beauty of the beaches and reef breaks down here continue to amaze and inspire us.
I loved your Aloha to Zen book. Was there a lot research involved in creating work with such an incredible richness of motifs, or did the subjects for each letter of the alphabet already exist in your head and just flow out as soon as you put pen to paper?
My partner in Aloha to Zen, Damion, is a well known surfboard collector and passionate amateur surf historian. So I had lot of information and ideas already in my head just waiting to get out from spending so much time with him. In some ways it was a purge of all the information I had collected by osmosis over the years.
We also have an extensive surf history library to draw on, virtually every book book on surfing ever published and every issue of Surfer and Surfing magazines from the 60’s till today. So I already had a lot of the details at my fingertips.
There are an amazing amount of places included, including a semi-secret surf spot here in the UK- have you visited most of the places depicted?
We have been lucky enough to have visited some of the best surf towns, beaches and breaks in the the world so most of what we write and draw about comes from personal experience.
The rest is pure imagination fed by lots of research. We did do a great trip UK surf trip via the Museum of British surfing in Braunton for a vintage surf swap event they were holding and got to see a lot of the beautiful SW coastline and surf spots.
Rarely do surf spots meet your imagined expectations when you finally get to visit them. But south west France was the exception. We literally couldn’t believe the quality of the waves in Hossegor the day we arrived, 6ft perfect beach break peaks. We sat there on the promenade with a glass of red wine in hand, watching the nude sun bathers and perfect waves under a cloudless sky and our little Aussie minds were blown!
There’s a duality of themes running through the book, with the celebration of nature and surfing experience contrasting sharply with some of the gravest threats that face the natural world.
Was it important to you that the book carries a serious message rather than serving simply as a celebration of surf culture?
I don’t think you can care about the ocean or surfing without calling out what’s happening to the coastline around the world. Surfing has been great for opening up peoples minds to different cultures, travel being the best cure to intolerance, but with with that has brought terrible devastation to parts of Indonesia, Hawaii and Australia through surf tourist led overdevelopment.
Surfing is one of the best ways of communing with nature but we need to protect and conserve our playgrounds.
Was there every a time when you were tempted to change course and simply draw you perfect surfing world in the book?
Yes – we do spend a lot of our time in a fantasy. The majority of our more recent art focuses on a simpler, more perfect time in surf culture. We love the late 70’s period in Hawaii and Australia as depicted in movies such as ‘Morning of the Earth’.
There was a simplicity to the way folks lived and surfed and made their own surfboards, but there was also political and spiritual awareness, even back then.
In the foreword, Sean Doherty tells of how he plans to show the book to the author of a homemade protest sign included in the opening drawing.
How has the book been received? Were there any particularly touching responses?
When you visit the North Shore of Hawaii there is a single lane highway that leads in out of the ‘seven mile miracle’ that includes Pipeline, Waimea Bay, Sunset etc. At the beginning of the road, near Haleiwa, is a private property, with a closed gate and a sign propped up against the letter box that reads in pigeon english “Nuff Hotels Already”.
It strikes a chord with anyone who has noticed the rampant over development of the Hawaiian Islands and begs the question – how many resorts do we really need? Sean has promised to pull the car over and knock on the door and present the family with a copy of the book to say thanks for taking a stand.
In general we are so stoked at the way people have responded to the book. We get messages almost daily from all over the world , from surfers like Jack Johnson and Brad Gerlach to a guy who has adopted the book as a teaching aid that he takes around schools in Australia educating kids about the ocean and the environment.
Tell us a little more about your recent exhibition in Hawaii?
We were privileged to be invited to do a show at the Greenroom Gallery, the premier surf art gallery in Hawaii. The show was called ‘Aloha Vol. 8’ and featured paintings, drawing, hand embroideries and needlepoint designs that celebrate surfing in the 70’s in Hawaii, California and Australia and the many interesting and eccentric characters from that time.
Many of the images from the show were inspired by Gerry Lopez, the world’s most ‘in sync’ surfer, famous for his zen like approach to tube riding and laid back attitude to life – ‘Let life be an anti-contest!’. We are taking the show soon the road, have been invited to do a similar show in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. We wish we could find a space in the UK to do a show. Any excuses for a party!
Did you feel the pressure, having to depict such a significant time in surfing’s history to an audience so involved with the birth and evolution of the culture?
It’s no pressure when your expressing what you love, depicting what your passionate about. But we do believe in getting the details correct and paying attention to the references.
What are you working on now?
Our art has been really well received by surfers around the world who have requested that we turn our prints into t-shirts. We love the medium of the the printed t-shirts as there is a long cultural history in the surf tees. The first screen printed tees shirt came out of the southern Californian surf scene of the early 1960’s and we are loving being art of that tradition. I tee shirt is a great canvas and its make our art work really accessible.