The Infallible Freshness of Surf

The cowboys, French idioms, and finless sleds informing Sydney-based artist Jakey Pedro’s unapologetic pop.  

Light / Dark

The artist, brown-skinned and barefoot like everyone else in this neighborhood in Sydney, wears blue jeans and a matching shirt unbuttoned three deep as he pads through the beachfront apartment that serves as his studio and living quarters, three commissions in various stages of completion leaning against the kitchen wall. 

Readying for delivery are Non Cheri, 4 feet by 5, white stars on a rose background, words in Marlboro’s familiar serif font, $3,000; As the Sun Sets, 6 feet by 2 1⁄2, palm trees and cowboy, “Au Coucher du Soleil” scrawled in French, $7,000; and Cowboy Love, 3 feet by 2 1⁄2, torso and head outline of a cowboy, “L’amore Cow-Boy” in French, three G’s. 

Jacob Leigh Pedrana has, in a perfect flurry of oil and canvas and inspiration, transmogrified from blue-collar plasterer to in-demand artist whose joyously colored rodeo-themed works festooned with French idioms are the latest must-have for Australia’s culturally well-heeled set. Thick worker’s hands that once gripped hammers and banged drywall on the dawn-to-dusk building-site grind are now employed delicately wielding brushes and paint sticks under his artist handle, Jakey Pedro. 

Photo by Giang Alam Wardani.

“It’s hard to explain how quickly it all happened,” says the 38-year-old of reconnecting with the artistic impulses that consumed him as a child. “It’s like I’ve been given this new life. It’s like being reborn.” 

When COVID hit in 2020 and Australians dutifully locked their doors and shuttered their windows for the year, Pedro bought a dozen bottles of red wine, rolls of paper, a box of pens, and, after his then-3-year-old son, Ryka, was asleep in bed, spent his nights painting whatever came to him, posting the results on his Instagram. 

People would ask him if the work was for sale. With his trade in stasis for the foreseeable future in Sydney’s Bondi Beach, a part of town where even a modest attached home sells for $2 million, Pedro was introduced to the concept of art as bullion. 

His first piece, a small abstract on paper, sold for $400.  Soon a commission came from Hawaii via DM for a 6-by- 6-foot “dinosaur moonscape,” and Pedro, who ain’t short  of confidence, quoted the man $8,000. Within an hour his PayPal account was inflated to a hitherto-unknown high. 

“What does one prefer? An art that struggles to change the social contract, but fails? Or one that seeks to please and amuse, and succeeds?” —Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New. Photo by Tim Swallow.

He used the windfall to toss away his cheap chain-store tools and buy oil paints and sticks. The commissions haven’t  stopped since, the pace quickening week by week, with myriad exhibitions sought by galleries. His surf clothing sponsor,  The Critical Slide Society, even released a limited-edition trunk, the pink fabric garlanded with his trademark cowboy.

The prizewinning Australian artist Mitchell English,  whose own work is held in collections around the world—including at the prestigious Powerhouse museum in Sydney—  says Pedro’s style is “pretty in a dirty way. Jake has rewritten the visual vernacular of neo-expressionism in Australian art. His trajectory only has one direction, and I’m just glad to say I knew him when.” 

Pedro, for his part, says his sudden ability to survive just from the sales of his paintings feels like a gift from God. But he’s quick to clarify he means kismet or providence, not the Christian concept of the Lord, which was belted out of him after being raised in a Pentecostal household. 

“I saw some weird shit at church when I was a kid,” he says. “Church attracts people who are really hurting, and I didn’t know that. I thought church was really kind. I saw a lot of dark things.” 

Like the time he and the pastor’s kid were hiding in the church office, watching as donations suckered from the flock for a flood in Samoa were divided up between church officials, the men laughing at how much money they’d made. “I felt sick,” he says.

Photo by Tim Swallow.


Hanging above the 6-foot-2-inch artist’s head, which pivots on a light heavyweight’s 200-pound frame dramatized by  excessively broad shoulders, are two finless alaia-style wooden boards. Pedro shaped ’em using hand tools, carving from  paulownia-tree blanks sent from Noosa by his old friend and shaping mentor Tom Wegener, the Palos Verdes–raised former lawyer who threw in the cash grab to live in blissful harmony shaping ancient surfboards. 

Pedro, a bodyboarder of renown whose drop-knee wizardry took him to the Australian Titles, was born in the hills out behind Noosa. On a trip home in 2007, he became fascinated with Wegener’s alaias. The trip coincided with Wegener being filmed for a vignette in Thomas Campbell’s film The Present, the smiling Californian with the mild, defenseless eyes of a lamb living the Country Soul dream of shaping out of the back of his little shack. And it was the shredding of one of Wegener’s team riders, Jacob Struth, on these little wooden boards that just hit Pedro. 

