Story by Derek Ferrar
A couple of years ago former pro surfer and industry exec Bruce Raymond was watching the Pipe Masters contest from the deck of the Quiksilver house on O‘ahu’s North Shore when he noticed an unusual-looking guy in colored glasses and overalls out on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.
“I asked who he was, and someone just told me he was an artist,” Raymond recalls in his contemplative Aussie twang. “So I went over and said, ‘I believe you’re an artist. I’ve got bit of art in me, and I wonder if you can give me some advice on how to bring it out.’”
Turns out the guy was Julian Schnabel, notorious bad boy of art and film and a lifelong surfer. Raymond showed Schnabel some close-up photos he’d taken of vivid multi-hued bark on the gum trees at his waterfront house in Sydney. He told Schnabel he had a theory that the trees soak up the colors of every sunset and sunrise for an entire year and then release them all at once on one rainy day each fall.
Amused, Schnabel gave Raymond a quick quiz on neo-Expressionist art: “Do you know who Gerhard Richter is?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then have you heard of Franz West?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, do you know who I am?” asked Schnabel, who is almost as famous for his abundance of what one critic called “unironic self-approval” as for his confrontational painting, filmmaking, sculpture and architecture.
“No,” Raymond admitted.
“Well, I’m Julian Schnabel, and I’m the closest thing you’ll meet to Picasso.”
The two hit off a whirlwind rapport. Schnabel explained how he likes to “use the things around me” as art media, from cowhide or a torn awning to the assemblages of broken dinner plates that catapulted him to fame in the 1980s. They talked about Schnabel’s films, including Before Night Falls, which launched Javier Bardem as a star, and the highly acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which in 2007 earned Schnabel an Oscar nomination for directing along with top honors at Cannes and the Golden Globes. They talked about Raymond’s youth as a gonzo big-wave charger and his years as a top executive with Quiksilver, jetting around the planet to surf dream waves with the world’s best.
The next day Schnabel stopped by the house Raymond rents every winter at Sunset Beach and rapped some more. Along the way, Bruce had an idea. He had this favorite surfboard, a real big-wave “rhino chaser” by legendary shaper Dick Brewer with an artsy glass job in swirly ocean greens, that had gotten him safely down the face of many a Sunset and Waimea bomb. But it had recently occurred to him that if he were ever to become separated from the board in these heavy conditions, its color scheme would blend into the water, and he wouldn’t know which way to swim for it (and his life). So as much as he hated to mar the board’s aesthetic, he had been planning to paint some sort of orange mark on it for visibility.
On an impulse he asked Schnabel if he would be willing to do it. The artist agreed and told Raymond to get the board ready and bring it around his place the next day. After he left Raymond started having second thoughts, feeling “somewhat sacrilegious” as he sanded down the board’s glossy finish so it could take the paint.
The next day he went to the compound where Schnabel was staying and found him tooling around in his trademark purple silk pajamas. After spray-painting a bright orange cross on the deck of the board, Schnabel said, “I have an idea. How ’bout we paint the names of surfers who’ve died on the board, so they can ride with you when you surf it?”
Raymond balked. “It was just too heavy for me,” he recalls. Seeing that he was stressing a bit over the fate of his prized board, Schnabel smirked a little and said, “OK, let’s mess this up.” He picked up a spray can and scrawled the words “Crows flying the black flag of themselves,” the title of one of his well-known paintings.
In a wee-hours phone call from his studio in the fishing and surfing town of Montauk on the far tip of Long Island, Schnabel recalls that popular Hawai‘i surfer Sion Milosky had recently died in the waves, and it just occurred to him to put Sion’s name and a couple of others on the board. “When you’re a surfer, the board is such a beautiful thing,” he says. “It connects all of us to the same space of what it is to ride a wave, the joy and purity of it that surfers all know.”
A surfer ever since his family moved from Brooklyn to the Texas Gulf Coast when he was a teenager, Schnabel says he always painted surfboards he rode “just for the &*%# of it.” A few years ago Schnabel and surfing legend Herbie Fletcher, who are longtime friends, produced a limited edition of surfboards embossed with Schnabel’s well-known Blind Girl Surf Club image, gave them to a favored few and also donated several to auctions for surfing-related charities.
“I found a painting of this girl with blond hair, and I painted purple over her eyes and called it Blind Girl Surf Club,” Schnabel says. “Then later we laminated them onto black surfboards, which we’ve given to different people. It’s the kind of thing where only certain people get them. Other people try to get hold of them, but they can’t.”
Asked what the black crow line he put on Raymond’s board means to him, Schnabel says he first saw it scribbled on the wall of a fish joint somewhere in Florida one day, and it just stuck with him. (In fact, whoever wrote it there had cribbed the phrase from a famous, desperately dark poem by the late Poet Laureate of Britain, Ted Hughes.)
“It’s pretty self-explanatory, I think,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s just about an impending sense of doom and fear.” Perfect for the kind of monster waves Raymond’s board was built for.
Not knowing quite what to make of it all, Raymond took the board home to ponder its new countenance. That night, he was throwing a barbecue at the house, and Schnabel came by. Bruce told him he had reconsidered about the dead surfers’ names, and Schnabel reverently wrote a few in marker on the deck of the board.
One of the other guests at the barbecue was Raymond’s friend Kelly Slater, who, besides being far and away the greatest champion in the history of surfing (and pretty much any other sport), seems to know everything about everything, including, apparently, art. “You know,” Slater told Raymond after Schnabel had left, “that probably just became the most valuable surfboard on Earth.”
In fact, Raymond says, an art dealer friend told him that as a Schnabel original the board could be worth six figures. Today it hangs “in pride of place” in his kitchen in Sydney, although Schnabel had encouraged him to keep surfing it.
Does he ever regret that his beloved board was transformed into an objet d’art too valuable to surf ? “Well,” he reflects, “I was kind of getting to the point in my life where I really shouldn’t be out in the kind of waves that board was for anyway, so retiring it to a new life has sort of helped mark that transition for me. I actually feel a bit safer now that it’s not at the ready like a gun in the holster.”