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By Gordy Grundy


John Philbin has a great mug. It's a face with stories to tell. A casting director would easily pop him as a waterman or a cattle rancher. He can do badass, yet he is quick to smile with a laugh. His eyes actually twinkle.

It is almost impossible to define the process of art making. It is as equally difficult to express the experience of surfing. These two worlds are twin mirrors. Both are tedious and frustrating as one waits and hopes for a wave or an idea. Both require a million immediate micro-decisions. Both are eager to seize an opportunity. Both demand courage, stamina and perseverance. In the arts, success is as fleeting as the memory of a sublime ride.

As I set forth to produce a series of virtual exhibitions for Art Report Today, I confess an agenda: to bypass the systemic elitism; to celebrate the heart and soul of the fine artist; to loudly share these admirable values with the rest of the world. Within a nanosecond, John Philbin came to mind.



GORDY GRUNDY: Before we speak of the higher arts and life in general, I’ve got to ask a Hollywood question. The western “Tombstone” is a film classic for many, many reasons, but I’ve always felt the star of the film, besides you, was Joseph Porro, the talented costume designer. The Wild West had never looked so styled-out or colorful. And it was historically accurate. Did you get to walk away with a new wardrobe?

JOHN PHILBIN: Kevin Jarre wrote such a great script that all of these amazing actors agreed to play in “Tombstone.” Initially the deal was that he got to direct it. The production design was the work of Catherine Hardwicke, who would go on to direct the respected teen drama "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" and "Twilight." Then the costumes, like you said, were a dreamland for all the actors. We were in heaven!

Then Jarre got replaced as director and an action film studio director George Cosmatos took over. After a severe rewrite with help from Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, we resumed shooting a more traditional Hollywood western, but we got to keep all the great artistic elements Kevin Jarre had assembled. I wish I could’ve kept my guns and my horse, but sadly I had to return them all on the last day of filming.


GG: The film intelligentsia is still debating "Tombstone" and the huge influence of Russell and Kilmer. Anyway, as an actor, you have been blessed with several iconic lines, in several much-loved films that have become cult classics. How did “LISTEN2Turtle” the massive Instagram group come about?

JP: A few years ago Cindy, of “LISTEN2Turtle," painted a picture of my character Turtle from the Universal Studio's 1987 film “North Shore.” She put it out on the web and got so much feedback, she decided to launch a website and an Instagram page that focused on the growing fan base from the surf film, which was a hero's journey. Over the years, she has presented pictures and stories from all the actors and fans that made the movie a growing phenomena over the decades.

Due to her great relationships with fans and actors, the sites have grown to 14,000 followers! I am grateful to her work connecting the fans with me and the cast of “North Shore”. I look forward to more fun in years to come!


I always think of you first as an actor. But that other line on your resume says "Surf Instructor." How did that happen?

Well, about 20 years ago, I stopped working as an actor and suffered a relapse into drug addiction and alcoholism. Naturally, I became unemployable and depressed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had no training in anything but acting. And surfing.

After I got sober, and my mind and body healed from the abuse I had administered upon myself, I needed to get a real job. A friend of mine, Kip Jerger was teaching surfing in Manhattan Beach. I had worked for Kip when I was 16 at his surf shop, Kanoa Surf. I saw him at his camp one morning, and he seemed very happy. I asked him what his secret was, and he told me he liked what he did. So I asked him for a job.

I learned to teach beginners how to surf all summer at Kanoa Surf in Manhattan Beach. And I got happy, too. I had found some way to be useful again. And I was good at it. I enjoyed it.

I started teaching surfing privately in Malibu the next year and found a clientele that was familiar with film culture. John Stockwell, an actor and director, saw me everyday in Malibu while I was working. He started asking me questions about how we filmed the surf scenes in “North Shore” and “Point Break,” because he was preparing to shoot a surf film in Hawaii called “Blue Crush” for Universal, about a young female surfer living and competing on the North Shore and out at Pipeline. I reminded him that I was a surf instructor now, and he decided to give me the job of training Kate Bosworth for her breakthrough performance in “Blue Crush.”

The film went on to be a popular hit with the growing number of young girls and women fighting for equality in the line-ups all over the world.

Kate did an amazing job. From the success of that experience I was able to work on a number of surf-related films as a trainer and consultant and eventually a producer of surf themed entertainment.


It's the ultimate fantasy job. I'd rather carry a board than a briefcase. Your clientele has gotta be fascinating.

So now I’ve been teaching surfing to men and women of all ages, all over the world. I usually meet my clients in Malibu, through referrals. If they take to it, and want to travel to surf more exotic locales, sometimes they will take me along on their surf vacations!

I have met so many interesting people over the years and made deep and lifelong friendships. Ironically, I’ve been given some fun new acting jobs because I’ve been suiting up and showing up sober to work.

