I saw these images, and I fell in love with them so I reached out to John for a quick interview.
John, we received your contributions for One Foot at a Time, and they are amazing. Give us a snippet of who you are. Where do you live? And what’s your 9 – 5?
Well, I started surfing when Dana Point was still a surf break and that whole episode shaped my outlook. After surfing the northwest in the mid 70’s I knew I wanted to live up here and I landed in Oregon in 1987. This part of the coast is a tough place to get consistent surf, but the environment and the surf community feels right for me. When I do venture south for jobs it doesn’t take long for me to miss home.
Right now I’m working for myself on small building projects with the emphasis on sustainable practices and high quality construction, often associated with the arts and artists. I make time for my own art work when I can. There’s not a whole lot of options on the Oregon coast.
When I first saw these pictures I was blown away. They are horrifically gorgeous. I love them visually but the fact that they are made up of plastic… makes me pause at the same time. What’s the story behind these?
As plastic debris breaks down on the beach it can become visually quite interesting. And the fact that so much of it is in our environment due to carelessness and over-consumption tells a story in itself. Using this material, basically a fossil fuel product, to depict sea life that’s threatened and endangered offers me the chance to address issues that have interested me for a long time.
The challenge is to create an image that draws the viewer in, captures the dignity of these creatures, but doesn’t hit you over the head with a guilt trip. I don’t foresee running out of inspiration anytime soon, particularly since the subject of endangered marine species is so urgent and compelling.
I’ve heard that you were one of the founders of a Surfrider chapter in Oregon. What was that like and why did you do it?
Sometime around 1991 a surfer from the University of Oregon called a meeting to talk about starting a chapter of Surfrider Foundation. It was the first one that I know of.
I was active in a local environmental organization called Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition and thought I would see a bunch of surfers at this meeting. Only about 5 people showed up and I didn’t recognize anybody.
We quickly drew in some of the dedicated surfers living in Eugene (which is in the valley) but the real break came when the US Forest Service decided to start charging people to drive through FS land to get to a popular surf break located on US Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers property. That was a great recruitment opportunity and when we won our court challenge, beating a major government agency, it was a David and Goliath moment.
Surfrider Foundation is uniquely placed to mobilize people and resources to accomplish things like that.
Tell us a bit about why One Foot at a Time interested you enough for you to create these works. What was the hook? What made you create this art out found pieces of plastic?
I took part in the One Foot At A Time campaign last year and it blew me away how much plastic is on our beaches.
I thought I was relatively observant, but we get these dense deposits of plastic marine debris that have clearly been in the water and on the beach a long time and I had never noticed.
I pick up a lot of plastic now.
That opportunity to combine my interest in art and the environment came at a perfect time for me. I had sort of stalled out in both areas and they’re so important. Coincidentally, I often get my news about sea life in distress from the Surfrider Soup online bulletins. Many people feel passionate about the perilous conditions that marine creatures are facing but it’s not always easy to find an outlet.
One of the things that characterizes Surfrider is the power of an individual engaging… and influencing other people. Who was the person that initially influenced you and have you seen others impacted by your work and/or your art?
Hmmm, I remember surfing Doheny way back in the day and hearing a surfer/shaper named John Wilson (he later took over one of the foam blank companies, maybe Foss Foam??) talking about sneaking up to Dana Point and pulling up the survey stakes for the ‘development’ about to take place there. But it really came home for me when I studied under Raymond Dasmann at UC Santa Cruz. He’s right up there with Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. He wrote The Destruction of California and had been the Director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature specializing in large predator habitat. He could see the collapse of ecosystems coming from a long ways off and it was a great burden on him. He told his students in 1978 we would see the ‘tipping point’ in our lifetimes.
Any last words?
Yeah, thanks Surfrider Foundation for all that you do.
I know surfing is many things to all sorts of people, but I would encourage folks to share the waves and focus on the positive things that surfing brings us all. Then maybe look for a way you can give something back.