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TALKING LIFE & ART WITH LEGENDARY BODYSURFER MARK CUNNINGHAM

Best known for his bodysurfing skills—and oft referred to as the greatest bodysurfer of the modern era—retired North Shore lifeguard Mark Cunningham is now sharing his love of the sea through art. As a longtime Oahu resident, he’s spent decades in and around the ocean, but lately Cunningham has been flipping his fins to find interesting items under the sea and give them new life. Watches covered in barnacles, petrified goggles, calcified snorkels and the like become coveted art pieces.

Thanks to the support of his mentor John Koga, one of Hawaii’s most established artists, Cunningham’s art is reaching people in and outside of the surf community. He’s presented his art(ifacts) in New York City at Partners & Spade gallery, and Cunningham’s first show in Hawaii was in 2015 at the now defunct Kailua boutique Mu’umu’u Heaven. Next up: an exhibition at Mahina & Sun’s opening on July 7.

Below, we talk story with the legendary bodysurfer, retired lifeguard-turned artist about his inspiration, intention and his perfect day on Oahu…


WHEN DID YOU START CREATING ART? WERE YOU INSPIRED BY WHAT YOU FOUND OR DID YOU HAVE THE IDEA BEFORE YOU FOUND THE TREASURES? 
I started creating art about five years ago. As a lifelong Oahu resident and retired lifeguard, I’ve been in love with the ocean and surfing and all that it provides. I’ve been collecting (not hoarding) treasures from the bottom of the sea and the shoreline for many years.  So I’d say that I was inspired by what I found, knowing these items had a value of sorts for art or posterity.

IS THERE A PIECE YOU ARE MOST EXCITED ABOUT? We call it Fin Anemone.  It’s a large sculpture with over 600 skegs [surfboard fins]. They’re designed in a sort of vortex.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR ART TO CONVEY? IS THERE AN OVERALL MESSAGE?The passage of time. We should all get busy pursuing whatever passions we have while we’re still able. SURF WHILE YOU CAN.  All these manmade objects were shiny and new and cutting edge at one time—now they’ve simply ended up at the bottom of the sea.

WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING ARTIFACT YOU’VE FOUND THUS FAR? The dancing Vishnu I found off shore in Waikiki. Not something you’d expect to find snorkeling.

DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY ON OAHU…Super strong cup of coffee at home…a dawn patrol to Makapu’u for a bodysurf and beachcomb (the windward side in the morning is spectacular). Then a healthy brunch either at home or on the road, followed by a snorkeling session/treasure hunt on the south shore (location determined by current weather and surf conditions). Then a late lunch on the way home via Monserrat Avenue (Pioneer Saloon, South Shore Grill, Diamond Head Market & Grill, Fort Ruger Market, perhaps?), an afternoon NBA playoff game on the telly, and a very stiff rum drink with pistachios on the deck watching the sunset over Waikiki.

Mark Cunningham’s Art Opening on July 7 at Mahina & Sun’s is in collaboration with the 1st Annual Surfjack Summer Market. More info here.

*feature image by Chris Burkard via SurfSimply, watch image by The Fox is Black, Fin Anenome and Vishnu image courtesy of Mark Cunningham

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