At first glance it seemed an unlikely fit: a Mark Cunningham art exhibition in New York City. Cunningham refers to himself not as an artist, but as a retired government civil servant. He can’t go more than a few days without being in the ocean. But when 8:00 pm on Thursday, June 7th rolled around, and throngs of fashionable surfers and slick art lovers packed into Partners & Spade, and beer bottles clinked, and conversation roared, and giraffe-ish woman and bearded men bulged out to the sidewalk, it looked like, well, a classic Downtown NYC gallery opening.
“It started off like an Easter egg hunt or a treasure hunt,” said Cunningham of the objects in his show. “Snorkeling and looking for goodies on the bottom of the ocean is a longtime beachboy and lifeguard tradition. My first summer of lifeguarding in Hawaii was at Ala Moana Beach in 1976. Some couple lost a gold wedding band in waist-deep water. There was a big hubbub; people were looking all over with masks and snorkels. At the end of the day, after the commotion settled down, I swam right out and there it was. That was the first piece of gold that I found in the ocean. You’re so used to seeing gold in a glass case or a jewelry box or on a beautiful woman, but to see it sitting in sand and dirt with the sunlight sparkling underwater is really cool.”
It took on an opportunistic glint when he watched his mentor, Sandy Beach lifeguard Herbie Knudsen, scour the bottom on flat days and return with armloads of lost swim fins, which he’d sell to bodysurfers for a buck a pop. When Cunningham began lifeguarding at Pipeline in the winter of ‘76, he followed suit, “for gas and lunch money.” Along with swim fins he found surfboard and windsurf fins, sunglasses, watches, driver licenses, and even dentures.
“I wish I’d been more passionate about it back then,” he said, “but I didn’t know it would become what it is now.”
In 2005, after twenty-nine years of service for the City and County of Honolulu, Cunningham retired. Since then, his treasure hunts have reached fever pitch, the findings of which comprised “Surf Relics, his show at Partners & Spade. In a glass display case, a mound of calcium carbonate-encrusted watches took on a certain mollusk-like quality. Sunglasses, from late-eighties Oakley Frogskins right up to spankin’ new designer brands, looked as if they’d been chewed, swallowed, and burped back up by the sea. The highlight was the fins, some of which date all the way back to the Shortboard Revolution.
“I’m fascinated by the energy that these fins have been a part of,” said Cunningham. “What kind of board were you attached to? How many waves did you get to surf, Mr. Skeg, till you were lost? How long have you been on the bottom, and what have you seen paddling and riding over you?”
Cunningham’s weeklong New York barnstorm included his show at Partners & Spade, a Pilgrim Surf + Supply party in Williamsburg where Come Hell or High Water was screened to grand applause, a weekend Montauk run, a VSTR launch party, way too many Mexican feasts, and just the right amount of tequila to soften New York’s incessant sirens and sharp edges. At Zebulon, a bar renowned for excellent music, the Moroccan trio Nass Gwana made tinny, mystical sounds on a three-stringed sintar. Their saffron robes and fezzes melded strangely with Larry Bertlemann’s bare-chested cutbacks—the movie Super Session was projected not only behind, but also on top of them. Across the street, Many Classic Moments played on a large screen at Café de La Esquina. Over conchinita pibil tacos and shots of Cazadores Reposado, something resembling paparazzi poked their cameras through a hole in the fence to shoot Cunningham, who held court at a Last Supper-like table.
On his final day in the city, the surf came up. With a small entourage of NY surf cognoscenti, Cunningham rolled up to Grand Boulevard in Long Beach. The sky was overcast, the surf nearly head-high. On the wooden boardwalk, fans greeted him. “I met you at Pipeline in 1987,” said a retired firefighter. “I really like what you do,” offered a rotund longboarder. Cunningham is a reluctant surf legend. He’s polite, self-effacing, and generally taken aback by his popularity. Like so many Hawaiian greats, he’s most comfortable in water.
On the more punchy insiders, he bodysurfed with dolphin fluidity. He caught waves without so much as a splash, riding them till there was nothing left. Like watching Lopez or Laird, even someone unfamiliar with surfing could have recognized his animal connection with the sea.
He also surprised. After a long ride that ended on the sand, he trotted up the beach, traded his swim fins for a longboard, and paddled into position. For the next half-hour, he dominated the peeling lefts. Not only was his wave selection and positioning masterful, so was his casual, hands-at-sides style. “Never knew he was a goofy foot,” said a Grand Boulevard local.
“It’s an anniversary,” Cunningham told me between waves. For a moment I thought he was referring to his relationship with his partner of seven years, Katye Killebrew, who was at his side for much of the trip. He looked shoreward and took in the boardwalk and apartment buildings. “In 1912 the Duke came over here, spreading surfing and Aloha to the East Coast. A hundred years ago, pretty cool, huh?” Just then a wave appeared. Cunningham wheeled around, stroked once, and hopped to his feet.