"Undateable John" was a film I did with Tom Arnold, Daryl Hannah, Joan Jett, and the beautiful Estella Warren. It’s a rom-com about a surf instructor battling with addiction and relationships in Los Angeles. It's hysterical and available on Amazon Prime.

I’ve played rewarding parts in "White Wolves" and the upcoming "Ghost Babe" because I’ve been teaching surfing over the years. Go visit to see more about the surf and film experience. Maybe book a lesson with me!


These are incredible, big life experiences. Are you philosophical? What have you learned?

It's been a wild ride! I have lost everything and rebuilt my life repeatedly over the decades. Sometimes my losses were caused by my own behavior, and sometimes through natural disasters.

I'm not alone, or special, in this cycle of destruction and creation. I’ve witnessed many of my friends experience similar fates, and it's never the destruction that interests me. It's the reconstruction.

I’ve been very lucky and have had many mentors helping me navigate these seas of change, and from where I sit now. It’s all about the Accepting. Change being the only constant in the universe.

I’ve learned that acceptance of circumstances beyond my control is the foundation of any freedom and happiness I enjoy. As a young man, I was mostly ego-driven, suffering from the delusion that through my willpower alone I could wrestle satisfaction from this world.

As I grew up and sometimes things didn’t go my way, I could get frustrated and angry and depressed, blaming others for my disappointments. But I never really knew what experience was going to be good or bad for me, and I wasted a lot of time sweating my judgments about how I was doing in life.

Curating this show has given me an opportunity to look back in wonder and amusement and gratitude for the serious lessons life can hand out. I’m happier than I’ve ever been right now. My self-worth is not tied to my ability to control the outcomes of my efforts; I just don’t have that super power.

I just wake up and do the mental gymnastics necessary for a selfish guy like me to get out of my own way and try to be a good person, who cares about others and the world around me.


You have just curated a virtual art exhibition, with a lotta surf, “The Comfortable Chair of My Youth” on Art Report Today. Where did your interest in art come from?

My first exposure to fine art came from visiting my grandfather. August R. Nieto was my mom's dad. He lived in Carmel, California, where I was born. Every time we came to visit, which was often, he would show us a new painting that he had bought from a local artist in Carmel. Mostly seascapes and wild waves crashing on the rugged shores of Northern California.

His collection grew over the years as I grew up. He took pride in, and care of, his collection of paintings. He hung and lit each one perfectly on the walls of his comfortable home. I became mesmerized by some of the paintings, and would stare at them for hours in my youth.

My mother was a great fan of painting. She would drag my brother and I to every museum and new exhibit in the towns and cities we would visit. She studied art all her life and some of that appreciation rubbed off on me.

After she died, and when I was able to travel, I would visit every art museum and look at every painting and sculpture and classic building wherever I would go. From L.A. to New York and then months in Europe visiting every museum and gallery I could, I collected postcards numbering in the thousands.

Frequently I would spend time just flipping through my postcard collection of all the great paintings, sculptures and architecture that I'd seen. One of my greatest regrets from the 2018 Woolsey Fire was the loss of that collection.


You lost everything in the Woolsey.

That fire in Malibu was a fucking horror story. It was moving so fast that many of us had to evacuate before we could gather up our most prized and irreplaceable possessions. I had framed and hung dozens of beautiful art prints all over my walls. But losing my photographs and journals was by far the greatest tragedy.


Like me, you're a Californian. You'll never be too far from Mother Ocean. Or are you joining the exodus for greener and less-taxed pastures?

I love California. I’ve been all around the world and have not found a better place to live for my lifestyle. After surviving a tsunami in Indonesia, I realized I did not want to live on the beach.

After the 2018 fire, I realized I don’t want to live in the middle of a recurring fire corridor. But I need to live near the ocean, and near the mountains, so that puts me in a little dilemma.

Right now I live in Topanga Canyon, a perfect mix of quiet nature close to the beaches of Malibu with easy access to the city I love. Los Angeles has been my home since 1980 and I’m still digging it!

Maybe when I get a little older I could retire up in Carmel or Indonesia, but for now I’m still inspired by and active in this great metropolis.


After surviving a tsunami in Indonesia–- I never heard that story!

I can’t tell it again...

Editor's Note: At the end of this interview, we feature John's horrific story in his own words from an Aussie news article by survivor Monty Webber. We also offer a link to Tracks Magazine and their short documentary about the Tsunami Brothers.


Let's get back to high art. How and why did you title this show?

The title of the show, “The Comfortable Chair of My Youth,” came to me from a Matisse quote, combined with my reflection on the simple pleasures from the choices I’ve made in my life. I love all kinds of art, but I didn’t want to focus on any dead or hugely famous and unaffordable artists.

I wanted to showcase some local artists that anyone can meet and commission original works from, that bring pleasure and joy to their lives, like they have brought joy and pleasure to mine.


Who are these artists? Where did you find surfin' Damian Fulton?

