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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


Lost & Found 
Text by: Derek Ferrar
Photos by: Dana Edmunds

With his long, aquatic frame and almost Warholesque shock of snowy hair, Mark Cunningham is standing head and shoulders above a well-heeled crowd at a pop-up benefits art sale in downtown Honolulu, beaming sheepishly beside several assemblages of crusty junk that he’s scavenged front he sea. Leaning over his collages of lost surf fins, watches, keys, coins and other salvaged oddities, the champion bodysurfer and longtime North Shore lifeguard confides that this is his “first rodeo” as an artist.

Not that Cunningham is any stranger to Honolulu’s art world. He’s been making the gallery rounds for years as an enthusiastic onlooker and has always been what you might call a thinking man’s waterman. And it just so happens that over the course of decades he’s also amassed a ridiculously large stash of surfboard fins, sunglasses, watches, dive gear, cell phones, keys—you name it—that he pulls off the reef whenever he’s out snorkeling, which is often. His garage is crammed with buckets, bins and boxes of ocean-encrusted stuff; by his estimate he has at least 850 surfboard skegs alone, carefully sorted into containers labeled by era and style, like “old-school wedges” and “cool ’70s single fins.” “I feel these things are like modern fossils, artifacts of our time,” he says.

Of course Cunningham would be the first to admit that nature is the real artist at work here. To be exact, Porolithon, a genius genus of coralline algae. The algae, which make up the majority of Hawai‘i’s reef structures, grow quickly on any hard surface and leave layers of a coral-like crust. In a sense Cunningham is merely an avid collector of Porolithon’s work.

The encrustation lends an overtone of decay and mortality, which does wonders for the pieces’ artistic gravitas. “In light of my own advancing years, these things say something to me about the passage of time,” Cunningham says. “To me the message is, ‘Go surfing now while you can because eventually you too will be returning to the reef.’”

Cunningham started picking up reef debris early in his career as an O‘ahu lifeguard, mainly as a way to earn a little extra lunch money by seacombing for lost swim fins to sell, dropped coins, maybe even the odd piece of jewelry. “I picked up a few surfboard fins here and there, but that wasn’t the main intent,” he says. But over time the collecting became an obsession, one that he now shares with his partner of the last ten years, Katye Killebrew. “I’ve always been a little bit of a magpie, collecting shells and little treasures from the sea,” Killebrew says. “But what Mark and I do is more like treasure hunting, just on a really small scale. It’s fun because it’s something we can share and it gives our dives purpose.” Both retired, they check the ocean conditions most mornings and if the signs look good, they hit the reefs. “We file a ‘float plan’ with each other,” Mark explains, “but a lot of the time the ocean has its own ideas.” “Skeg huntahs!” Katye chimes in. “It’s all about the thrill of the find. And it’s different every time we go.”

Back at the downtown art sale, bemused buyers have snapped up four or five of Cunningham’s arrangements of his marine treasures fastened to chunks of rock and weathered driftwood. Organic artist Steven Rosenthal, who is known for his bamboo sculptures and found-junk instruments, remarks that the form and texture of Cunningham’s pieces are “so fascinating that it takes you awhile to get that they’re essentially just detritus.”

A browsing Honolulu Museum of Art official says that Cunningham’s collages remind her of the post-Dadaist “outsider art” movement, which idealized the work of “naive” creators from outside the mainstream art world, most notably insane asylum inmates. John Koga, the multi-genre artist who put together the benefit sale, says he urged Cunningham to participate after he saw a few of the bodysurfer’s finds and thought they were “hot.” “It’s an amazing collection of things that man and the ocean made together,” Koga says. “Crusty, creative objects … kind of like him.” HH