John Philbin has a great mug. It’s a face with stories to tell. A casting director would easily pop him as a waterman or a cattle rancher. He can do badass, yet he’s quick with a laugh. His eyes actually twinkle.
It’s almost impossible to define the process of art-making. It’s equally difficult to express the experience of surfing. These two worlds are mirrors of the other. Both are tedious and frustrating as one waits and hopes for a wave or an idea. Both require a million immediate micro-decisions. Both demand courage, stamina, and perseverance. In the arts, success is as fleeting as the memory of a sublime ride.
As I set forth to produce a series of virtual exhibitions for Art Report Today, I confess an agenda: to bypass the systemic elitism; to celebrate the heart and soul of the fine artist; to loudly share these admirable values with the rest of the world. Within a nanosecond, John Philbin came to mind, who’s curating a show of his own.
Before we speak of the arts and life in general, I’ve got to ask a Hollywood question. Tombstone is a classic for many, many reasons, but I’ve always felt the star, besides you, was Joseph Porro, the talented costume designer. The Wild West never looked so styled-out or colorful. And it was historically accurate. Did you get to walk away with a new wardrobe?
Kevin Jarre wrote such a great script that all of these amazing actors agreed to play in Tombstone. Initially, the deal was that he got to direct it. The production design was the work of Catherine Hardwicke, who would go on to direct the respected teen dramas Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, and Twilight. Then the costumes, like you said, were a dreamland for all the actors. We were in heaven!
Then Jarre got replaced as director and an action film studio director, George Cosmatos, took over. After a severe rewrite with help from Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, we resumed shooting a more traditional Hollywood western, but we got to keep all the great artistic elements Kevin Jarre had assembled. I wish I could’ve kept my guns and my horse, but sadly I had to return them all on the last day of filming.
I always think of you first as an actor. But that other line on your resume says, “Surf Instructor.” How did that happen?
Well, about 20 years ago, I stopped working as an actor and suffered a relapse into drug addiction and alcoholism. Naturally, I became unemployable and depressed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had no training in anything but acting. And surfing.
After I got sober, and my mind and body healed from the abuse I’d administered upon myself, I needed to get a real job. A friend of mine, Kip Jerger, was teaching surfing in Manhattan Beach. I’d worked for Kip when I was 16 at his surf shop, Kanoa Surf. I saw him at his camp one morning, and he seemed very happy. I asked him what his secret was, and he told me he liked what he did. So I asked him for a job. I learned to teach beginners how to surf all summer at Kanoa Surf in Manhattan Beach. And I got happy, too. I’d found some way to be useful again. And I was good at it. I enjoyed it.
I started teaching surfing privately in Malibu the next year and found a clientele that was familiar with film culture. John Stockwell, an actor and director, saw me every day in Malibu while I was working. He started asking me questions about how we filmed the surf scenes in North Shore and Point Break because he was preparing to shoot a surf film in Hawaii called Blue Crush for Universal, about a young female surfer living and competing on the North Shore and out at Pipeline. I reminded him that I was a surf instructor now, and he decided to give me the job of training Kate Bosworth for her breakthrough performance in Blue Crush.
The film went on to be a popular hit with the growing number of young girls and women fighting for equality in the line-ups all over the world. Kate did an amazing job. From the success of that experience, I was able to work on a number of surf-related films as a trainer and consultant and eventually a producer of surf-themed entertainment. It’s the ultimate fantasy job. I’d rather carry a board than a briefcase.
I’ve been teaching surfing to men and women of all ages, all over the world. I usually meet my clients in Malibu through referrals. If they take to it and want to travel to surf more exotic locales, sometimes they’ll take me along on their surf vacations! I’ve met so many interesting people over the years and made deep and lifelong friendships. Ironically, I’ve been given some fun new acting jobs because I’ve been suiting up and showing up sober to work.
Undateable John was a film I did with Tom Arnold, Daryl Hannah, Joan Jett, and the beautiful Estella Warren. It’s a rom-com about a surf instructor battling with addiction and relationships in Los Angeles. It’s hysterical and available on Amazon Prime.
These are incredible life experiences. Are you philosophical? What have you learned?
It’s been a wild ride! I’ve lost everything and rebuilt my life repeatedly over the decades. Sometimes my losses were caused by my own behavior, and sometimes through natural disasters. I’m not alone or special in this cycle of destruction and creation. I’ve witnessed many of my friends experience similar fates, and it’s never the destruction that interests me. It’s the reconstruction.
I’ve been very lucky and have had many mentors helping me navigate these seas of change. It’s all about the accepting of change. Change is the only constant in the universe. I’ve learned that acceptance of circumstances beyond my control is the foundation of any freedom and happiness I enjoy. As a young man, I was mostly ego-driven, suffering from the delusion that through my willpower alone I could wrestle satisfaction from this world.
As I grew up and sometimes things didn’t go my way, I could get frustrated, angry, and depressed, blaming others for my disappointments. But I never really knew what experience was going to be good or bad for me, and I wasted a lot of time sweating my judgments about how I was doing in life.
Curating this art show has given me an opportunity to look back in wonder and amusement and gratitude for the serious lessons life can hand out. I’m happier than I’ve ever been right now. My self worth is not tied to my ability to control the outcomes of my efforts; I just don’t have that super power. I wake up and do the mental gymnastics necessary for a selfish guy like me to get out of my own way and try to be a good person who cares about others and the world around me.
Let’s talk about that virtual art show you curated (and mentioned, above), “The Comfortable Chair of My Youth” on Art Report Today. Where did your interest in art come from?
