Five years ago, when Steven Kean was cruising along Oʻahu’s North Shore in search of an afternoon’s surf break, he drove past a Vans Triple Crown of Surfing venue. Young and perhaps a little naive, he daydreamed of being the competition’s official artist, with his artwork plastered on flyers, signs, maybe some T-shirts. At the behest of a friend, Kean submitted his work for consideration. It was denied. He shrugged it off, setting the fantasy aside for another day.
Art was a childhood friend of Kean. His other constant companion, surfing, he met as a teenager, after his brother brought home a board. Enamored, Kean spent weekends weaving through waves along the Pennsylvania coast. When the 27-year-old came across the Triple Crown, he was fresh off a three-month stint in Australia, where he had surfed his way up the Gold Coast and took watercolor classes in his spare time. It was the kind of trip you take after uprooting your life, which Kean indeed had done, leaving behind his existence as a high school art teacher in New Jersey in exchange for the bluer skies, warmer weather, and better waves of Hawaiʻi.
Here, during an independent study at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Kean was introduced to woodblock printing, a printmaking method that involves meticulously carving designs out of a piece of wood. The ocean became Kean’s muse, his portfolio filled with variations of waves curling and billowing skyward, designs that took hundreds of carves to perfect.
It usually takes Kean a week to cut such a design from a block of wood. Next, he coats it in a layer of ink and carefully presses it onto fabric or paper. The result is reminiscent of art from Japan’s Edo period: strong lines vividly depicting the swelling curves of a wave.
These days, Kean is riding a wave of success, holding solo exhibitions and even achieving his seemingly unattainable dream: He has been named the official artist of the 2017 Vans World Cup, the second event of the Triple Crown. Whether featured on posters at Sunset Beach, or hanging on a living room wall, Kean’s woodblock prints convey energy and a sense of being alive, with each carve, and every wave.