In the age when surfboards are being churned out by factories in their hundreds, there’s something satisfying about finding a shaper that still takes pride in his work – who puts time and love into the curves of the rail and the camber of a rocker. For these artisans, surfboard shaping is still a craft – they understand perfection of the razor sharp CNC cut rails still don’t match the feeling that a handmade board can give.
And then there are those who take their craft yet a step further – who turn surfboard shaping into an art. One such artist is Mike Rumsey- a fourth generation San Diegan who, quite simply, creates some of the most incredible surfboards we have ever seen.
Mike retired early from the building materials industry after a barefoot water skiing accident in 1988 caused permanent brain damage, double vision, and seizures. He resumed his art as rehabilitation – his therapy – as he calls it.
Mike has worked and consulted with many artists throughout his life, always with an emphasis on sculpture. His works include design and execution of art walls (murals in mixed media), water features, outdoor living spaces, hand-carved tikis, drawing, and painting.
Interview by Ophelia Xerri
It seems like you’ve had a long relationship with the ocean – as a fisherman and a surfer. What were your first experiences of the ocean, and how did this love for the sea develop over time?
When I was young, my dad used to take me surf fishing down Imperial Beach – a famous surfing spot right on the Mexican border.
I got my first surfboard when I was 12 and just kept going because I loved it! I didn’t have any other surfers in my family, but I had seen the surfers and knew that was something I wanted to do; so when I had bugged my family enough, they got me a board.
The ocean has always been a constant in my life, I can always go back to the ocean. I think a lot of people can relate to that. Wherever you are in life, you can always step back into the water. When you’re looking at waves, all your troubles are behind you. And you might still have the stress when you’re done, but you are able to approach it in a different way.
Favourite place by the ocean?
I like it here in San Diego the most. And after living in Arizona for several years, I came home with a new appreciation for California.
Your art work takes many different forms (alike the oceans!) drawing, painting, sculpting – tell us about you as an artist and your relationship with art?
My wife says I make everything into an art project! I am retired now, I don’t really call it my profession, art is my therapy. It has always been something I’ve enjoyed – like the ocean.
My artistic progression has happened through my life. I started when I was child and my grandma got me art lessons. I sold some copper pieces in my twenties and it wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I was in a gallery.
For a long time, art was a “side-job” for me to get ideas out of my head. And I haven’t stopped having ideas – that is what these surfboards are really. We all have an expiration date, and there is a lot I have to get out of me yet!
It doesn’t matter what your subject is, if you find a creative outlet that you can work with throughout your life, it can bring you a lot of pleasure. And it’s one of my common sayings that I am a very lucky man.
Tell us about your creative process (your plan)? How do you balance skill with play in your creativity?
I sketch while I’m fishing for one! Well, not simultaneously. I sketch when I feel inspired and it often happens while I am away from home – usually on a fishing trip. For example, the surfboard named “Under the Palapa” was inspired by some sketching I did while on a fishing trip down in Mexico.
I love trying new mediums, and putting different things on surfboards – I’m working with some old guitars at the moment! I’m not making the guitars, they were given to me and I’m giving them a different life. These particular guitars were are taken on surf trips and broken. I’m implanting the guitars into a surfboard. It won’t be ridable but you could strum a string or two on it.
I like to be busy as well. I’ve always got a few boards going – right now I have three.
Your wooden boards are just incredible! What is your inspiration for the wood you use?
The wood I use is mostly repurposed or saved from the dump. I reuse material when possible and appropriate. One of my pieces includes weathered fence boards. In another piece, I’ve used remnants of mango wood flooring removed from a home in Hawai’i. If I want a specific look I sometimes buy lumber, but I mainly use cabinet shop trimmings or what I find in the dunnage (trash) bin at local lumber yards. My “real job” was in the lumber and building materials industry, and I now have a friend who owns a high-end cabinet shop and he saves the trimmings for me.
Many of my boards are inlaid with abalone, mother of pearl, or turquoise. I never use paint or stain because the color comes naturally from the lumber. Each surfboard may contain several different kinds of wood such as poplar, cypress, padauk, redwood, cedar, jatoba, koa, teak, or mango. One species of wood can have a lot of variation as well. Redwood, for instance, has lots of different colours in it.
Check out this board I’m making at the moment, –
I have used ash, teak, mahogany, and light redwood is in there for the sunshine. I’m going to create the eyes of the whales with Mother of Pearl shell.
Could you talk us through the process of creating art on the wooden boards – it looks like a lot of skill and patience is involved!
