I Don’t Paint Blondes

Searching for pastel beauty beyond the darkness with Pandora Decoster.

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I meet Pandora Decoster in her hometown of Biarritz, France, at La Côte des Basques. Old French villas and classic red-and-white-painted homes line the cliffs behind the beach. White sand and blue-green water extend along a headland overgrown with foliage, punctuated by a distinct rock outcropping at the top of the point where the iconic Villa Belza is wedged into a cliff, looking like it could topple into the water at any moment. 

It’s a place heaped with lore, the spiritual home of surfing in France, where screenwriter Peter Viertel rode waves in 1956 while traveling to the Basque Country to shoot The Sun Also Rises, inspiring some of the earliest surfers in the area to form Europe’s first surfboard label and club, an attempt to emulate the roots of California culture that still casts a heavy influence in the region. 

That same stretch of coast is also the subject of the majority of Decoster’s marine paintings. While most painters, including her, usually paint or sketch directly in front of their subject—or, at minimum, reference photographs—she can paint La Côte des Basques entirely from memory. She rearranges and transforms the iconic elements of the coastline as she works. Relying on her imagination instead of a rigid view of the landscape gives the paintings a psychedelic, dream-like quality. “It forces me to think about what really matters to put in a painting rather than just putting something in because it’s in front of me when I’m working,” she says. 

Decoster, 32, grew up down the street from La Côte des Basques. Her grandfather, Gérard Decoster, was a skateboarder from Paris who fell in love with surfing and moved to the coast. He’s since become the largest private collector of surf-related art and iconography in France. Before Pandora was born, he also owned one of Biarritz’s original surf and skate shops, Hangar, complete with a skate bowl in the basement, until the city had the building bulldozed in the ’80s to make way for a roundabout on the road that now runs along the beach. 

When Decoster turned 12, she and her mother, Karen, moved into a home her grandfather owned on Rue de Vauréal, a few hundred feet from the beach. Her grandfather had introduced her to surfing by then and she was hooked. It was the early 2000s, and lineups in Biarritz were filled mostly with dudes on shortboards. But her grandfather’s affinity for the California surf culture of the ’60s, plus the ideal conditions for logging at so many of the surrounding beaches, caused Decoster to gravitate toward longboarding. Four years later, a few of her surfing heroes, including Kassia Meador, Jen Smith, Leah Dawson, and others then sponsored by Roxy, piled into the house next door to Decoster’s for the summer. 

“I remember being too nervous to even say hello to them, and studying everything they did around the house and in the water,” Decoster says. “Then, one day, I came home from surfing and I noticed that Kassia was photographing me as I was peeling off my wetsuit.” Meador quickly became a mentor and friend, along with many of the other women who put time in at the house over the following summers for the Roxy Jam ASP event that ran at the beach in those years. “It’s been crazy watching this person who I randomly saw through a doorway evolve into the surfer and artist she is today,” says Meador. “Pandora comes from such a deep lineage of surfing in France through her grandfather, and that combines with her creative energy into something very unique. She rides classic logs in such a distinct way. I can remember her grab-rail turns and the way she would soul arch into a wave when she was younger. This was before there were many women surfing in France. She’s always been an artist and she’s always done things her way— both in the water and on land. She isn’t influenced by what’s cool in the current moment, and she’s much more interested in sharing her own view of the world. That’s something that’s always been true in her artistic work and her surfing.” 

SHADE OF PALE, 2019, acrylic on paper, 12 x 17 inches

Decoster was soon sponsored by Roxy too, at a time when the surf industry was flush with sponsorship money. “They didn’t care if I did contests,” she says. “They let me take photos, travel, make movies, and follow whatever I was interested in doing.” 

She started making short surf films, with titles that, at least to my American ears, sound about as French New Wave as can be. L’Apéritif, which premiered at the New York Surf Film Festival in 2010, is a 20-minute short about two guys who want to make a surf movie and, in the end, decide that it’s much better to just go surfing than it is to make a movie about surfing. Her second film, Mira Mar—inspired by enforcement of surfboard leash laws in Biarritz—is about two women brought together in a cave after running from evil spirits and cops who want to prevent them from going surfing.

The Roxy years were good, but too good to be true. Decoster supported herself on the money she was making from sponsorship and left high school early to spend more time traveling. There were trips to Central America, Australia, and all over Europe. Surfing, partying, more partying, more surfing, and some truly terrible haircuts that are hard to fully grasp as they are described to you—half George Greenough bowl cut on one side, the other half shaved, with a mystic, shoulder-length wisp stemming out from the buzzed side. In other words, haircuts so bad that they inspired at least one existential crisis and a lecture from a team manager about “aligning to the brand’s image.”  

By the time Decoster was 21, the pro-surf merry-go-round had come to a screeching halt. Roxy dropped her along with a number of other team riders in one of many rounds of budget cuts. 