My first exposure to fine art came from visiting my grandfather. August R. Nieto was my mom’s dad. He lived in Carmel, California, where I was born. Every time we came to visit, which was often, he would show us a new painting that he’d bought from a local artist in Carmel. Mostly seascapes and wild waves crashing on the rugged shores of Northern California.
His collection grew over the years as I grew up. He took pride in, and care of, his collection of paintings. He hung and lit each one perfectly on the walls of his comfortable home. I became mesmerized by some of the paintings and would stare at them for hours in my youth.
My mother was a great fan of painting. She would drag me and my brother to every museum and new exhibit in the towns and cities we would visit. She studied art all her life and some of that appreciation rubbed off on me. After she died and when I was able to travel, I would visit every art museum and look at every painting and sculpture and classic building wherever I would go. From L.A. to New York and then months in Europe visiting every museum and gallery I could, I collected postcards numbering in the thousands.
Frequently I’d spend time just flipping through my postcard collection of all the great paintings, sculptures, and architecture that I’d seen. One of my greatest regrets from the 2018 Woolsey Fire was the loss of that collection.
You lost everything in the Woolsey Fire.
That fire in Malibu was a fucking horror story. It was moving so fast that many of us had to evacuate before we could gather up our most prized and irreplaceable possessions. I had framed and hung dozens of beautiful art prints all over my walls. But losing my photographs and journals was by far the greatest tragedy.
Like me, you’re a Californian. You’ll never be too far from Mother Ocean. Or are you joining the exodus for greener and less-taxed pastures?
I love California. I’ve been all around the world and have not found a better place to live for my lifestyle. But after surviving a tsunami in Indonesia, I realized I didn’t want to live on the beach. After the 2018 fire, I realized I don’t want to live in the middle of a recurring fire corridor, either. But I needed to live near the ocean, and near the mountains, so that puts me in a little dilemma. Right now I live in Topanga Canyon, a perfect mix of quiet nature close to the beaches of Malibu with easy access to the city I love. Los Angeles has been my home since 1980 and I’m still digging it!
Maybe when I get a little older I could retire up in Carmel or in Indonesia, but for now, I’m still inspired by and active in this great metropolis.
You survived a tsunami in Indonesia– I never heard that story!
I can’t tell it again…
(Editor’s Note: John’s horrific story was told in an Aussie news article by survivor Monty Webber.)
Let’s get back to high art then. How and why did you title this show?
The title of the show, The Comfortable Chair of My Youth, came to me from a Matisse quote, combined with my reflection on the simple pleasures from the choices I’ve made in my life. I love all kinds of art, but I didn’t want to focus on any dead or hugely famous and unaffordable artists. I wanted to showcase some local artists that anyone can meet and commission original works from, that bring pleasure and joy to their lives, like they’ve brought joy and pleasure to mine.
Who are these artists? Where did you find surfin’ Damian Fulton?
When I first saw Damian’s Cacophony in Sea Minor, it changed me, and it changed my appreciation of what an artist could do for me. Damian brings his immense talent and skill and vivid imagination and humor to create worlds on canvas of fantasy and reality dueling for my attention. I can personally identify with every image he juxtaposes in these paintings. From riding motorcycles, to shooting guns, to fighting in the surf, to a love of monsters and a fear of tsunamis.
You have a personal history with Zen Del Rio.
I grew up and started surfing along the rocky shorelines of Palos Verdes. My mother studied art with Zen’s mother Gemma. My mom’s life was greatly enriched by the time they spent together. Gemma’s son Zen became a standout, legendary, big wave surfer from our tiny, local community. He also became an artist and an art teacher.
And way back, I turned you on to Otis Shepard and that radical Catalina poster. A big wad of ’em, standing in an old wood barrel in a junk shop on Melrose.
I’ve imagined the lives of every person in that picture and never got tired of looking at that familiar life in Avalon. The Elmo poster on the church wall, the angle and height of the mountains, the trees and the ocean are all familiar.
They are for me, too! I’d just look at it forever and ponder the characters, the señorita and the caballero and the bell tower. I’d fantasize about the S.S. Catalina. So glad you put that piece in the show.
I immediately identified with everything about it. I’d visited the island so many times in my youth. I bought it, framed it and hung it on my wall, in six different apartments, and a condo I’ve lived in, all over Los Angeles for 35 years. I lost the Catalina print to the Woolsey-Malibu Fire.
How did you find Muck Rock, the great Jules Muck?
I discovered the art of Muck Rock on the streets of Venice and Santa Monica. Then, I met her once at a party and was struck by how cool and unpretentious she was for such a prolific artist.
Cameron Calderon hit the bone.
North Shore was filmed on the North Shore, which I know well. Cameron has created many beautiful paintings depicting how the ocean meets the land. But for me, his interpretations of iconic scenes from the movie North Shore, have struck a gratitude bone in me that makes my past smash into my present with great pleasure!
Where did you find Derek West?
I’m honored, surprised, amused, and grateful to see my image included with his works. He paints the images that shaped his life, and mine, in the seventies and eighties. If one of the themes of this show is how these works personally make me happy, well, I can’t deny the rush of appreciation.
With this exhibition, you’ve done an excellent job of popping your curatorial cherry. Are you going to curate a few more?
I appreciate this opportunity to curate a show. I’ve learned that right now, at this stage of my life, I just want to spread and share the love. Love for all of the art that I’ve seen and appreciation for this California lifestyle I’ve been so fortunate to participate in.
The Comfortable Chair of My Youth is definitely a reflective show. I’ve passed through so many different chapters in life, trying to push identity and control outcomes. Looking back, I’ve come to relax and enjoy the whole show of the times that I’ve survived. I’m at peace now, living in the moment, loving my life, saying yes to the flow.
See the full exhibition, The Comfortable Chair of My Youth, online at Artreporttoday.com.