In short order, he struck up a conversation with Wegener at National Park during a swell. After riding an alaia at the famous points, Pedro told the shaper that he wanted to design and craft his own versions. 

Photo by Tim Swallow.

“I got up straight away. It felt natural and didn’t feel one bit weird,” says Pedro. “You gotta swim the alaias. They don’t float. You’re literally swimming the whole time. It’s like wakeboarding. You have to get ’em up on the plane, but once you’re going, you’re fucking…on. I wanted to be involved in it, heavy involved.”  

By 2010, the pair was collaborating on a mass-production alaia that was accessible to average surfers. “The ancient  alaias, they’re great to ride but they’re physically demanding. Only 1 in 1,000 surfers can actually ride one,” says Wegener, now 58. “We thought, Is there a way to take this really elegant, difficult type of surfing and bring it to the masses so other people can get turned on to the glide of ancient surfing? Ancient surfing is finless surfing, and the ancients were very, very good at surfing.” 

The pair worked to find a shape that kept the essential being of the alaia—the basic tombstone shape with a slight parabolic rail toward the tail—but didn’t require its operator to be superhuman. 

“I knew how a bodyboard flexed, so we worked well together,” says Pedro. 

Photo by Giang Alam Wardani.

The result was the Albacore, a finless board available as a 4’11” or a 5’6″ and made from flexible foam. It sold for $200 through Global Surf Industries, at one point the biggest surfboard manufacturer in the world. GSI was so thrilled with Pedro’s involvement in the project that they made him a team rider, the company viewing him as a surf unicorn—the rare shredder who can articulate feeling from a surf craft, whether it’s a bodyboard, a noserider, or a lip-swatting 5’6″. 

A dozen years after the fact, Wegener is still elevated when he describes sitting on the beach at Noosa on Christmas Day in 2011, watching Pedro impose his lines: “He’s the best backside finless surfer I’ve ever seen. He was going down the point doing 360 off-the-lips, one after the other—backside— drifting across the lip, 360, engaging the rail, another 360. It was so breathtakingly beautiful. Of course I didn’t have my camera that particular day. You’ve never seen anything like it.”


Photo by Tim Swallow.

Of the influences that shaped Pedro and his cowboys, think of those artists who emerged at various points in the twentieth century to storm the citadels of tradition: the pop art of Warhol, Picasso’s cubism, Wassily Kandinsky and abstractionism, Matisse and fauvism, Basquiat and Schnabel’s brute primitivism. 

Schnabel’s work—produced outdoors in Mexico, his velvet canvases spread out in the dirt—particularly sung. “He’s a surfer as well,” Pedro says, “and I loved that he used to create huge-scale paintings. He’d go down to Mex, paint right on the beach right there, and do the coolest installations.”  

More than Schnabel or the obvious parallels to Basquiat’s brightly colored and frenetic graffiti style, though, Pedro claims it’s surfing that inspires. “As corny as it sounds,” he says, “surfing is an art form. I’ve taken that feeling of being the artist in the water and put it on canvas. They both help each other. Surfing helps my art and art helps my surfing. Not just wine.”

 Before he paints, Pedro will buy a $20 bottle of pinot noir to sip while he mixes colors, combing an oil base through a dry pigment to create washed-out pastels and fluoros for what he describes as an early ’90s feel: “Soft pastel pinks and light blues, because when you put a big black oil stick over the top of a bright color, it pops.” 

 Photo by Tim Swallow.

The feeling he wants a viewer to experience is lightness. “I look at some art and it makes me feel heavy,” he says, “which is the artist’s inner being brought onto the canvas. I don’t make confronting, in-your-face art. It’s not dark, although painting is my therapy, and me being creative forces and sharpens my focus, which might, and does, deviate elsewhere.” 

When Pedro separated from Ryka’s mother in 2018, it was an added motivation to aim his light at that fabled North Star. “I wanted to break that pattern of traditionalism that I was born into,” he says, “the working-class ideal where you’re forced to work for the man, the company—whatever. My gift to Ryka is to show him you can love what you do. I didn’t want him to see me miserable as a plasterer.” 

“The sheet-plasterer guy—doing that didn’t suit him,” says Wegener. “He’s so much more. He senses more. He has a heightened awareness. It’s a buzz to see him painting with the kid in between his legs doing his own painting. And that’s the great quality Jake has. It’s a super empathy that he feels with people. And it comes through in his surfing and his art.”