An Assembled World

Treasure hunting with Orion Shepherd.

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Orion Shepherd watched a VHS cassette of The Endless Summer on repeat while growing up in Martinez, a small refinery town in Northern California, an hour or so from the beach, which, for a 13-year-old who dreams of surfing, might as well be the middle of Ohio. 

He imagined himself in the small, perfect waves off of Cape St. Francis, or surfing Malibu with Miki Dora and Lance “So Relaxed He Could Have A Ham Sandwich” Carson. From the day he started surfing, which was a few years before he began studying painting at California College of the Arts in Oakland, Sheperd knew he wanted to surf like they did in the 60s. He would position his hands over his neck while head dipping, with the exact same body English Nat Young employed in Paul Witzig’s Hot Generation. Then he’d semi-ironically blast The Beach Boys’ “Surfers Rule” on long drives home from surfing small waves in Bolinas.

TOTEM IV, 2017, Cancer Productus crab carapaces & wood, 40 × 14 × 4 inches. Photographed by Brian Forrest.

Now L.A.-based, Shepherd’s paintings and sculptures investigate intimate and compelling moments of surfing subculture. His art explores not only surfing’s common cultural artifacts and figures (wax, beach towels, shells, reef, George Greenough, Bruce Brown) but also desire itself, an emotion all surfers know. His interest, he says, in the 1960s and transition era surf culture wasn’t merely aesthetic: “There was something special happening in surfing in that time period. Before surfing was so monetized there was an authentic subculture of people enchanted with the strange, pointless act of riding waves. That sense of a subculture still exists in small pockets, if you know where to look.”

“There was something special happening in that time period—an authentic subculture enchanted with the strange, pointless act of riding waves.” 

Shepherd and I came of age as surfers together in San Francisco in the early 2000s. At that time, the Bay Area had a niche group of artists riding old boards. He gravitated toward people like Jay Nelson, Jeff Canham, Barry McGee, Alex Kopps, Carol Schuldt, and Jimmy Holt (who appeared in National Geographic in 1979, on a good one at Fort Point). They were individuals who surfed well in cold, difficult waves on old, difficult equipment, and who collected vintage surf photos, logs, and old stories. They’d found a way to eke out lives as artists in the city, and were kind to the younger generation of kids who were interested in similar aspects of the culture. 

This was back when one could still be hassled in Santa Cruz for riding a twin fin—before Thomas Campbell’s The Seedling, Mollusk Surf Shop, Joel Tudor, and others had fully and finally cemented the retro-hipster, single-fin, ride-everything movement into the culture. 

TERRANCE’S VAN, 2010, Digital C Print, 16 × 14 inches. Photographed by Brian Forrest.

“Even 15 years ago,” says Shepherd, “riding an old log at Ocean Beach, people would be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re a fucking kook!’ They still do that…but it was a little harder then.”

In his first solo show at the acclaimed Adobe Books Gallery in San Francisco, Shepherd debuted a collection of paintings in which he had dissected, studied, and reproduced, frame by frame, the scene from The Endless Summer in which Robert August and Mike Hynson prepare for their trip to Africa. Featuring detailed paintings of the make-believe books that Bruce Brown had assembled for this scene (Africa on 9 Cents a Month by Ima Liar, and Shark Attack Field Dressings Illustrated) along with the rug on which Mike and Robert were sitting, Shepherd reframed Brown’s punny, DIY film-direction as high art, pointing a lens at the fetishization of surfing. 

“Everyone remembers watching The Endless Summer one time, and the scene of the perfect wave at Cape St. Francis. But I watched that movie a thousand times to find out what exact issues of National Geographic were in that scene. I wanted my paintings to zoom in on the parts of the surf film that are overlooked and forgotten in the same way The Endless Summer zooms in on the parts of surfing that are comparatively overlooked. Bruce Brown showed us the windy days, and Mike and Robert getting skunked is a central aspect of the film, which is honest, because getting skunked is a central part of surfing.”

Shepherd bought his first surfboard from Craigslist—a 60s Hansen stock board with its fin broken off. After contacting the Hansen shop in Encinitas, and doing meticulous research, he found a template of the exact D-fin that would have gone on his model. He and his buddy, Mike Rodrigues, then shaped it out of marine ply and glassed it on. This sparked a practice of hunting down and collecting old boards that Shepherd relishes to this day. A full wall of his studio serves as a stockpile of creaky yellowed Liddles, Hansens, and Yaters. 

ACTION ENCAUSTIC 2, 2010, sex wax & fiberglass in found frame, 12 × 8 inches. Photographed by Brian Forrest.
ACTION ENCAUSTIC 3, 2010, sex wax & fiberglass in found frame, 8 x 6 inches. Photographed by Brian Forrest.