Not knowing what to do, she went to art school in Biarritz. “[My professors] told me, ‘Painting is dead.’ They said everything needed to be more conceptual. They pressured everyone at the school to make these ‘installations,’ like a lot of contemporary work you see,” she remembers. “I just wanted to learn some technique. They wanted some big reason behind everything.” 

Disillusioned with the overwhelmingly negative view of painting in art school, Decoster dropped out and went to cooking school in Paris, then dropped out of cooking school and went to Australia to learn permaculture, and probably would have dropped out of permaculture if it was something you could drop out of. “I was so lost,” she says of her mid-twenties. “I thought, ‘I can’t finish anything and I can’t work. I’m fucked.’ I realized how those years with Roxy distorted my sense of reality. I had no money left. I was trying to sell the car I had in Australia just to get home, and I couldn’t even sell the car.”

Decoster still loved to paint, but she knew it was a nearly impossible way to make a living. “My mom painted,” she says. “I was always around painting when I was a kid. She’s a good painter and she sold some paintings, but I knew from that how hard it was.” 

The benefit of growing up as a painter in France is that you really learn your art history. The drawback of growing up as a painter in France is that all that history can be crushing. It can lead you to believe that art is dead, something you walk past in a perfectly sterile museum in Paris. I hear this conflict play itself out when Decoster talks about the great artists—O’Keeffe, Kirchner, Kahlo, Monet, Hockney—whose work she finds inspiring but also impossibly humbling for someone who’s trying to pick up a paintbrush every day. 

“I had this dream where I was looking through a book filled with beautiful paintings I had never seen before,” Decoster says. “I started to worry that I was going to copy something in the paintings, and I slammed the book shut. But later I realized all of that was my dream. I shouldn’t have been worried about copying someone. It came from my imagination.” 

If her current marine paintings are dreamlike and psychedelic like a good trip, her early work was dark and psychedelic like a bad trip, filled with black and red and the youthful angst that comes with feeling lost. Decoster could see why people weren’t easily drawn to her initial output. “I understand why paintings about my problems aren’t the kind of thing someone wants to hang up in their home,” she says. 

During that time, she did what young artists often do to pull themselves out of a funk. She started looking to the works of other painters whom she found inspiring—young living painters from the New York art scene who helped put to rest, once and for all, the idea that painting was dead. “I was just finding the work of these painters online, and at that time there was no real easy way to save it, so I started this account on Instagram called @todayspainters,” Decoster says. “I wasn’t doing it as something serious. At the time you couldn’t even save posts on Instagram, so the only way to collect the work I liked was by reposting it.” 

Decoster began sharing the paintings of artists such as Chloe Wise, George Rouy, and Dylan Vandenhoeck. Her taste and curatorial skills led to people within the art scene, whose work she admired, starting to follow the account back. Then she began intermittently posting her own work to the account. “I was amazed by how encouraging people were,” she says. 

VIEW FROM THE LACETS, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 47 x 32 inches

Decoster made it back to Biarritz from Australia and started paring her life down to a kind of minimalism, selling off most of the surfboards she’d accumulated in her time with Roxy, and focusing her energy on painting. “People just started offering to buy paintings that I posted,” Decoster says. “It wasn’t like I was posting something that said, ‘This painting is for sale—this many euros.’”

Since mid-2019, Decoster has been able to support herself entirely through painting, a rare achievement in itself when you consider that most painters need some kind of side hustle, if not a full-time job, and that, even then, reaching the point where enough people take note of your work usually requires endlessly funneling it through galleries and group shows and trying to become established within some existing corner of the art world. 

“I met Pandora through the logging scene in California, and then in France, but at first I didn’t know she was a painter,” says artist and filmmaker Thomas Campbell. “When I finally saw some of her work, I was like, ‘Wow. This is great.’ There’s a little bit of a psychedelic Matisse in there. It’s so evocative of the area in France where she’s from. She’s acknowledging the sublime in her work, and that’s a lot of what I’m pulled to, whether it’s in music or painting. It’s rare that people are able to access it and have it function well. If she’s where she is now, at her age, imagine where she’s gonna go. It could be crazy.” 

Photo by Fellipe Ditadi

Decoster receives anywhere between three and six commissions every month from people reaching out to her directly. Recently, the number of commissions has gotten so overwhelming that it’s left very little time to paint anything else. “It’s a blessing,” she says. “But I also look forward to the day when I can put up on my Instagram that I don’t take requests for paintings.” 

One of the things in Decoster’s work that can be appreciated only by viewing it in person is the faces of the women in her paintings. Despite the sunny, idyllic, colorful coastal surroundings, their expressions are often  far from joyful. You can almost catch some of the darker energy of her earlier paintings concentrated in their visages. They’re meant to exist as a point of contrast with their surroundings, Decoster says. At a basic level, there’s the color contrast: She almost always paints women with dark hair, unless explicitly commissioned otherwise. “I don’t paint blondes,” she says. “The color of their hair just disappears into the background.” 

