When you think of surf art, you envision plumerias, perfect barrels, tropi-scapes, maybe a mermaid, a Polynesian dancer, an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini here and there -- your typical surfy, visual cocktail, right? Sometimes, when you think of surf art, you begin to feel a little numb to it. But every once in a while, a new "surf artist" comes along with a vision fresh enough to keep you wanting more.
Christie Shinn, the North Shore of Oahu's next big thing in art, has certainly incorporated those traditional elements into her work. But then add zombies, Star Trek's Spock throwing shakas, sloths on skateboards, leather wallets donning Breaking Bad's Walter White, ghosts of chickens, teepees in forests, vibrant, unexpected colors -- a style that's part circus sideshow, part retro, reminiscent of Alex Katz meets Jim Phillips, yet somehow all her own.
"She really gives a unique color palette and look to the North Shore," says Matt Maletta, curator of surf art at Wyland Gallery in Haleiwa. "She uses hip, vibrant and original color perspectives to describe often-overlooked local objects and makes them iconic."
Maybe that distinctive view of the North Shore culture comes from the fact that she hails from a place that couldn't be more different: Canada. Growing up in the Toronto area with some icy mountains and even icier lakes, Shinn began her life saltwater-starved, to say the least.
"I was obsessed with surfing even before I saw the ocean," she says of an interest her dad passed on to her during Canadian summer days when he'd put Shinn on their windsurfer -- sans sail -- push her into waves on Lake Huron and tell her she was at Waimea Bay.
"That all just stuck in my mind and I'd always think to myself, 'I have to do that,'" she says. And she did, later on, while traveling around Europe at 22, just over a decade ago. Shinn finally got on an honest-to-goodness surfboard while in England (of all places) and, despite the cold water, found herself hooked. "It was friendly with no crowds and a great place to learn," she says.
Naturally her wanderlust was bound to lead her to the tropical surf Mecca known as Hawaii. A few years later she landed on "the rock" and had made Oahu not only her next destination, but also her home.
And while she scratched that dream off her bucket list, she had no idea that she was about to check another one off too. Even though Shinn describes her Canadian hometown as "far away from anything cool," she had managed to teach herself to skate in high school and become employed at several local skate shops, where surrounding oneself in wall-to-wall skate graphics is bound to ignite the visual sensibilities in any artist.
"It never occurred to me that art could be a viable option," Shinn says, although it's something she always kept at her bedside table, so to speak. "I was one of the few kids that never stopped. Everybody makes art when they're a kid and I just never put it down."
To Shinn, it felt "normal" to make art all the time, even though she dabbled in a lot of other vocations. Now, we're talking pre-Photoshop, pre-Internet revolution -- before graphic design became one of the most popular career choices out there for anyone with any sort of creative inclination. Still, Shinn's art "was always there, no matter what I did," she says. She soaked in the snow and skate graphics around her every day: "I'd look at the decks and all the artwork and I really looked up to those artists. They were having fun and doing what they loved to do and taking it less seriously than artists [at the time] that had their work hanging in galleries."
At the same time, she had accumulated quite a collection of concert posters from her travels and from local punk bands in Hawaii. She'd pull posters that she liked off telephone poles and put them in an album. "Even if it had rained on them and the colors were all smeared, and it was after the concert and nobody cared anymore, there's something really cool, ephemeral and 'throwaway' about it," she says. "It was something that I looked at from my little place in the world and would make me want to be part of something bigger like that."
Shinn had no idea that the type of art that she loved so much would not only one day become legitimate and respected, but that she really would become a part of it -- and produce it for a living. She can thank a 13-year-old for that.
Once settled in Hawaii, she began to unofficially nanny a local boy, dropping him off and picking him up from school. While she waited for him, she'd draw the things around her in a sketchbook. Drawn to her images, he'd insist that she sketch more and paint more, until he finally pleaded with her to walk into Starbucks at Foodland -- a North Shore social hub where he'd seen other artists' work -- and get them to look at her work. In his teenaged mind, there was no reason Shinn couldn't make a career out of her talent.
"Try telling a 13 year old who looks up to you, 'It would never work,'" she says. Together, after school, the duo approached the folks at Starbucks, who were just about to lose their featured artists to a Maui relocation. Everything fell into place.
"I went from Starbucks to gallery," Shinn says. Soon after she hung her work at the local coffee joint, Maletta and those at Wyland invited her to be their very first featured surf artist in 2006.
From there, not only did Shinn dive deeper into her fine-art skills, but the commercial design work she'd always been in love with followed. She prepped her laptop with all the tools she needed just as seriously as she did her painting studio; before she knew it, she was teaming up with Randy Rarrick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surf, on some merchandising designs for their 2008 event on the North Shore. He had seen her work at the Wyland Gallery and kept her in mind.
According to Rarrick, everything with Shinn's designs on it sold out. "I thought, 'This girl's definitely got talent,'" he says. "She gets it. This gal's not originally from Hawaii, but she obviously fell in love with it and translates that into her artwork. There's a realism to it that captures the essence of the North Shore."
And even though she hadn't produced the main image for the event that year, Rarrick wanted to work up to that as soon as she was ready. Shinn continued to produce her fine art and commercial work, like shirts, hats and artwork for snowboards and skateboard decks, and to get more shows; she even went to Japan to show at the Green Room Festival in Yokohama. Vans fell on the back burner a bit. They had chosen her design for the women's event in 2011, but, unfortunately, the women's Triple Crown was cancelled before the image could see the light of day.
Finally, one day this past year, Shinn received an e-mail from Rarrick, who was vacationing in Europe with his wife. They had visited an art gallery in Vienna, Austria, where they came across a painting of a woman on a bluff overlooking the valleys and peaks of a Swiss Alps scene. He grabbed a brochure and sent the image to Shinn. It clicked for her, too; instead of the Alps, she envisioned the back of a woman at the top of Pupukea, gazing down over Triple Crown spots Haleiwa, Bonzai Pipeline and Sunset -- in short, the entire seven-mile miracle, also known as the North Shore of Oahu.
Until this moment, Shinn hadn't even begun to dream up a concept. But she didn't waste any time and began sketching. She grabbed a model, hiked up to Pupukea, shot some photos and let her imagination take over. She and Rarrick went back and forth, tweaking a design until they finally landed on one that resonated with them both. They sent it to Vans, which chose the scene to officially represent the 2013 Vans Triple Crown.
"I'm really stoked," says Rarrick. "This is a really big deal." Not only will Shinn be the first Hawaii-based artist to produce the Triple Crown design in a few years, but she's also one of the only female artists ever to produce the poster. She joins other Triple Crown artists like Lassen, Wyland and Steve Power. "I think Christie's art will appeal to local surfers and visiting tourists alike," Rarrick predicts. "I guarantee it'll sell really well. It's good for Vans and great for Christie."
But even though Shinn reached a pretty big-time achievement with this project, "I'm never going to be able to just sit back and say 'Yay!' forever," she says. "I'm satisfied for a week at most and then it's time to move the goal post. I can't spend too much time celebrating when I don't know where my next job is coming from."
Full-time artist isn't exactly the easiest occupation, so Shinn travels back and forth from Hawaii to her hometown in Canada, continuing to develop her style and skills and, in short, hustle. "Unless you're landing the $100,000 deal, you've got to work your a-- off, learn to be thrifty and take big risks," she admits. "But that's the fun of it. It's like life hacking: How much can you get away with, doing what you love, without having a full-time job? It takes more effort, but that's what drives me."