Mark Cunningham makes you want to be a better human. He's kind, genuine, and always eager to help. Whether he’s lifeguarding on the North Shore or sharing his reclaimed surf treasures in galleries across the country, Mark has a deep-rooted love for both people and planet that is felt by everyone he meets.
I’m just overflowing with gratitude and appreciation for all that the ocean, lifeguarding and body surfing have given me...The older I get the happier and more appreciative I am for all of this.
Born and raised in Niu Valley in the suburbs of Honolulu, it seems only fitting that Mark would end up an "amphibious" admirer of the ocean who's happiest when he's "getting his gills wet.” We were lucky enough to chat with the waterman legend to hear more about his journey, from winning the first-ever body surfing competition at Pipeline to seeing his latest artwork featured at the Indoek Gallery this month.
Did you just grab a board one day and teach yourself to surf, or did someone show you the ropes?
The surfing bug hit real hard when I was 13 or 14, and I've been in the ocean ever since. We started playing in the suburbia swimming pools with those Styrofoam surfboards, and then I was really lucky my two older sisters dated surfers. Often times they couldn't go to the beach unless they took their little brother. Also, my mom and dad would take us down to the beach in Waikiki. There was an Elk's Club with a pool, so you started in the pool and sort of got your skills down, and it was an oceanfront club. So, we started messing around on the Styrofoam boards from Long's Drugstore and slowly worked our way to shortboards. Growing up in Niu Valley, this corner of the island is very close to two very popular body surfing spots, Sandy Beach, and right around the corner is Makapuu. I was real lucky that those were close to home for me. When I started surfing, it was before leashes were invented, so if you lost your board, you went swimming and body surfing after your board. It seemed I was swimming and body surfing after my board more than standing on it, so one of the older guys in the neighborhood gave me a pair of swim fins and said, "Here, give this a try." My tall, gangly, uncoordinated adolescent body felt a lot more comfortable swimming in the water, being embraced by the ocean, as opposed to standing on a board trying to dance and perform on it.
Interesting you say, "water safety skills," weren’t you also a lifeguard?
Oh yes, I was for many years. I went to school at UC Santa Barbara and played water polo. I was only there for about a year and a half, but my first summer of lifeguarding was the summer of 1975 for the city of Santa Barbara, and that was the summer after Jaws came out. Nobody went swimming, not a soul in the water. I played water polo that Fall, came home, and my father passed away. He'd been struggling with cancer. I was homesick, and I wasn't doing that well in school. And then, I started lifeguarding for the city and county of Honolulu the following summer of 1976. I've had just under 20 years on the beach, most of it out at Pipeline on the North Shore. The last nine years, I worked out of our headquarters in Honolulu as a training lieutenant.
You're often referred to as "amphibious" and "the world's best body surfer," so I can only imagine the early experiences and ocean lessons you've learned that have earned you those titles.
Absolutely. Growing up as a kid, I remember going to the supermarket, and you'd wait for Surfer Magazine to come out– it was about 75 cents a copy. They only came out every other month, and if you had the money, you'd buy a copy and read it cover to cover and memorize every surfer, stance, and logo on their board. I've just been in love with surfing for 50 to 60 years. Surfing and the ocean are just such a part of the Hawaiian lifestyle here. The two are intermingled quite frequently for so many people here.
Any particular surfers you looked up to?
All of them, haha. I was real lucky. There was this one gentleman Fred Van Dyke, and he was one of the pioneer big wave riders out at the North Shore, a transplant from California. He was a teacher at the high school I went to. He'd tell surf stories, and there'd be a board strapped to the roof of his car. So you'd think, "Ok, you can sort of be mainstream legit but also be a surfer too." Early on, surfers had the biggest reputation as bums and lazy layabouts. There's another teacher at the high school, Peter Cole, who was sort of that same generation as Van Dyke, an early big-wave North Shore rider. Then when I moved out to the North Shore and started lifeguarding, they had beachfront properties. You'd see them on the beach, you'd see them on the roads, and in the supermarket, you'd be BSing about the surf. My role models were these older guys who came to the North Shore, and they weren't sponsored by anyone. It was purely for the passion and love of the big waves, clean water, and warm water. They made their stand on the sand out there and raised their families. I really looked up to those older guys.
