WALTER BLAIR TOM | West Marin
Among Walter Blair Tom’s wide range of artistic mediums, the ocean is one—his favorite, actually. A free medium, though not without its injection of human egos and catastrophes, “water can take the shape of anything,” says Blair, the name his friends call him. If water is his medium, then surfing is his art, a daily practice and a lifelong obsession, with scars from a bloody head injury—he was pummeled, somewhat ecstatically, by a hurricane swell—as proof. “Depending on what mood you’re in, you’ll paint a different picture on a different wave,” he says. But Blair’s artistic capacities span beyond the ocean, though it has been the central body from which the limbs of his life—his artistic passions, nomadic lifestyle, education, and vocation—have emerged. Not only a surfer, Blair is an illustrator, painter, carpenter, maker of handplanes, pyrographer, consultant, and a surf ethnographer. One might call him a polymath of air, land, and sea.
“If water is his medium, then surfing is his art, a daily practice and a lifelong obsession, with scars from a bloody head injury as proof. Depending on what mood you’re in, youll paint a different picture on a different wave.”
Blair lives a mere one thousand feet from where the Bolinas Lagoon siphons into the Bolinas Bay, in a house that overlooks the main (and only) stretch of Bolinas shops. The entire house bears Blair’s handiwork, from the stairs—which are flanked by his renowned surfboard totem poles—to the wide, open kitchen, where old skateboard decks hang alongside photographs of the ocean. In exchange for living space, Blair curates the art in the house, including a shark mural and painted door frames, which, like the totems, are inscribed with red, black, and grey markings—mostly animalistic, curvilinear, and geometrical shapes inspired by Haida, Tlingit, Polynesian, and Marquesan tribal art. For several years, Blair has also made "skateplanes" from reclaimed skateboard decks, which he burns with designs that recall ancient intaglio and printmaking techniques.
Though Blair has been drawing and building things since he was a child, he cultivated his artistic practice while working at 2 Mile Surf Shop in Bolinas, where, he admits, he would bury himself in stacks of art and surf history books, in between helping customers and teaching surf lessons. The shop also served as a juncture of serendipitous meetings with people who encouraged and patronized his art—he even met the boss of the consultancy he works for now.
2 Mile was, perhaps, the perfect backdrop for the affable and energetic Blair, whose fervent ingestion of historical texts dovetails well with his ethnographic interests in communities and their narratives—especially those shaped by surfing, and what might be controversially termed, “surf colonialism.” He’s well aware of the ironies of surf culture—how a seemingly democratic sport is also subjected to the exclusivities of territorial social structures and unspoken rules—but even as a longtime surfer in Bolinas, he wavers between seeing himself as an insider and an outsider, the result of keen self-awareness and humility. The mixed feelings, however, preclude cool indifference, and Blair is “stoked to be proactive in the community," and not only through his art. Seeking to open up the experiences of the ocean to those less privileged, he and several friends recently started a non-profit called Surf Esteam that provides surf lessons and mindfulness training to underserved teenage girls. “Hopefully I’ll leave this place better than I found it,” he says.