Decoster intentionally paints the background scenery of her paintings flat, with minimal detail, but gives the women more dimension and distinction. “I don’t want them to just be part of the scenery,” she says. “A lot of times people assume that I’m the women in the paintings. I hate that. They’re all different people.” 

Decoster does hold certain physical features in common with the subjects in her paintings, but their distinguishing aspects become apparent when viewed up close. She also works from her imagination when painting the women, rather than using real-life or photographic references. She notices there are often elements of the form they take that she’s unable to control, causing each one to attain its unique human outline. “My grandmother used to tell me, ‘You paint the women’s legs too long!’” she says. “So I tried to paint them shorter. But no matter what I do, they always come out long somehow.” 

Biarritz has changed drastically since Decoster was a teenager hauling her log across the street to surf. Landlords trying to squeeze an extra buck from summer vacation rentals have made it challenging for her—and many others who’ve lived in the area across generations—to find a stable place to live year-round, pushing to the margins many who once gave Biarritz its cultural vibrance. The physical coastline also has been notably altered. Most of the dry sand where people once congregated at La Côte des Basques has been lost to erosion, destroying the wave quality. “When I first started surfing, there was a really fun wedge at the top of the point, and now it rarely happens,” Decoster says, unable to recall how long it’d been since she’d surfed there. “People say there was a really fun point wave, too.”

In the summer months, the beach turns into surf-school apocalypse, with at least four different camps setting up for business, making a summer day at Malibu look like a picture of civility. With this in mind, Decoster drives us to a stretch of coast outside Biarritz where she goes to escape the crowds. We turn down a one-lane road lined with cypress trees that feels secluded from the frantic energy of Biarritz. The lane opens to a quiet beach with two short rock-reef pointbreaks—one right and one left—at either end of the cove. The sand is dotted with beach umbrellas in the pastel colors you’d find in one of Decoster’s paintings. Clean, waist-high waves filter in slowly but consistently.

 It’s late on a clear morning and the temperature is rising quickly, making the water look that much more inviting. From our vantage in the southeast corner of the Bay of Biscay, we can see all the way down past the northern border of Spain. For those into riding boards longer than 9 feet and who appreciate great food and fine wine, it’s the kind of scene that can cause you to briefly consider renouncing your US citizenship.  

ALAENA, 2021, acrylic on paper, 12 x 17 inches

We walk back toward the car after checking the waves, opting to surf the right at the north end of the cove. Decoster waxes up a 9’2″ shaped by Robin Kegel—a friend of hers who lives just a short drive away in Bidart—one of only two boards remaining in her possession. As we make our way through a keyhole in the reef and wade out toward the lineup, it’s notable that the majority of surfers in the water are women. To put that into perspective, Decoster tells me that her mother once was crowned the women’s national bodyboarding champion because she was the only woman that year to show up for a heat. 

In observing the reaction of a number of the female surfers who cross our path on the way to and from the water, it becomes clear that, today, Decoster serves as a role model to many of them. She shrugs this idea off, insisting that they are all just friends, but their excitement is audible when talking to her or hooting her into a wave, and I notice at least one of these young disciples carrying a tote bag printed with her paintings. 

The tide drops as the session goes on, causing little boils to emerge as water draws off the bottom, sometimes exposing dry rocks or jagged pieces of reef on the inside section of  the wave. Decoster appears to have the lineup committed to memory in as much detail as the subject sections of coastline in her marine paintings. She cross-steps smoothly along her 9’2″, never once flailing or losing her board, finding the waves that grow and gain speed as they wind down the point, reading the boil-laden sections to know just where to kick out before reaching a dry patch of reef.

It’s not by coincidence that Decoster’s more recent work is mostly absent of depictions of wave riding. Only a few of her early paintings actually show people surfing, and now she tends to paint it only when commissioned. “I want to create the atmosphere around that experience,” Decoster says. “If you do that, you shouldn’t need to show someone riding a wave. I’d always rather see empty waves, and I find unbroken swells and lulls much more beautiful.” 

If surfing is its own kind of expression, it follows that nothing could be more redundant than painting it. It also gives Decoster an escape, when she’s in the water, from that part of her brain that can’t help but record her surroundings in enough detail to translate them back onto the canvas. “I can’t go into Biarritz without wanting to paint it,” she says in a tone that seems equal parts dread and excitement. 

After we get back to town, her mind is occupied again, recording details. “When we’re talking, I can’t stop looking behind you at all the things I want to paint,” she says, and gestures across the intersection from where we’re standing, tracing her fingers over each of the arches above the windows and doorways of a Basque home on the corner. Then she extends her hand farther, to a distant patch of the Atlantic, and, with something close to surgical precision, she cuts a border between the water and the horizon.