That's epic. People like that are the best, just doing it for the love of doing it.
The first generation of publicized surfers, those exposed in the media, Mike Doyle and Greg Noll, had brief stints as lifeguards, so that was inspiring to me that these great surfers had lifeguarding under their belt. Not that I aspired to be a great surfer, but it was sort of the fabric. Lifeguarding is legit; it's a step along the way. You know, you can go swimming in the water year-round without wearing a wetsuit. Being in the middle of the Pacific, there's always a wave to ride somewhere on this island, there's always a wave breaking somewhere. There are a lot of Hawaiian guys who I used to body surf with at Sandy Beach. Their whole approach to the ocean was very relaxed, very enjoyable, just so comfortable and happy just being in the ocean; nothing to prove. They weren't looking for sponsorship or media exposure—just exercise, diving, and fishing for sustenance. The warm Hawaiian waters and watching how the Hawaiians incorporate it into their daily lives were such huge influences on me also.
I'm sure. It'd be hard not to be inspired by that. You've also won the first two bodysurfing contests at Pipe! What was that experience like?
There was a fun little circuit of competitions. Bodysurfing was pretty popular here on the islands prior to the explosion of bodyboards. We'd have a contest at Sandy Beach, Makapuu, and another spot called Point Panic. But one of the first surfing contests out on the North Shore was at Pipeline. It was a real lowkey, Parks and Recreation-organized event. There was no sponsorship or anything like that. I think I won one or two while still in high school. So it gave me a sense of identity or worth. There were incredible champion basketball players and football players at my high school. The mainstream sports were receiving their recognition, so finding a little niche of recognition sure felt good for me.
For bodysurfing to work hand in hand with lifeguarding and surf lifesaving, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. The skillset of what I love to do is part of being a North Shore lifeguard.
My first winter of lifeguarding was in '76 out at the North Shore, and that was the year they crowned Peter Townend the first World Champion, so I sort of had a front-row seat to the birth of pro surfing. It was happening all over the world, but it always came to its climax, the last three contests of the year out at the North Shore. I've lived and lifeguarded out there for close to 20 years. My wife and I now live in Honolulu, but I still have a little studio out there and get out there as often as I can. And granted, it's a lot more crowded and competitive out there in the lineup, so I don't go out there quite as much, but I still love the energy. I love to get my gills wet. I had an oceanfront house back in the day when you could afford that on a lifeguard's salary, and I got to walk to work. I had my fill of it morning, noon, and night. We'd be bodysurfing under the moonlight. I've had my fill, but I still love the cast of characters out there and how stoked everyone is.
It sounds only natural then that you stumbled into the art world with reclaimed surf treatures. When did you first start creating artwork from your ocean finds?
I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but the two main factors that I sure attribute it to, well maybe three, now I'm thinking of my very old Lithuanian grandmother who lived with us for the latter years of her life. She went through the Depression and valued everything. She repaired everything and fixed everything and just hated to see waste. So, collecting these things that I found on the beach, there was the energy and stoke that they represented surf, and there's also an inherent value to these things that someone made and produced, so to simply have them discarded or tossed away, I saw the value in those. It's a long-standing tradition with beach boys and lifeguards in Hawaii that if the conditions are right, you pop on a mask and snorkel and see what's on the bottom of the sea. A lot of guys are out there trying to put fish and food on the table, and a lot of times, we're looking to see what the tourists dropped; what kind of jewelry might be sitting on the bottom. I used to find a lot of swim fins, and I'd re-sell them back to the bodysurfers and the boogie boarders.
Occasionally, you'd find jewelry, a watch, a surfboard fin, someone's dentures, or a piece of hardware that came off a boat that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just started collecting these things.
