Poet Of The Invisible

The Art of Jerry Cibilic. From TSJ 4.2.

Light / Dark

“You won’t see me out in the lineup at Lowers very often, but that’s because you’re never there at three in the morning on an eight-foot day.”

So speaks lifeguard Jerry Cibilic, the man who lives at Trestles. He watches the waves at Uppers, Lowers, and Church from his bird’s-eye view on the cliff.

 “Every swell has a different pulse,” he says. “Sometimes the biggest sets arrive an hour apart. Sometimes it’s two hours.” 

On these inconsistent days Cibilic grabs his 10-foot Chuck Dent and paddles out to a spot well beyond the dense pack at Lowers. He waits patiently for the big set. When it finally marches in, he strokes into one wearing a big grin.

In 1982, the builders of Trestles Headquarters hammered the last nails into the wood and cinder block structure overlooking Lowers. Just hours after the State took title to the building, vandals broke in and smashed equipment. The next morning, Head Guard Steve Long suggested that someone live in the building as a caretaker. Lifeguard Cibilic volunteered and has lived there every summer since.

Cib, as he’s known to his mates, monitors the surf and weather, coordinates rescues and first aid operations, and produces a constantly mutating series of drawings and sculptures that express his unique interpretation of the universe. Each summer Cib carefully collects ideas and artifacts from the beach and surrounding bluffs, and each September he gathers them up with his recent drawings and sculptures and returns to Italy where he is the caretaker of a large estate, the Casa Agostini, near Venice.

At the Casa—where he packs a gun to ward off the antique thieves that paid an armed visit three years ago—Cib is in charge of selecting and bottling wine for the cellar. He also oversees the production of traditional handmade paper. His main occupation, however, is drawing and sculpting. As the leaves drop and the winter chill enshrouds the Veneto, artistic visions that were born in the ecstatic heat of summer begin to mature.

The resulting work focuses on waves of electromagnetics as well as the delicate forms of nature. Cycles. Crystallization Dissipation. Radiation. Synchronicity. These works run deep in concept and metaphor, with many of his pieces focusing on radio waves—a love since childhood.

The imagery is enigmatic. An old saw blade leaves rusty a print that starts a chain reaction across the paper. The blade’s fierce rotation churns the space like a chubasco in the sweet spot of an L.A. Times satellite photo. A lead umbrella provides shelter from Chernobyl’s poison rain. Squid and octopi float magically in space, jazz forms frozen into limpid haiku. A primitive radio is imprisoned in a lead housing. Sea water leaves a crystalline trail across paper. Cib favors the soul of organic materials. His ink comes from seppioline, the little squid from the Adriatic Sea. He procures Spanish saffron for the yellow, red wine for the rich browns. Rust leaves trails of penetrating orange. The paper is made by hand from cotton rags.

Cib’s life has been an odyssey. After growing up in a suburb of San Jose, California, he attended UC Santa Barbara in 1975 to take classes in pre med. He found these studies unfulfilling and was soon sidetracked into surfing, yoga, amateur mycology, massage therapy, competitive swimming, gourmet cooking, and strange experiments with fire. One day he discovered art and never turned back.

Although his first attempts at drawing and sculpture were crude, his teachers praised him for conceptual strength. He drifted among disciplines until he found a mentor, Ludwig Redl, a gifted teacher of sculpture. Cib was encouraged to use the radio coils and other electronic junk of his childhood as inspiration.

After two years at UCSB, Cib dropped out to travel in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, and Nepal. He struck out for the most remote regions, usually with little money. After weeks of living with the hill tribes of northern Thailand, he began to examine his Western values through the eyes of another culture.

The journey also presented trials. He once became stranded with an expired visa at the airport in Rangoon when corrupt officials attempted to extort money and caused him to miss his flight. Moments later the airport was thrown into pandemonium when the very next flight crashed and exploded while taking off. He staked out a spot outside the office of the Burmese officials who had refused his exit visa. Twenty-four hours later, in desperation, he feigned an attack of insanity. Nervous officials finally sent him off to Thailand muttering, twitching, and foaming at the mouth. Upon reaching Bangkok, he collapsed with a tropical fever that left him in bed for a month.

He returned to California full of new visions and some ominous lumps in his armpits and neck. Doctors diagnosed Hodgkin’s disease and prescribed radiation therapy.

Cib’s life is ruled by strange coincidences. His passionate love affairs perpetually remind him that the dark side of life lies close at hand. An old girlfriend once showed up to stalk him in Torino. He refused to accompany her to the cinema one evening only to read her name in the next morning's paper as one of 64 people who had died in a fire at the theater.

“I knew I had something that was killing me,” he recalls. “I just didn’t know what it was. So I decided to get physically and mentally fit.” 

He began to prepare himself through fasting and meditation. He read the books that his doctors had written and then argued with them on the fine points of his treatment. His mistrust was eventually replaced with a mental quietude.

Several months later the disease was in remission and Cib felt like he had won a race. He returned to UCSB to get his degree in art. Then, in the summer of 1982, he headed for Italy to make art and work in a gallery.