“I love how these boards surf,” he says. “They aren’t necessarily in good shape. They’re not for hanging on a wall. I find them for cheap, online or at swap meets, try to bring them back to life, and surf them. They go good at Malibu.”

To some extent, Shepherd is attempting to replicate an experience from an often-romanticized era. This type of obsessive nostalgia for the 60s and 70s also offers him a way to connect with his parents’ generation, and to grasp what their lives, and their world, were like before it was ours. His parents were whitewater rafting guides throughout the 70s and 80s. He grew up adventuring with them on the water, touring rivers up and down the West Coast, captivated by the sense of escape and mystery. They eventually gave guiding up and became public school teachers in order to provide a more stable life for their son. 

My own father grew up surfing Hermosa Beach before being drafted to serve in Vietnam. Shepherd and I would listen intently, practically drooling, when he’d tell us about sleeping in his Volkswagen on Highway 1 in front of Secos and waking up to surf it by himself. He’d also tell us about sitting in Hap Jacobs’ shaping room while he made him a board, or walking home from the beach and seeing the names of Dewey Weber and Miki Dora, his surfing idols, on the chalkboard debt-list outside of the neighborhood deli.

These kinds of details fueled our surf adventures, and our desire to understand the culture. It’s this sense of infatuation and wonder that has driven Shepherd’s art ever since. His 2010 solo show “Surf Art” at Mollusk San Francisco paid homage to several 60s conceptual artists alongside era surf filmmakers. Shepherd felt that most surf-related art was primarily focused on stylized depictions of surfing, a sort of extension of the idealized surf experience shown in surf media. 

“I wanted this show not to be about the act of surfing itself, but to actually be about watching surf films. I was becoming interested in conceptual art and Pop Art, which happened to develop around the same time that surfing was popularized in the U.S. And I wanted to make a body of work that showed these coincidences I was seeing between art history and surf history. Essentially I saw them as fan-art.” 

The show included a David Hockney-esque rendering of George Greenough riding his surf mat at a remote point-wave off the coast of Santa Barbara. According to Shepherd, Hockney’s work is an interesting analogue to the surf filmmakers who were making their art during the Vietnam era, steadily depicting wave riding, the ultimate leisure activity, with salaciousness. 

“I saw these Hockney paintings from 1965 where these naked men were floating on inflatables. Simultaneously, I’m watching Crystal Voyager where George Greenough is sailing around the Channel Islands and riding the same style of inflatable mattress as in the David Hockney works. And there was this clear connection between Hockney’s paintings and surfing obsession, the macho surf culture, and the pornographic nature of surf films. All of it provided this escapist fantasy during the Vietnam War.” 

Additionally, the show included a gigantic, Styrofoam, Sex Wax sculpture, referencing Claes Oldenburg’s large replications of everyday objects. An old Gordon & Smith D-fin, painted as an American flag, served as an homage to abstract expressionist Jasper Johns’ encaustics. And in perhaps the most overt intersection of politics and surf in the show, Sheperd presented a miniature portrait of Bruce Brown from his 1969 meeting with Richard Nixon.

From CONTEMPORARY PRIMITIVE, Chanel Boutique, Waikiki. Photo by Mariko Reed.
TOTEM III [Detail], 2015, Dungeness crab carapaces, auto primer and wood,  60 × 6 × 5 inches. Photo by Mariko Reed.

His more recent work features site-specific sculptures in which he collects crab shells, and other beach ephemera, and then constructs totem poles from them. These works take shell-art, usually reserved for chintzy gift shops in California beach towns, and re-contextualizes it, employing a sharp, modernist, Goth aesthetic, within the gallery setting. The product is highly personal, he says. 

“When I collect things, when I make art with shells, I think of my dad who recently passed. He would track down crab shells for me from grocery stores and restaurants because he knew I used them in my art. Then he’d clean them, which was a nice thing to do, because they smell like shit, and he’d package them safely and mail them to me.” 

“I wanted to make a body of work that showed these coincidences I was seeing between art history and surf history.”

Shepherd recalls his first moments collecting at 5 years old, walking with his mom and dad on a trail, picking up sticks that were shaped like guns or swords. Fast-forward 25 years, and he’s still scouring the beach for shells—while also hunting Craigslist and swap meets for old D-fins and Liddle displacement hulls. 

He likens a surfer’s search for waves to his search for boards or other artifacts. “There are all these people who don’t necessarily give a shit about the WSL, who don’t care about performance surfing, but love these old boards and the stories that go with them. You’re going on an adventure. Every time you check the surf. Every time you go into a thrift store, or respond to some mysterious surfboard posted on Craigslist, you don’t really know what you’re going to find or who you’re going to meet. It’s a total treasure hunt.”

[Feature image: A WINTER EVENING BEFORE THEIR DEPARTURE [Detail], 2008, gouache acrylic, ink, & graphite on paper, 18 × 26 inches. Photographed by Brian Forrest.]