My first wife was a photographer, and we were married for 18 years, so we used to go to museums quite a bit. I learned a little bit about composition and balance and lines, patterns, visually how things work. I had a huge bucket of fins that my second wife Katye and I collected, and as we'd go snorkeling to find these things, we started a collection in the living room. A dear friend of mine, Randy Hild, who worked at Quiksilver/Roxy for years, came by the house one time and said, "Oh my god, your collection of these surf fins is just amazing." He had a show in New York, and he and John Moore invited me. They launched a company called M.Nii, named after a Japanese seamstress, out of Makaha in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and they sort of revived that label. Anyhow, they had a show in New York, and I invited a friend over, John Koga, who’s also an artist. He worked at the contemporary museum in Honolulu, and I'm like, "How am I going to get this bucket of fins over to New York?"
"He looked at all of my stuff and goes, 'Sh*t Mark, you're an artist!' And I thought I was just a lifeguard who collected weird things.”
I sort of call him my sensei. He is a very respected artist. I want to give him as much credit as possible for putting me on the artistic path. He had a show and said, "Mark, I want you to assemble a couple of pieces." So, I did, and they sold, and I've been at it ever since! That was about 7, 8, or 9 years ago.
Wow! That had to be an insane feeling when you sold your first art piece.
It kind of was. I joke that I have fun with this whole process four times. The first time is when Katye and I can go snorkeling to look for whatever we can find. My love of surfing and surfboard fins is what I'm after. I have thousands of them. It's crazy how many surfboard fins have been lost on the beaches of Hawaii. Whether or not we find any, we're snorkeling, swimming in the ocean, and getting pushed around. We see fish, seaweed, and starfish, and there's that whole fun of floating. What's great about snorkeling is you're not competing for waves. You're just floating to the beat of your own drum, going where you want to go and where the current takes you.
The second time, as much as possible, I try to mount my finds on found wood that I find beachcombing. I'll go beachcombing on the windward side of the island, where a lot of marine debris washes ashore. I like man-made lumber; I call it beachwood as opposed to driftwood. Whether or not I find anything, I'm at the beach, getting exercise and beachcombing. I'm seeing the birds fly by and the waves wash in. The coastline where we're all drawn like moths to a flame.
The second time, as much as possible, I try to mount my finds on found wood that I find beachcombing. I'll go beachcombing on the windward side of the island, where a lot of marine debris washes ashore. I like man-made lumbar; I call it beach wood as opposed to driftwood. Whether or not I find anything, I'm at the beach, getting exercise and beachcombing. I'm seeing the birds fly by and the waves wash in. The coastline where we're all drawn like moths to a flame.
The third time I have fun is when I go into the studio, which I'm going to do as soon as I hang up from this call and try to find a rhyme or reason for what piece goes on what wood. What pieces of jewelry match the grain of the wood. It's like putting a puzzle together. What feels good, what feels right. There's a lot of hard work; rinsing off the wood, drying it out, sanding off splinters, getting off raw spots, and the same goes for everything we find in the ocean has to be washed and dried and sorted and available for use. Actually, working in the studio and finding what puts a smile on my face or looks good to me visually. And then the fourth time I have fun, occasionally people give me money for these things.
One man's trash is another man's treasure" seems to ring truer than ever for you.
Absolutely! That's so right. People go, "Oh, Mark, you're doing such a wonderful thing pulling trash out of the ocean." And yes and no. There's abandoned fishing line all the time that we try to ball up and put in our bags without getting hooked by them. But it's also much more selfish than that. I'm out there for exercise and the treasure hunt. I guess what I'm saying with this art is that all these things that I find, the fins, the watches, the jewelry, all these things were all shiny and new and for sale at a mall in an air-conditioned store under florescent light and now here they are at the bottom of the sea getting covered with coral and growth and crabs and starfish are crawling all over them. This wood and the things that I find show the passage of time. They're nicked up, dinged, worn, and have crust on them. And as I get older, I'm kind of feeling that way too; a little old and crusty, but I'm still surfing!
All these fins just represent little icons or totems of energy that are at the bottom of someone's surfboard. Was it John John's board? Was it Kelly's board? Or was it Joe Blow who went out surfing for the first time and forgot to screw his fin in?" Cunningham says. "All these fins sort of have a story that I don't really know, but they were in someone's hand, on someone's surfboard, and in someone's family, and then they ended in the bottom of the sea, and I found them.
