Images by John Hook
“I’m having a hard time calling myself the a-word,” bodysurfing legend Mark Cunningham jokes, referring to his new profession as an artist. “I’m just starting this journey, and it’s crazy how everything is happening so fast.” He roots through a mess of his found objects on a late-summer afternoon, pulling up a calcium-encrusted surfboard fin. “Before they invented leash plugs, people would drill holes into the back of their fins and would tie their leash to it,” says Cunningham, holding up the old fin with a hole in it. “So when you find those, you know it’s from back in the day.”
Within seconds of meeting Cunningham at his beautiful home in Kāhala, I come to the deduction that I’m either going to get lost in his garage looking at objects reclaimed from the sea, or end up doing something unexpected, like night bodysurfing. This conclusion is brought on by Cunningham’s charming, bright and playful energy. He’s anything but wily, but somehow just for a moment, Cunningham is able to draw me out of my bubble and actually have me secretly hoping for a nighttime rendezvous.
Though Cunningham may have made a name for himself bodysurfing massive Pipeline waves with nothing but the skin on his back (and of course his iconic Speedos), his art—three-dimensional sculptures made from personal items lost at sea—has opened up a new realm of creativity he never knew he had. His work has been displayed in galleries in San Francisco, New York, and Hawai‘i, earning the attention of gallery owners and critics, and has even appeared on television shows like Hawaii Five-O.
A childhood spent in Hawai‘i, immersed in surf culture, helped Cunningham start this journey toward becoming an artist. He grew up in the seaside neighborhood of Niu Valley with only one thing on his mind: surfing (well, that and girls). Now 59, Cunningham delights in items that look like they’ve been chewed up and thrown back out to sea. The found objects all have a sort of strange history to them, be it a vintage gold watch, hotel key, designer necklace, or even the driftwood he uses to mount the objects upon. “Mother Nature is the real artist,” he says. “I’m just putting it all together for everyone to see.”
Cunningham’s artistic practice grew out of his profession as a Honolulu City and County lifeguard, when he would find lost, battered items on the near-shore seabed or in the surf. He was like O‘ahu’s own Aquaman, returning lost objects to their respective owners, keeping what he wasn’t able to give back. By the time he retired from his post at ‘Ehukai Beach Park in 2005, Cunningham had amassed an impressive collection of sea gems: precious stones as big as my thumb, broken glass rounded and softened by the hands of time, vintage cameras, sunglasses, watches, the occasional paddle, and an assemblage of fins stuffed into a large tin pail that became a signature piece entitled Fin Anemone.
Several years ago, John Koga, a respected local artist and curator, visited Cunningham’s house and saw the pail full of fins. “‘Holy fuck, that’s art. You’re an artist,’” Cunningham recalls Koga saying. “[Koga has] become sort of my sensei.” Inspiration also came from his longtime partner Katye Killebrew, whose custom jewelry line, MiNei, offers popular earrings made with encrusted sunglass lenses. “I saw how happy it made her, and how well people responded to her stuff. I think the best part is how we are always spending time together in the water, and showing each other the things we’ve found.”
There’s something hopeful about the artwork of Cunningham. Maybe it’s the repurposing of lost objects from the sea to form strikingly textural, organic forms that can seem joyful or buoyant. Or maybe it’s the spirit of his subject matter. He speaks to his finds, and imagines them responding. He holds a crusty fin and asks, “Who did you belong to? How did you get lost?”
This story is part of our The Sea Issue.