Cib’s life is ruled by strange coincidences. His passionate love affairs perpetually remind him that the dark side of life lies close at hand. An old girlfriend once showed up to stalk him in Torino. He refused to accompany her to the cinema one evening only to read her name in the next morning’s paper as one of 64 people who had died in a fire at the theater.

He has seen love’s passion transformed into the rage of Kali. Crazed ex-lovers have tried to wreak havoc on him on several occasions. At a lifeguard luau he was once accosted by a drunken woman who proceeded to strip naked and roll in a mudpit before mounting a kamikaze charge against Cib and his new girlfriend. The lifeguards still talk about the fracas that ensued.

Cib falls in love again and again but speaks of it in disparaging terms. 

“Falling in love is the worst,” he says.“It’s like a disease. You can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t think straight. I usually start losing weight right away.” 

Nevertheless, he finds a way to bounce back from the casualties of passion. His secret has something to do with turning up at Trestles each summer wearing a pair of bleached-out trunks. His puckish smile and twinkling eyes belie the fact he has no money in his pockets. He knows that the mantra of crashing waves will temper the excesses and restore his equanimity.

He rumbles in each June in a 1967 Dodge van painted bright turquoise. This timeless vehicle is a microcosm of Cib’s life, full of photos, drawing materials, electric coils, boules of wine from the estate, a mattress, a sack of habanero chiles, dog-eared copies of The Magus by John Fowles and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, a copy of the tabloid Weekly World News, and cassettes of music by Les Baxter, US3 and David Byrne. On the dashboard is a mug holding his toothbrush and razor

Cib’s first task is to take charge of Trestles Headquarters. He traps the rats and clears out all of their nests. He repairs the windows and wood. He lovingly places his old Chuck Dent and Carby Carbinel models among the other surfboards. He fixes the lockers and sets an orderly tone for the arrival of the other summer guards. Meanwhile, a little summer garden of tomatoes and basil springs up amongst the wild sage and fennel that grows along the bluffs.

Although he prefers to watch for white egrets and the occasional bobcat, Cib gets involved in some unusual incidents while on duty. He was among the first to arrive when a woman with a pistol blew her brains out at the southern end of San Onofre. As he surveyed the scene he noticed an open book next to the body. Stooping over, he read the title of the book: Reincarnation.

In the basement of the Trestles Headquarters are two large lockers filled with paper, ink, copper coils, plaster, rusty chains, hunks of lead and bone, and quartz. It’s the Western version of Cib’s studio. At quitting time, the alchemy begins. His experiments and ruminations run late into the night. Sometimes the whole scene culminates with a nocturnal surf session.

Radio waves and electricity are important themes in Cib’s art. This interest traces back to childhood when he stayed up late at night listening to his first crystal radio and reading What a Boy Can Do With Electricity. He loved Christmas when the house was full of electronic circuitry. When no one was watching, he would gently pull the cord to the tree lights out just far enough to lay in strips of tinsel and watch the sparks fly. Miraculously, the family dwelling never burned down.

When he was eight years old, an aged science teacher gave him a spark coil from a Model T Ford.

 “That coil changed my life,” he says. “By putting wires between the coils I could make arcs of electricity do a quivering dance. Soon I was lighting firecrackers by remote control from the other side of the front yard.” 

Like any self-respecting eight year old, Cib used this technology to terrorize his mailman. At age 12 he became licensed with ham radios. A kindly old anarchist befriended him in a Silicon Valley radio club. This bespectacled gentleman with greasy black hair taught the precocious youngster some rather advanced techniques of electronic piracy. Young Jerry later discovered the man was known as Cap’n Crunch, an infamous hacker wanted by the FBI.

These electronic obsessions continue to evolve in his current work. Now the radios have become sculptures, some over 20 feet high. Cib tracks all of the different frequencies that pass through air and solid matter. 

“My radios receive words, music, voices, crack pops of lightning, buzz neon, hertz and low frequency emissions simultaneously woven into a planetary wail.” 

A kindly old anarchist befriended him in a Silicon Valley radio club. This bespectacled gentleman with greasy black hair taught the precocious youngster some rather advanced techniques of electronic piracy. Young Jerry later discovered the man was known as Cap'n Crunch, an infamous hacker wanted by the FBI.


His radios also pick up the mysterious signals known as “whistlers,” a phenomenon caused by the interaction of thunderstorms with the earth’s magnetic field. Whistlers start with a pop and resemble a slowly descending musical note.

While discussing electro-radio wave theory, Cib himself begins to heat up. His eyes widen and his gestures become animated. He rhapsodizes on the theories of Nikola Tesla and modern quantum physicists. 

“My brain,” he says, “is the saltwater pool where the stone falls and forms the wave; my thought is the electrical event.” 

In one of these late night musings he realized that waves were one of the main metaphors in his work. His creations describe the underlying energy behind ocean waves, radio waves, brain waves and electrical impulses. He hunts for the play of atoms, the dance of Shiva.

