Stab Magazine | Surfing Is Lucky To Have Thomas Campbell

Surfing Is Lucky To Have Thomas Campbell

Vissla pays homage to the most thoughtful auteur in surf.

style // Feb 27, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

My Grandma’s going to have a hearty phone bill thanks to Thomas Campbell, but it was worth it. I’ve come back to my Devonshire roots—the rolling green fields, surf and weather (4ft sunny offshore, 19 degrees, in February!?) has been a revelation, but the phone signal and internet leaves much to be desired, so I was reduced to an international call on the landline (remember them) to discourse with one of surfing’s most cherished auteurs. The reason for waxing 35p a minute is that Thomas is in the process of cutting together a new surf film, and, he’s just released a delightful collection with Vissla in commemoration.

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Thomas composing cinematographic music, with Bryce Young jamming out a solo. (Photo by Grant Ellis)

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Thomas, at work, on film. (Photo by Grant Ellis)

We’re not going to go into the film too much here as it’s far too special a project to mention in passing, and there’ll be more on it in due course. But I will say this: Thomas Campbell is noticeably excited about it and considers it some of his best work. If he’s excited, then damn straight you should be. Those of you who lean more towards the more expressive side of the surfing jig at least. Thomas is starting to edit it “tomorrow”, it’s called Yi – Wo, was filmed on 16mm (that’s what gives Thomas’s films that gorgeous, blissed-out texture), and features a who’s who of people who look effortless on a surfboard. If you’re none familiar with Thomas then you’re either a hi-fi or die sort, or too young to know any better (in which case groms, I implore you to watch Beautiful Losers and then dive into Sprout, The Seedling and the rest of his films, art, everything).

Put simply, Thomas is one of the few artists/filmmakers to dabble in surf who’s a significant figure in the larger creative world. He’s also thoughtful and eloquent, self-deprecating and an altogether pleasure to converse with.

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Just a lovely looking set of trunks, especially when you’ve got a tan like Derek D.

“Well, I don’t think I’m actually the person to answer that because I don’t wear my own art,” says Thomas from his home in the woods just north of Santa Cruz when I ask how hard it is to make art wearable. “I just try, you know. I’ve wanted to partner with someone and do this kind of application in the surf genre for over ten years.” I’ve always loved Thomas Campbell’s art. It’s just so vibrant, so romantic and so, Thomas Campbell. And, this collection is one of the few instances where things that look nice on a wall translate effortlessly into pieces that are unique and completely wearable.

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Timeless escapism, by Thomas Campbell.

Rather than a body of pre-existing work that’s been slapped onto textiles and shipped out in a hurry, the whole of Thomas’s Vissla collection is bespoke. Thomas did a trip with twin fin maestro Derek Disney and Corey Colapinto (brother of Griff, whose surfing is quite the marvel in itself), and the photos he shot served as the inspiration for the works that eventually made their way onto the range.

“The waves weren’t too big, but were beautiful,” Thomas says. “I shot for a number of days and then came back put them into this machine that projects them onto polaroid.” Thomas then went on to explain that the film he used (rare and expensive Polaroid 669 film for you camera nerds) hasn’t been made for best part of a decade, and half of it didn’t work. “Two weeks ago I bought more to do more polaroid transfers for some art show and gifs and stuff for the collection,” he explains. “And none of it worked! It was all dried out. It’s getting very difficult to find expired film, and at the end of the day this could really be the end of the line for that process of my work. Which is fascinating, and heartbreaking.” 

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DD, shot by Thomas on the trip to “a little wave area that I like to go to that will remain nameless” that served as inspiration for the collection.

When the polaroid dries, the doodling starts. The next part of the process is what gives the collection that classic Thomas Campbell feel, and Thomas describes his process as being loose and experimental, and, riddled with mishaps.

“The pieces got better the more I fucked up,” he says. “I did the polaroid transfers, then did unique drawings and collected bubble wrap and different types of money and sewed it all together. It has a very organic way about it, just cutting things up and putting them together. In the end, it’s not that hard to get there when you’re not too worried about your mistakes.” Personally I love the trunks and the towel. If you’re looking for a thoughtful gift for a thoughtful surfer, then that as a double pack is going to render you friend/lover of the month from now until at least 2020. Thomas however, has a particular fondness for the cap. “I like making messed up hats,” he says, “and I like this one a lot. Hats I’d never wear I’m really into making. I like how kids today wear really fucked up clothes. It’s fun to go crazy and make something intense but that you know other people will like.” 

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A spread of Thomas’s work, including his favourite “messed up” hat.

Although we were there to discuss clothing, Thomas is one of surfing’s great thinkers, and I can’t help delving into his broader outlook. In particular, what keeps him coming back to surf films, a medium that’s anything but lucrative and, if we’re being completely honest, appreciated. He says that despite his best efforts and plenty of “last times”, he’s lured back by pure appreciation for the form of expression.

“I think that surfing’s just a sensational activity,” Thomas says. “It’s closer to a dance than a sport; the WSL is like a dance competition. I like the way certain people dance, and I love being in the place and observing my favourite dancers. It never gets old and I’m an addict. I’m a glutton for movie punishment.” After an hour (sorry Grandma) of one of the more enjoyable chats I’ve had about surfing in some time, my transcribe’s chocked full of great quotes. But, in searching for a fitting epitaph, there’s one that’s unavoidable. While talking about the cast of the new film—Burch, Tudor, Mell, Knost, Ando, Gordon, Rasta and a host of others—Thomas comes out with a wonderful line on our most inwardly polarising sport.

“It’s fun, and I’m really thankful to work with the people I do,” he says. “They’re the very best, in my mind, at what I enjoy about surfing, so that’s an accomplishment in itself,” before adding. “Whatever. Surfing’s like beer: it depends on what kind you like. And everyone has the right to like different kinds.”

You can shop the collection here


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