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August 2012 Newsletter  ||  Surf's Up ~ On Your Wall! 




Vintage Surfboards Reincarnated With Help From Texas Artist John Olvey
By Allison Arteaga; Photos Courtesy Olvey

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A surfboard is many things. It's an iconic symbol of our sport. It's the essential tool of our trade. But a medium for fine art? Okay, I guess we can roll with that. Especially when the artist is someone like John Olvey. He started surfing in Galveston, TX, in 1963 and competed for about four decades. He also did a stint as a shaper. The guy definitely knows his way around a surfboard. And now he's collecting old boards and breathing new life into them with his intricate carvings and paintings. caught up with John to chat about the origins of his unique brand of art and where he'd like to see it go from here.

ESM: How would you describe your art?
John Olvey: What I'm getting known for is taking old surfboards and sculpting them into a three-dimensional form using all the existing foam possible from the inside of the surfboard. Then I embellish it. I do inlays of wood or glass tile. I'm also making frames out of surfboards, because some boards are so damaged that you can't really get in there and do what you want to it. I'm actually now getting people dropping off boards. And I went to an event for ReRip, an organization out of California that focuses on everything recyclable and renewable having to do with surfing, and they had never seen anything like what I was doing, so that was kind of neat.

ESM: Carving surfboards is a pretty unique concept. How'd you get started?
JO: I started off doing canvas surf art a great many years ago. Then when painting surfboards started getting popular, I started thinking, "Well, anybody can paint surfboards." I wanted to do something different. I don't really recall where the idea came from, but I used to make surfboards when I was younger, so I had the technical skill. And then it just came to me one day. "Why don't I take the shape and dive into that foam?" I really enjoy it too, because I've gone into some wonderful boards, like Lightning Bolts and some of Al Merrick's early boards when he first started Channel Islands. I'm actually inside the foam of boards created by some really great shapers.

ESM: Do you always use classic boards?
JO: Mostly what I prefer are vintage '70s and '80s models, and some older than that. On occasion, I'll take a brand new board, but I've got stacks of vintage boards. I've got a board from probably 1968 that was made in New Jersey, and I've been offered a lot of money for it. But I think I'm going to carve it up. Give me a Greg Noll. I'll carve it up. I respect these boards, but at the same time, I'm typically using boards that are not in collectable condition. And there are a whole bunch of them out there. It used to be that there were a lot of vintage longboards all over the place, but now it's the vintage '70s and '80s boards. They have a wonderful amount of foam in them. They're high-volume boards compared to the new stuff. I tried to carve the new stuff, but those boards are just so thin.

ESM: What do people think about your preference for vintage boards? Do they praise you for recycling or chastise you for "destroying" something historic?
JO: I think I can do it justice without destroying what it is. I leave the integrity of the original shape on the outline. That's the beauty of it. I typically retain the exterior of the board and its heritage. I just embellish it internally. And I really think that boards like these are only going to be hung on the wall for collectors anyways. So at least I can bring aesthetic value to them that they never had and increase their value. I just did a classic Lightning Bolt, and that one sold immediately because it's a Lightning Bolt. And the buyers weren't dismayed over the fact that I did a nice image in it. I bring these boards up to a much higher standard. They're gleaming, you're happy to see them, and they just look wonderful in a house.

ESM: As a longtime surfer, have you always been focused on surf art?
JO: I wasn't originally. I went to fine art school at the University of Houston in 1980, and I didn't get into the surf theme until I saw that movement happening back in the early '90s. I got to meet Ken Auster, and it really inspired me to see what he was doing with oceanscapes and landmark seascapes. So I started painting Mexico. Here in Texas, we don't go to Puerto Rico. We go to Mexico. So I started doing a whole lot of surf-themed coastal work with Mexican breaks.

ESM: Do you think that being a Texas surfer gives you a unique perspective as an artist?
JO: The whole thing with surfing Texas is that you wait so long and through so many harsh conditions for just a moment of magic to happen. It's once in a blue moon. I can't walk down to the beach and see beautiful surf every day. So that creativity has to be there. It's like how, on your average windblown, sloppy day, you have to be creative as a surfer to enjoy the session.
ESM: And where would you like to go with your work from here?
JO: I want to go to more galleries. The idea is to have 10 more by the end of this year. We're going to be doing a tour of the East Coast here coming up probably in the fall. I'll paint whatever customers want. I'll sculpt whatever they want. That's the goal, is to create a demand, be different, have my own unique style, and be competitive in the market. I was a competitive surfer for more than 35 years, so that still gets my juices going. I don't like to be outsold or outdone. But there's a lot of fine art out there. My goal is to create gallery quality that anyone would like to have in their home. After all, the surfboard is the single most iconic thing in surfing.