One of Cib’s monumental radio sculptures stands pointing skyward on the Topanga property of artist Norton Wisdom. The fifteen-foot-tall antenna is made from scrap fragments of high-tension power lines and jade-colored ceramic insulators from the 1920s. Enough energy is sucked in through the giant antenna to spray a bouquet of sound out of the receiver at the base. A passersby can stop and listen through a small set of headphones.

“My radio sculptures are sensorial fingers for the invisible,” says Cib. “I once watched a young boy approach the Topanga installation. He placed the headphones over his ears, then looked around for plugs or batteries. Seeing none, he solemnly gazed straight up into the sky, the same ol’ sky, as if he would see something different. I believe that in some way he did.”

Cib also seeks other invisible energies. Like radiation. He is obsessed with the nuclear plant at San Onofre. He once followed a good-looking nuclear activist up to the edge of the plant. Together they tore the cover off the emergency overflow manhole. The girl jumped in and crawled up the narrow space. Out of curiosity or lust, he decided to follow. They scurried up into the base of the compound where they could watch the workers. Later that week Cib hauled 50 pounds of plaster to the cast iron hatch and madea mold. Fragments of the door, including one with the words “Waterman,” were later cast in scrap lead from old cables that he dug out of the ground in San Onofre. 

Several years ago he obtained a Geiger counter and began to monitor the radioactivity around the plant. 

“Think of me as an independent auditor,” he says. “I just don’t trust those guys. One day they showed up with bulldozers and removed all the sand on the beach in front of the plant. It must have been radioactive. They hauled away tons, and the media didn’t say a word. Now that plant is going to be a dinosaur. They destroyed some of the most beautiful caves and canyons on the coast to build it, and now its carcass will lie there for the next two-hundred-thousand years.”

One of Cib’s creations foreshadowed the catastrophe in Chernobyl. In early 1986 he was coating umbrellas with molten lead for an exhibition in Torino. When the first reactor went down he had a sinking feeling and went to purchase a hefty supply of fresh foods from his corner market. Two days later there was nothing left to buy, and an uneasy feeling overtook the population. The lead umbrellas provided the right protection from radioactive drizzle that began to fall across northern Italy. He canceled all plans and bailed for California The experience still haunts him.

Cib also experiments with the crystallization of salt and the development of rust. He uses these slow, subtle processes to create mysterious prints on paper. These impressions, like footprints in the sand, are a record of time and a reminder of a greater reality taking place while the men of the world scurry about. Like a Zen koan, Cib’s art startles the viewer. Stop! Listen. Breathe! Meditate on the spark from which springs life. Feel the blood circulating in your body. 

“Life started from electromagnetic charge,” says Cib, “it’s the force that animates us.”

At present he is making prints of sea life. The fishmongers of Venice call out his name as he ambles through the marketplace; they eagerly contribute specimens to the cause. The resulting prints are reminiscent of fossils. Cib asserts that the semi-conduction of cells is yet another example of the electronic miracle clicking on and off in the organic world.

The colors and effects in these works come from ink and the crystallization of seawater. The fish are rubbed with ink and printed on rice paper. The rice paper is affixed to cotton-rag paper and submerged in a saltwater pool. When the water evaporates, the compositions are covered with brilliant translucent crystals. When rust is incorporated, the electro-chemical process which occurs at the molecular level continues indefinitely.

At times he pursues poignancy. In Spara Vita (Shooting Life), a real rifle appears to spray out a stew of sea creatures that have been cast in lead.

“I was apprehensive about using a real gun, but it coincided with a new wave of war crimes in Yugoslavia that left the spectators in Italy in shock.” 

The dedication on this piece reads “For the Adriatic.” It is a tribute to friends and family living in the former Yugoslavia as well as for the precarious ecology of that beautiful sea. Cibilic himself is of Croatian stock, but is now resigned to call himself Dalmatian His annual forays into Croatia are on hold.

Cib’s work always leads back to waves, the pulsations of energy that govern the world. 

“Ocean waves are essentially invisible until they hit the shore,” he says, “and electro-waves are invisible until they manifest themselves in a way we can see. While pursuing the invisible waves that riddle the magnetosphere of the earth, I realized I was riding similar waves out in the water. These energy processes are interconnected. And surfing reflects the design of these physical truths…What’s more, the human body has the same composition as seawater. The ocean is our primal source. The ions in our body come back into balance through periodic immersions.” 

Cib’s theories are always best explained in the language of surfing. He rides waves in every one of his endeavors.

Cib will continue to seek the invisible. He encounters it through play and experimentation. He surfs and makes rescues and cooks and watches the world. He gets up before dawn to see the mountain lion. Sometimes the ideas bust loose and he works feverishly and ceaselessly trying to describe some electrical apparition. He is a black-hatted man in a mysterious carnival, selling tickets for a voyage of possibility. Sometimes he sits alone in the dark. He listens. And sometimes the muses appear and the poetry begins.