Surf artist Heather Brown enjoys an idyllic lifestyle on Oahu’s North Shore.
Story — Anna Harmon
Images — Charisa Gum
At 7 a.m. at the Starbucks in Pupukea’s Foodland, the crowd is almost ten deep, a bustling scene for a small North Shore town. In the tiny demarked space, a couple of renowned North Shore photographers crowd around the sole table. One of the lensman’s photos, a looming, glasslike wave crest encircling an orange-hued, setting sun, hangs on the wall. “Just here to do a couple of things,” one of them says. “Getting out of town as soon as we can.”
The country is where most North Shore artists find the drive to create, including surf and ocean artist Heather Brown. To get in and out of town, she follows a winding road past this Foodland Starbucks, the asphalt path first leading travelers along an incline overlooking the Pacific Ocean, then redirecting them into scattered cottage homes and thick foliage amidst the Pupukea mountain chain. Finally, after a few turns, Brown’s two-story pad, which doubles as a workshop, studio, production site, and office, comes into shaded view. There is no beachside overlook of the waves she so often depicts, just tropical greens and banana trees and the slight rustle of the trade winds.
Brown meets us at her coded-entry gate before we can even let her know we’ve arrived. Her long, sun-bleached hair is tucked under a High Tides trucker cap, her own line of clothing, as usual. She’s wears a bikini top under a zipped-up High Tides sweatshirt and paint spattered jeans. At her bare feet is a bumbling English bulldog named Marley, one of three large dogs that often surround her in the studio as she paints.
The 38-year-old was arguably either discovered on eBay while she was in college, or at the dive shop she worked at on the North Shore after she graduated from University of Hawaii with a focus on printmaking. But it wasn’t until her move to North Shore – she grew up in California, and didn’t get on a surfboard until she moved to Honolulu for college – that she began to develop her signature style. Today, she consistently sells paintings of elegant, color-blocked waves and surfers for anywhere from a couple thousand to upwards of $30,000.
It was at the University of Hawaii that she began to explore island subjects, and island style. “I was really studying the oceanic art and Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Africa. I really loved the tribal art, the way they would take things in nature and just abstract it to such simple forms.” After gradating, she experimented in melding this concept with a thick-lined printmaking look, creating the style you see today.
However, it took Brown a while to get to this style, and even to the islands. After high school, she had continued to live in California, working as a waitress, and then an EMT for ambulances and in the ER, until she decided to move to Hawaii in 2000 to study fine arts. She learned painting and printmaking techniques exactly as she was learning to surf on the South Shore of Oahu. In fact, she would go straight to class, hair still wet, to have teachers scold her for painting waves.
“I was told multiple times, ‘You’re not here to paint a pretty picture.’ And really that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to paint pretty pictures,” she says, standing in front of a shed she and her husband have converted into a surfboard storage room.
So, after graduation, that’s what she decided to focus on, choosing paint as her medium because it fit her minimum-wage budget, when she moved to the North Shore. While working as a boat and dive captain at Deep Ecology, her boss saw what she was doing in her spare time, and asked her to show a few pieces at the shop’s gallery. Japanese tourists and local collectors quickly caught on, sales picked up, and other galleries asked her to pitch in. “At that point I thought, ‘What am I doing working in this dive shop, I spent all this time and money and energy pursuing and art and now I’m making minimum wage in a dive shop … so I decided I’m just going to quit and devote 100 percent of my energy to make it as an artist. Each month became better and better. I mean, I would work like a madhouse, like 12 to 14 hours a day painting and just contacting places to see who would carry my work.”
Today, she still works about 12 hours a day, kicking off at 7 a.m. and breaking only for brief mental rests and a 15 minute lunch with her husband. They tend to eat Ramen or PB&J’s – “Life hasn’t changed a lot,” she says. She had 22 gallery shows, all requiring original paintings, in just 19 months. In fact, when we visited her at her Pupukea home, she could barely remember the last time she went surfing.
But this single-minded pursuit has paid off. Brown has her own clothing line (swimsuits, cell phones, bags, you name it), and collaborates with Rip Curl. Her art has graced the promotions of a Jack Johnson Kokua Festival and Pipeline surf competitions. She has numerous Heather Brown galleries across Japan.
In fact, Japanese buyers have been the most avid fans from day one, initially garnering almost 90 percent of sales, and still clocking in at about 70 percent of her clientele – she has at least three self-named galleries across the East Asian island. “When I go to Japan, I swear I see more Hawaiian cafes, Hawaiian shops, and hula halaus,” she says.
The aloha feel of her works has led fans to want a peek of the real deal, driving her and her husband to build a privacy fence on their upstairs lanai; the newfound cost of her paintings has prompted a coded lock on their front gate. However, it’s also this popularity that mean she owns a small chunk of land high on Oahu’s North Shore, complete with banana trees, a spacious lawn, and a two-story complex where she lives and works in relative peace, albeit about 12 hours a day. While she sometimes wishes she could break out of the tropical, surfer topics of her work, the furthest she would take it is to similar abstractions of nature and animals. In the end, she just wants to paint and print, really, what she loves.
And others pick up on that vibe in her work. When reflecting on why Japanese buyers snap up her paintings year after year, she explains: “They’re just in love with it. I think they just want to have a piece of Hawaii in their homes. You know, they work so hard. Their work ethic is crazy. I’ve seen people leaving their offices at 11 at night. Since they do work so hard, when they do have downtime, it’s almost like they want to just have a fantasy almost, and coming to Hawaii is just a whole other world.”