There's one guy who encapsulates what's so weird and wonderful about New York surfing in just his pinky finger, and that guy is Steve White. As an artist, a collector, a picker, a traveler, and a surfer, Steve's got stories. Here, we chat with Steve about growing up in family full of artists down the block from Rothko and wave riding in Rockaway in the '60s.
Pilgrim - Let’s talk about your art...
Steve White - “I paint pictures, make collages, and I make sculptures. And I once read this book called ‘How to Get Yourself Hung’ and they said you should have a statement for when somebody asks you what you do so you can answer them, so you don’t just stutter. It should speak for itself. So I have something for somebody who knows nothing about art, somebody who knows a lot about art, and somebody in the middle. I won’t even ask you what you know about art, but my theory is the way Van Gogh paints pictures is he puts the electrode on the model and he has their energy go through him and out his brush. And so I don’t want to make paintings that look like Van Gogh, I want to make paintings where I take somebody’s energy through me and have it come out the brush. So that’s my theory when I do a portrait. I think our society is absolutely absurd and I love it very much, so I kind of use everything in the world -- art magazines, surf magazines, fashion magazines, newspapers.”
P - Tell me about where you grew up.
SW - “My history is that I grew up in an art family, both of my parents were artists and all of my brothers and sisters are artists, and I grew up with a lot of children of artists. So I grew up in New York City, and then I went to school in California, and I thought I knew everything about the art world when I was 17 -- I thought I was the hippest kid on the block. Because I was raised in a figurative family where stuff was recognizable, I’d thought that people who’d painted figurative pictures and sold them and would be known outside of New York City. And that the weirdos I grew up with, the abstract painters, nobody would’ve heard of them. And I didn’t realize that I grew up with the most famous abstract expressionists in the world -- and I thought they were just weirdos on my block.”
P - And who was that?
SW - "Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, DeKooning, Rauschenberg, and then there’s also people nobody’s ever heard of that are just as important to all of us, like Felix Pasilis. We would invite all these artists to come to California to speak at the school, and we always got the figurative people -- and after all the weird abstract guys died we realized we could’ve gotten the abstract guys too, because they would’ve liked a free ticket to California in January just as much as the figurative guys."
“Basically, I like paint. There’s a quote from William Carlos Williams, the doctor and writer from New Jersey, and he came to gallery 303 of Stieglitz, and he was looking at these paintings and the gallery owner asked him, 'What’s this?' and he said 'That’s a hat,' and she said 'What’s that?' 'That’s a chair.' And then she asked, 'What’s that?' 'That’s paint.' And for William Carlos Williams that was the beginning of abstract painting, when the subject of painting became painting.”
[The White family.]
P - Do you prefer the east coast?
SW - “I like them both. When you’re a surfer, and especially a New York surfer, you have to be a transient. Like when people ask you, where do you surf? You surf all of Long Island. Every surfer has a little string with a radius of how big their home break is, and basically everybody’s got about a hundred mile string. Everybody else thinks you’ve got about ten feet from your house to the closest beach, but you think from Rockaway to Montauk is your beach. And because I was conceived in Paris, born in New York City, moved to New Jersey nine months later for eight years, moved back to Manhattan for ten years, I’ve surf in New York and New Jersey -- the borderlines don’t matter too much. I’ve surfed the east coast and the west coast and I go to Hawaii in the winter...as an artist, too, I think you need to go to museums all over the world. You look at reproduction so that you can be inspired to see the real thing, because the reproduction always has nothing to do with what it really is -- so if you travel you get to see all kinds of art and surf spots you never would see if you just hung out at home.”
P - Where did you start surfing?
SW - “We’d go to Jones Beach, we’d go to Gilgo, we’d go to Montauk, we’d go to East Hampton, and for instance, the artists’ beach in East Hampton was Georgica Beach. And Georgica Beach is a surfing beach with a jetty. Some of our friends from the city that we went to school with also went to Georgica beach. So as this pack of kids, we found a bunch of surfboards one day from some older guys who got too drunk and left their boards at the beach. And their boards were just washing into the ocean so we took them and we surfed all day. At the end of the day we took them on the beach, and they never came back so we put them on the beach and put some sand on them, and we buried them so you could only see just a little bit of the surfboard, and then we went home and came back in the morning. Of course, they hadn’t showed up in the morning, so we dug the surfboards out and went out surfing. Around noon they stumbled to the beach all hung over and accused us of stealing their boards but we explained we saved them. But by that point we’d had two days of free surfboards and we were addicted. So we went to the local surf shop in Queens, Emilio’s Surf and Ski, and me and my brother both ordered custom Hobie surfboards. They were made and shipped to us in the middle of the winter. We removed the fin and laid them on the living room floor and practiced all week. And then we conned our dad into taking us out.”
