The lights just turned off, and we’re locked inside. At first, we thought we tripped the alarm and the Byron police force might be rounding the bend any minute, but it had been pouring violently on and off for the last 48 hours, and torrential rains tend to do a number on electrical infrastructure.
James McMillan didn’t seem too concerned. McMillan, the Cronulla-born surfer, artist, and founder of the Byron Bay Surf Festival, volunteered to show us around his art gallery, a centerpiece of the event that features work by Ozzie Wright, Otis Carey, Matt Yeates, Andy Davis, Paul McNeil, and others including himself, and the tour didn’t quite go as planned. Not to worry, though. In Byron Bay, things are fluid.
And it’s precisely Byron’s ever-evolving approach to surf culture that McMillan was hoping to capture and celebrate when he began the Byron Bay Surf Festival in 2010. From the beginning, its approach has been self-described as “a non-competitive event focusing on surf culture – highlighting creativity, innovation, environment, and sustainability.” And witnessing the project unfold firsthand, it certainly appeared true to form.
So it was refreshing to meet the man who kickstarted it all. His aesthetic is deeply embedded in the festival with original art pieces featuring a mythical character called Waterbird who travels through a fantasy land with a surfboard in tow from one adventure to the next.
“This is all that comes out when I paint,” says McMillan. “I”ve tried to paint some other stuff, and it just doesn’t work. This is what always comes out.”
McMillan also spent a night sleeping on one of the art show’s featured pieces: an old mattress with the word “Greenough” spray-painted on it. A friend of his found it on the side of the road, and he knew it immediately would be a fixture of the exhibition.
And that, in a nutshell, sums up McMillan’s custodianship of Byron’s vibrant surf culture. He recognizes its gems when he sees them. Then he finds a safe place for them. Where they can truly be appreciated by people who care.
After showing us each piece in the gallery, we attempt to exit the building, but we’re still locked in. No way out. We’re okay with it, though. There’s a lot to take in. And a few minutes later, he remembers he has a key to the fire exit for us. He lets us slip out the back and says he’ll handle the rest. He disappears into the gallery full of unique treasures, and we don’t worry at all. James is with them. They’ll be safe.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Byron Bay Surf Festival here. Music by Band of Frequencies and edit by Gabe Reuben.