The work takes time, but I think as I grow older, I become less afraid – which has been a great skill to learn! Sometimes, the work doesn’t always turn out. I thought it would, but it’s good and I’m always changing the direction of a board as I see it evolve.
I never know exactly how it’s going to look, so I use a damp rag to quickly test the colours and I can see what colours I’m working with in the wood.
From reading your website there’s obviously a huge therapeutic element to your art? If you’re comfortable to, are you able to elaborate a little on this and how art has been a part of your rehabilitation?
I had an accident back in 1988 and the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things due to the extent of my physical injuries to both my body and my brain. They told me I would never walk again and that I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
I was out of that wheelchair within a year. I still have some bad days, seizures, and double vision, but it’s ok. It changes your path in life a little bit, but you can let it take you a different direction. I wasn’t creating as much art before the accident.
Here’s a picture of the first surfboard I made, it took me a about a year to make.
And then it’s been an ongoing journey! I’ve got to show you this board ‘The Rat’, I like this one just because it’s so different.
One surfboard that make me smile was”Run for it”, inspired by your grandchildren and love of baby turtles. Can you tell me a little more about the story behind this one?
My wife loves this board, and so do I – I made it for her. It has baby turtles and eggs representing our six grandchildren.
And could you also say which boards are:
- Number 1 keeper (one you won’t sell)-
The first board I made, Find Your Joy, because I have an emotional connection to that one. I built it with my friend Sam, who had ALS. We worked on it together, but Sam passed away before it was finished.
- Most memorable board for someone else-
[Pic of Bird’s Happy Place]
I made one for Bird Huffman. He owns Bird’s Surf Shed here in San Diego, it’s a museum as well as a surf shop. One day I saw him and he wasn’t happy, and so I said to him, “Where is your happy place, man? Go to it.” He laughed and got out some pictures of places that made him happy and pretty soon he felt better. I went home and decided to make him a board inspired by his happy place; Restaurants Break in Tavarua Fiji.
If you guys ever get out to San Diego, a stop at Bird’s Surf Shed will be well worth your time.
- Most famous riders board-
[Pic of Ben with/and a pic of the board]
Probably the board I made for Ben Aipa. Ben’s children acquired the board during The Boardroom Show then presented it to him (a surprise) during the “Celebrating 50-Years of Shaping” event held at SHACC (Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center)
- Favourite board on sale now –
“Flight” The one with the manta ray on it!
Most surprising turn out?
Asymmetrical Full-Mooner! This board has so many elements (asymmetrical shape, deep concave bottom, moon, clouds, waves, and turquoise stone). I didn’t know if it would be too much.
How do you want your art to make people feel? What tips would you give to aspiring artists in making an audience “feel” a certain way?
Happy. It’s got to be happy.
I have a relationship with these boards. When I’m done on one board, I’ve spent anywhere from 150 to 400 hours on it, and my emotions throughout that time go into the process. I am happy that they are going to be cherished, hung up on walls or ridden and appreciated.
If you’re not happy when you’re building, it will show in your art. I don’t do a lot of dark colours, that’s not how the world should be. I am inspired by walking outdoors into the brightness, flowers, and the ocean. And hope my art makes people feel this way.
When I do commissioned work, I let people give me ideas and then I make it. Whether it comes from my mind or an idea they had, the board isn’t theirs until they see it in their home and they like it.
Any tips for board makers out there?
Don’t be afraid to do what you want. If you’re afraid, your work will show that. Your art is about you, the artist, not so much about mastering a medium or a subject. Your techniques will get better the more you work. Your emotions will come through in your art, so figure out what you can portray of yourself to everyone else, or what you can bring out of them.
Also, when making wood boards, remember you can fix anything. And make sure you put a proper rocker in them. A lot of wood boards out there at the moment are turning out flat. I want mine to have proper rocker and dome. And you need to make sure the rails are proper. Shaping is all basically mathematical and good steam bending. So, you can learn that, and you can go online or on YouTube to find anything.
- What are your future plans for your art? Any new disciplines you want to try?
More of the same. I’m really enjoying making surf boards. I entered the Design in Wood International Competitive Exhibition last year with 3 pieces and I won 5 awards, and I think I will try that again. Check out this board entered as part of the 2016 show theme, Alice in Wonderland. This piece depicted White Rabbit and Hookah Smoking Caterpillar surfing the cosmos looking for Alice.
In regards to new disciplines, I mentioned I’d worked with copper before. Well I’m looking at making a copper board. A framework of wood with copper over it.
To find out more about Mike and see more of his work, click the links below.