When I first saw Damian's "Cacophony in Sea Minor," it changed me, and it changed my appreciation of what an artist could do for me.

Damian brings his immense talent and skill and vivid imagination and humor to create worlds on canvas of fantasy and reality dueling for my attention. I can personally identify with every image he juxtaposes in these paintings. From riding motorcycles, to shooting guns, to fighting in the surf, to a love of monsters and a fear of tsunamis.


You have a personal history with Zen Del Rio.

I grew up and started surfing along the rocky shorelines of Palos Verdes. My mother studied art with Zen’s mother Gemma. My mom's life was greatly enriched by their times spent together. Gemma’s son Zen became a stand out, legendary, big wave surfer from our tiny, local community. He also became an artist and an art teacher.


And way back, I turned you on to Otis Shepard. He and his wife are a story to tell! All American design. And that crazy Catalina poster! A big wad of 'em, standing in a old wood barrel in a junk shop on Melrose.

I’ve imagined the lives of every person in that picture and never got tired of looking at that familiar life in Avalon. The Elmo poster on the church wall, the angle and height of the mountains, the trees and the ocean are all familiar.


I did too! I'd just look at it forever and ponder the characters, the senorita and the caballero and the bell tower. I'd fantasize about the S.S. Catalina. So glad you put that piece in the show.

I immediately identified with everything about it. I'd visited the island so many times in my youth. I bought it, framed it and hung it on my wall, in six different apartments, and a condo I’ve lived in, all over Los Angeles for 35 years. I lost the Catalina print to the Woolsey Malibu Fire.


How did you find Muck Rock, the great Jules Muck?

I discovered the art of Muck Rock on the streets of Venice and Santa Monica. Then, I met her once at a party and was struck by how cool and unpretentious she was for such a prolific artist.


Cameron Calderon hit the bone.

"North Shore" was filmed on the North Shore, which I know well. Cameron has created many beautiful paintings depicting how the ocean meets the land. But for me, his interpretations of iconic scenes from the movie "North Shore," have struck a gratitude bone in me that makes my past smash into my present with great pleasure!


Where did you find Derek West?

I am honored, surprised, amused and grateful to see my image included with his works. He paints the images that shaped his life, and mine, in the 70's and 80's. If one of the themes of this show is how these works personally make me happy, well, I can't deny the rush of appreciation.


With this exhibition, you have done an excellent job of popping your curatorial cherry. Are you going to curate a few more?

I appreciate this opportunity, to curate a show. I’ve learned that right now, at this stage of my life, I just want to spread and share the love. Love for all of the art that I have seen and appreciation for this California lifestyle that I’ve been so fortunate to participate in.

The Comfortable Chair of My Youth” is definitely a reflective show. I have passed through so many different chapters in life, trying to push identity and control outcomes.

Looking back, I have come to relax and enjoy the whole show of the times that I’ve survived. I am at peace now, living in the moment, loving my life, saying yes to the flow.




Author Gordy Grundy is the creative director and lead curator at Art Report Today.


Presenting a fascinating read, all on one, easy page, is the worlds most comprehensive news source for the arts + culture.



See the show! The Comfortable Chair of My Youth



John Philbin and the Tsunami

The Australian PressReader presented an article, "Tsunami Brothers: The 25th Anniversary Reunion of the 1994 G-Land, Java Tsunami," as told by surfer Monty Webber.

An excerpt:

"...John Philbin’s story was a little different. “I was in a little hut that was slightly elevated right on the tip of the point. I go to sleep, middle of the night I heard water and I think why am I hearing water? When you’re in G-Land you’re very tide oriented, and I knew it was low tide, so why would I be hearing water? I sit up in my bed and go, ‘that’s the fucking loudest thing I’ve ever heard’, and then a wall of dark water covered me, and the roof and the mosquito net all came down and squished me into a ball. I was wrapped tight in a ball by my mosquito net with a board on me and a tree, and I don’t know if it was five or 10 feet of water going over my head. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew I was under water and trapped. So, I’m like… time to relax, just take it easy, just don’t breathe. I held my breath as long as I could but I was drowning, and I started to hallucinate, I imagined the whole world had opened up and all of this water had rushed in and we were all under water, and I knew if I just had a surfboard, I could wrap myself around it and I would pop up somewhere out in the Indian ocean, and all I would see would be the tips of volcanoes and I would paddle to the tip of one of the volcanoes … but then I started to panic, I just didn’t want to die all curled up like a little bug, so I just took the net I was wrapped in and I ripped it as hard as I could. All of a sudden everything started sucking back out. As I fought to stand up, the water dropped down to my thigh and I could breathe again, and the surfboard I had put in my rack hit me on the leg on its way out to sea and I grabbed it and I just ran up into the jungle yelling, “Everybody grab a board!”

To read the complete article, Click Here

Tracks Magazine has a video: Click Here



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