P - In the winter?
SW - "Yeah."
P - What’s different from 50 years ago?
SW - “For instance there was a sign on the subway that said ‘no blocking, no spitting, no photography’ -- and for no blocking there was a little devil with a surfboard on his head. In the ‘60s there was nobody who carried a surfboard on the subway. They didn’t even have surfboard bags then, and so we made our own bags to disguise our surfboards. We made them on a sewing machine just to get them on the subway. And we’d go out to Rockaway on the subway, take the A train, we’d sing the Duke Ellington song 'Take The A Train’ and we would joke about Duke Ellington and Duke Kahanamoku writing the song for us. We’d get out there and get all cold and ride the subway back. We thought we were very hip. The cops would say to us, 'hey did you get those in the water?' And we’d go, ‘What? These African masks? What’re you talking about?’”
“Rockaway was really a desert from the subway to the beach, a lot of empty lots with bricks and glass. We always thought one day it would get desirable, so there’s always been a lot of building going on. It was desolate and funky. Everybody had a different name for it, the Breslin twins called it Chicken Bone Beach. Broken glass, syringes, just the funkiest stuff on the beach.”
P - Do you have any theories about surfing?
SW - “I have a friend who has a theory that surfing is kind of a magnifying glass for your personality. So if you’re really a pain in the neck you’re more of a pain in the neck when surfing. If you’re really generous, you’ll be really generous when surfing. If you’re funny, you’ll be a funny surfer. Same if you’re spiritual… so I think the thing I get better at is always having more fun. I think the person who has the most fun wins. If there’s somebody surfing really well but they’re not having fun, who cares? The really nice thing about surfing is that everyone out there thinks they are the one having the most fun. There’s no way to judge it, there’s no way to put the electrodes to somebody’s brain and figure out if they had more fun. And then you get that thing where when you finally get out of the water you start feeling better, your whole body is glowing, it’s time for food and a nap.”
P - Tell me about the people you surf with.
SW - “I had a friend once say that friendship ends at the wet sand. Some of these people, you’ve known them for forty or fifty years and they’ll still steal a wave from you. They’ll still steal your girlfriend or your food. It’s like what everyone always says, the last person you want to see traveling around is an American surfer because they’re going to steal either your wave, your food, or your girlfriend.”
P - I've heard stories about your truck...
SW - “I have a truck I keep a lot of surfboards in and underneath the surfboards I have a lot of stuff, because I clean the beach wherever I am, I recycle stuff and throw stuff in the garbage. The good stuff I put in the truck. And it’s destined for sculptures, whether it will get there or not remains to be seen. I have friends who tell their kids they can only go three inches deep because we don’t know what’s under there, whether it’s animals or infections or ex-girlfriends, but people are always taking things out of my truck.”
P - And your outfits always get attention...
SW - “I have a friend and he’s from an artist family and we would go to thrift stores when we were kids. At one point in the ‘60s, the head of our school started making us wear ties, so we would go to the thrift store and get all kinds of wide, weird ties. I remember getting a raccoon coat, like roaring ‘20s style, for twenty bucks and I wore it until it fell apart. My little brother lives in Montana and you can get great Hawaiian shirts in Montana because there’s no pickers.”
P - Any closing thoughts?
SW - “There is something about board appreciation, clothing appreciation, human appreciation -- there’s that thing when you get into that mode of appreciation where it’s somewhere between happiness and ecstasy. When you look at something, or just observe it, you see it. But then if you were to think about painting it, you notice all these little things. You see the tree, you see the wood, you see that fiberglass roof, you see the way the bricks go back into space. You go from observing to appreciation -- so there’s certain surfers, certain surfboard makers, certain humans that put you in that mode. Like, when I look at Matisse, I’m almost instantly ecstatic. And I go, how does he turn color mush into enjoyment? Somehow he does it. And I think that’s the thing about surfing, when you go surfing, you have that experience, whether it’s the salt water or whether it’s the exuberance, or the elation, the pumping of your blood or the white water hitting you -- all those things, when you go surfing in the city, the first wave washes the long drive away, the second washes the whole week away.”
-- All photos by Rob Kulisek, words and interview by Chelsea Burcz