Five Laguna Beach artists inspired by local beaches turn the notion of “classic surf art” on its head.
By Jennifer Pappas Yennie
It is no secret that Laguna Beach, and the surf it calls home, is a muse for artists of all persuasions. And it takes only a casual meander down PCH or downtown to see how that inspiration plays out in gallery windows. One immediately thinks of artists Bill Ogden and the late Ken Auster, both well-known for their different takes on this surf-inspired aesthetic.
Ogden’s “Southern California look” graced countless posters, magazines and even a Sound Spectrum calendar series while also being used by top surf brands. Meanwhile, Auster helped shape surf art culture with his silk-screen prints and T-shirts. Auster’s turn from printmaking to oils and plein air in later years only widened the door, reconfiguring and reimagining what “surf art” could be.
While the five artists featured here differ in medium, process and technique, they are inextricably linked by their respect and appreciation for the ocean, their collective and timeless muse.
Sean Hunter Brown | Photography
Sean Hunter Brown photographs waves and the life that teems underneath them. The often-disorienting angles and unorthodox perspective of each picture create an immersive experience for viewers and reveal an intimate relationship with the ocean—a relationship that Brown has cultivated his entire life. “My love of the ocean is where most of my inspiration stems from—not just the ocean itself, but the feeling I get from being in it,” Brown says. “I guess I could describe it as spiritual for me. I capture with my camera all the things I love about the ocean experience and attempt to bring that emotion to my work.”
Armed with his Nikon D850 and a keen sense of timing, Brown does all his shooting on location in Laguna Beach. He loves taking photos any time the conditions are right, but the natural lighting of fall and winter are his preferred seasons for shooting.
“When I shoot at a location, I usually have an extremely specific idea in mind for that session,” Brown explains. He starts by planning around weather and ocean conditions, cognizant of the small widow he’s afforded to find the right light. His shooting setup, which includes getting camera settings, lenses, water housing and flashes dialed in, takes about an hour. Once in the water, he makes adjustments as conditions change, letting his intuition guide him to images that are vibrant, fluid and expressive.
Shaun Thomas | Woodwork
Ocean waves (and their myriad personalities) are definitely the star of Shaun Thomas’ mixed-media and wood sculptures. Employing a minimalist aesthetic, retro palette of colors and stained wood, Thomas’ work is design-forward and clean-looking. “Influenced mostly by my passion for surfing and surf trips around the world, I am actually very passionate and easily inspired by almost anything that involves design,” Thomas says. “From architecture and interior design to a simple shaped surfboard, I always think about the details that went into the project.
“Dissecting what I like and don’t like, I visualize my own approach or twist on each design. I often create new works by studying different environments. I question how I feel upon entering a space and what style of artwork would enhance and complement that feeling. … I appreciate contemporary, modern and minimalistic design styles and I think you can see that portrayed in my work and the environment I have created in my gallery.”
Post-pandemic, Thomas has a slew of exciting new projects on the horizon. Most notably, a new collection using custom, lit-up neon slogans mounted atop the artwork—a departure from the subtlety of his current pieces. He is also launching a new surfboard line—rideable surfboards or wall art pieces, custom-shaped by a local San Clemente shaper. Lastly, a new skateboard line featuring everything from mini cruisers to longboards is also in the works. A local resident until relocating to Carlsbad, California, last year, Thomas has owned and operated Thomas Studios in Laguna for nearly three years.
Lindsay Rapp | Painting
Ethereal and dreamlike, Lindsay Rapp integrates rare and precious materials into her sumptuous oil and acrylic paintings of mythical sea creatures, women and seascapes. Clearly inspired by “the beauty and energy of water and how it relates to feminine power,” Rapp’s work is not only gorgeous, but timely.
“Water has long been equated with feminine aspects of creation, nature and spirituality,” she explains. “I see the ocean as life-giving, fertile, powerful, sensual, changing and mysterious. I paint to express my experience of humanity, to promote love for our fragile oceans and demonstrate feminine empowerment in a world that needs to feel it more.”
Rapp’s creative process is
an intuitive one, dictated largely by her mood in the moment. As she paints, she strives to be authentic, bringing honest, unfiltered emotion into each piece while also “letting the painting take unexpected turns, to transform into a life of its own outside the perimeters of what were
To imitate the effects of water’s refractive nature, Rapp layers real seashells, dichroic paint and mother-of-pearl, 24-karat gold and silver into the work. To create depth, she paints on both the front and the back of smooth, reflective, translucent surfaces such as plexiglass and acetate, what she describes as “a sculptural approach to painting.”
In hopes of creating something that “reflects others and brings my artwork to everyday life,” Rapp also created a line of wearable art in the form of crop tops, sweatshirts and leggings, as well as cellphone cases, yoga mats and beach bags.
Steve Adam | Painting
Best known for his bold abstract paintings of the ocean, Steve Adam creates scenes that are lively, lush and swinging with palm trees while each composition carries his signature color palette of turquoise, canary, coral and marigold, showcased at his eponymous Laguna Beach gallery.
A coastal Orange County resident for the past 37 years, Adam originally hails from Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, so it is no coincidence that his mixed-media paintings have a very art deco/Miami feel about them. There are the palm trees, of course, but also wide skylines, calm oceans, empty spaces. His one-of-a-kind surfboards—some of which were recently commissioned for display in the retail store at SoFi Stadium, home to the Los Angeles Chargers football team—bear the same trademark aesthetic and feel.
Adam counts his childhood environment and influences coupled with his move to Southern California and working with different materials in the construction industry as driving factors in the evolution of his work as an artist.
“I came out here from New Orleans and fell in love with … everything about Southern California and its culture; everything that surrounds us is just phenomenal. … My childhood love was always going up and down the coast—you know, Miami and Pensacola and Panama City.” The trademark moon seen in his artwork, Adam says, “is reminiscent of the times I spent with my father, who was in the seafood business, fishing and sightseeing [in] the swamps of the Gulf of Mexico.” The move to Laguna provided Adam the opportunity to meld both worlds—Gulf Coast and West Coast—into a signature style and look.
Tom Belloni | Sculpture
For 50 years, Tom Belloni has been creating art and exhibiting at the Sawdust Art Festival. Belloni started his career as a representational painter of ocean and surfing scenes (some of which adorned Chart House restaurants in the 1970s and 1980s), but his focus of late is the abstract metal and resin wall sculptures that conjure up images of ocean waves and sea life for his viewers. “Often when I’m exhibiting my contemporary work, I’ll get comments like: ‘Looks like dolphins’; ‘Is that a whale?’; ‘I like the motion, like waves,’ ” Belloni says. “I don’t try to be realistic, but the influence of the ocean—the unlimited color expression water allows—nautical curves and the shapes of marine animals are all part of my design sense.”
The process for these sculptures is rather complex. Starting with carved wood shapes, Belloni applies layers of colored resin, adds accents with an airbrush, then clear coats and polishes each part. The pieces are then assembled using copper, bronze or aluminum metal accents—all techniques Belloni acquired as a young surfboard and boat builder.
Indeed, surfing, boating and a supportive art community were defining influences for a young Belloni. “Life was easy on the beach and in the studio,” he says. Currently, the longtime Laguna Beach resident splits his time between this beach town (in the summer) and Phoenix, where he operates a separate studio, but the ocean remains his primary inspiration.