I always trip out, and I wonder how many waves this board rode. How many waves was this fin part of before it got knocked off on a rock, or the leash yanked it off, or the screw came loose? And then it sits at the bottom of the sea, and I think of all the millions of waves that have rolled over it. These things have absorbed and been around so much ocean energy that to leave them there doesn't feel right. I want to grab them and say, "You did a hell of a job!"
That's a true artist! You see the story behind the object and share it with others in such a unique way.
What's interesting about my pieces is that these are little tokens and reminders of our surfing lifestyle. Not every house, office, or wall has room for that big, beautiful, expensive surfboard. We've got a garage full of them, but seeing little bits of fiberglass, a surfboard fin, and wax combs is a nice, gentle reminder that I'm a surfer. I should go surfing, haha. I shouldn't be sitting in this office right now. I should be going surfing!
And that's what "finding your Outerknown" is all about—carrying that spirit with you even if you can't be surfing or outdoors. Looking at your artwork, you can still get invigorated with that freedom and sense of adventure. Exactly. We all have paintings and photographs that inspire or make us happy or take us to a different place. I hope what I'm creating takes people back to the beach, too, if it's in their house or office—a little taste of the shoreline.
What are you most excited about for your part in the "FOUND" exhibit at the Indoek Gallery?
The whole thing! I'm just absolutely honored. For Matt Titone to find or acknowledge me and say, "What you're doing is cool or legit," I'm just absolutely honored and blown away. I have family and friends who live in Ventura, and my first lifeguarding experience was in Santa Barbara, so it's a little bit of a homecoming of sorts to present this work to that neck of the woods. I'm excited for Matt's gallery. I'm excited to see what Jim (Olarte) comes up with and to see old friends and meet new friends who were lifeguards, wave riders, or art appreciators–and to meet this whole new Outerknown team!
Speaking of the Outerknown team, how did you first connect with the brand? It was my friendship with Kelly, living, and lifeguarding out at the North Shore. I've known Kelly nearly as long as he's been coming to the North Shore. We didn't become friends until much later on. But there I was in the lifeguard tower, and two doors down was the Johnson family, with whom he used to spend a lot of time, and I'm very dear friends.
I met John (Moore) at the launch of M.Nii, and that was one of the first times I went through the collection and cherry-picked things. He got some of my biggest, oldest, and best fins at a great price because I had no idea how valuable they were. So talk to John about that!
Outerknown is rooted in sustainability just as much as surf. So, aside from repurposing found treasures from the ocean, how do you help lower your environmental impact?
I try to have a really simple footprint. I'm a body surfer. I don't have a thousand foam and fiberglass surfboards in my closet–I have a handful, but I'm a bit of a minimalist. I'm lucky that Outerknown sends me a box of clothing or lets me go shopping now and then. I'm not a big fan of the mall. I try to keep my consumption down to as little as possible. I try to use my reusable water bottles as much as possible as opposed to new plastic ones. We try to support our local farmer's market as much as possible. My wife and I were very involved for many years in this organization, Defend Oahu Coalition, and the motto was "Keep the Country Country!" There's a huge proposed hotel expansion out at Turtle Bay on the North Shore where they wanted to triple the size of it, and we were at the absolute forefront of stopping paving paradise. Our little island home is only so big, and we're just bursting at the seams. I'm very proud of the ten years we volunteered for the "Keep the Country Country!" movement. Raise awareness to what the carrying capacity of this island is and the infrastructure that is in place or not in place to handle all of this proposed growth...Act locally, think globally! I got to believe that every positive thing helps.
Totally! And working to be a truly sustainable clothing company comes with its own hurdles. All you can do is one step at a time. Here we are in 2023 now, having come such a long way!
And hats off to John and Kelly and everyone behind Outerknown that has weathered the COVID storm and has stuck to their guns in the garment industry. There's so much fast fashion there that we all get brainwashed into thinking cheaper is better. It is not. I feel very honored to be affiliated with the brand and what it stands for.
You can see Mark Cunningham’s recycled ocean masterpieces in all their salt water-encrusted glory at the “FOUND” exhbit from 3/25/23 - 4/23/23 at the Indoek Gallery, 432 N Ventura Ave Studio 30, Ventura, CA 93001.