Surfing for Hawaiian Art

Dawn is sneaking over the craggy koolau range, a thick spine of lava cliffs and rainforests that bisects Oahu, while my rusty VW van rumbles into Haleiwa, epicenter of Hawaii's surfing. I join a line of cars stacked with nine-foot-plus surfboards heading for what was called in 1966 the "Seven-Mile Miracle" because of all its world-class surf spots. Today, in mid-February, the legendary winter swells have subsided enough to make the 27-mile drive from my Honolulu home worth the effort to find uncrowded waves. Or so I think. Then I see 20-foot swells breaking a half-mile offshore, well beyond my abilities.

But the North Shore isn't all about the waves - it's a lifestyle, and Haleiwa is its heart. Rather than return home, I decide to get in touch with the town's vibe, something I haven't done in a while. I park my truck at the North Shore Marketplace, a gathering spot for surfers; splashes of color that reflect off my windows get my attention. Just around the corner in a small, park-like setting is what looks like a graveyard of broken surfboards.

Dozens of surfboard nose and tail sections stand like tombstones but are painted with Hawaii's flora and fauna. It seems fitting that these battered wave-riding vehicles haven't been tossed aside; surfboards have always been more than just water toys. A board's shape, design and dimensions are a personal statement about the surfer's personality, style and ability. These fantastic machines can be like a lover, or at least a good friend that you trust. Here, they receive a second life.

"Aloha, welcome to Resurrection City," says Texas-born musician-painter Ron Artis. His foam and fiberglass canvases fill an outdoor gallery that represents several generations of surfboard design with one thing in common: brutal battle scars of jagged edges and deep punctures from coral reefs and breaking waves. Artis stands in the doorway of his studio-home overlooking the "graveyard," wearing paint-spattered jeans, a sweatshirt, orange plastic slippers and a beguiling smile.

"C'mon in," he says. The living room is crammed with musical instruments and recording equipment. A large back-room studio is where Artis paints his pieces; he says the finished products sell for up to $3,500. "We play [music] when the mood strikes," he says. We, he tells me, includes some of his 10 kids.

"No schedule. People find us when they find us, like you just did."

Artis offers to buy me a cup of coffee at the nearby Coffee Gallery, and in the 90 or so seconds it takes us to walk there I get a summary of his life story: Army brat, musician, resident of New York and California. Then, about four years ago, the 40-something artist moved from California to the North Shore. "Why art on surfboards?" I ask, and take a sip of my coffee.

"That's simple," he says. "Haleiwa, surfers, surfboards and an idea was born." Artis then bids me "aloha" because "it's time to do art."

Walking the half-mile to a surfer-owned joint for breakfast, I see evidence of Haleiwa's surfing tradition everywhere. Architecture is a comfortable mix of tired board-and-batten homes, some with surfboards stacked on porches and Lycra tops drying over banisters. Old surfboards are used by some residents as mailbox posts. Several non-surf-related businesses have painted surfboards with their addresses. Even a pizza joint's delivery car uses a roof-mounted surfboard sitting on its edge as a billboard.

As soon as I open the screen door at Cafe Haleiwa, I feel at home. It's a gathering place for wave riders, and the walls - covered with surf movie posters, photos autographed by surfers (including world champion Kelly Slater) and a picture of Rob Machado who, two days earlier, had won the year's first North Shore contest - are testament to the culture and its heroes. Still, I do a double-take when I realize that Machado is sitting at a table just below his picture, having breakfast with two friends. Other surfers file in and out.

"I love it here because surfing is the culture, not a sub-culture," Machado tells me. "Everyone here is on the same planet."

The servers and cooks are buff and tan, with sunburned noses and wearing slippers on feet scarred by battles with surfboard fins and reefs. People are discussing surfboard technology.

Outside the restaurant two men stand by their pickup trucks where a cleanly snapped-in-half 11-foot big-wave board sits in one bed.

"Where did that happen?" I ask.

"Waimea Bay," says North Shore carpenter Ray Himes. "In the shore break. My timing was off."

It's Himes' favorite board, so he's going to have it repaired. Too bad for Artis, I think. Himes drops me off at Resurrection City, where I escape the noon heat and humidity under one of several large trees in Artis' outdoor gallery landscaped with hibiscus bushes and tropical flowers. There's a wooden bench, some flat lava rocks and chairs where visitors can rest and view the surfboard art. A few boards are carved to resemble twisted vines and palm trees.

Jazz echoes from Artis' living room, where I find him and his three sons playing music for several mainland American and Canadian visitors sitting on worn leather couches. A few buy CDs recorded by Artis and his brood. As I'm about to leave, a surfer slides through the doorway carrying a broken short board decorated by just a small decal.

"A blank canvas," I hear Artis whisper.

"Someone told me you'll do something nice on it," says the surfer with an Australian accent. "It was my favorite board."

"I'll give it a good home," Artis says, not missing a beat on the piano.

PLAN YOUR TRIP!

Surfboard Art Visit Ron Artis' Resurrection City, where you can browse his colorful surfboard creations or even give him your board/canvas. ronartis.com

Load Up Cafe Haleiwa is a legendary place to grab breakfast or lunch. We're talking "Off the Lip" omelettes and mahimahi plate lunches. 808-637-5516

Take a Load Off Santa's by the Sea, an inn north of Waimea Bay, is near the famous Banzai Pipeline. There are beachfront rooms. Rates start at $185 bestbnb.com/Santas.html