Life in Salt: Surfer and Ocean Artist Laarni Gedo Talks About Waves and Paint
by Owen James Burke
“I’ve always loved the ocean. You know how a wave comes in and goes back on the shore? I remember chasing it, and then running away from it, then chasing it again. I’ve just always liked it.”
Laarni Gedo is a beautifully talented, gentle and salty soul living in Hawaii. She was born in the Philippines and later relocated to California where her father was stationed in Monterey, California. Although her father tried to introduce her to scuba diving, the cold waters of California didn’t appeal to her, and nor did the gear. While in grade school, the family was relocated yet again, but to the warm waters of Hawaii this time, where Laarni’s oceanic adventures began to take root in Makakilo. Ever since, she’s been loving life and painting lines both in and out of the water, to which her paintings are indisputable testaments. Last week, I had the chance to speak with her while she was catching the sunset in her garden.
Scut: Hi Laarni. So you’re in Hawaii now? Are you there permanently?
LG: I’ve been here for twenty-four years now. So I’ve been here awhile.
Scut: Where were you before?
LG: I was in California for three years, and before that, the Philippines—where I grew up.
Scut: Where in the Philippines are you from?
LG: I’m from the island of Luzon, and I don’t know how familiar you are with the Philippines, but I’m from Pangasinan. It’s about 200 miles northwest of Manila. I left when I was ten, and I didn’t go back for another twenty years—it was weird going back. But I never got to surf, so I want to go back to surf.
Scut: The surf there looks great. What first attracted you to the sea?
LG: It’s funny. The Philippines are a chain of hundreds and hundreds of islands, but in my family none of them really like being in the ocean. As far back as I can remember, though, I’ve always liked being in the water. My mom would always yell at me—because you’re not supposed to be dark over there—so she’d say, “Get out of the water! Come back!”
“Rob Roy’s Golden Hour”
LG: I’ve always loved the ocean. You know how a wave comes in and goes back on the shore? I remember chasing it, and then running away from it, then chasing it again. I’ve just always liked it.
Scut: That’s everyone’s favorite memory, I think. So, where did you move to in California?
LG: My dad was in the navy, and we left the Philippines because he was stationed in Monterey, California to do his post-graduate degree. We lived there for three years—that’s where I learned how to speak English. I learned how to speak with a valley-girl accent, and a tinge of a Filipino accent. When I came to Hawaii people always asked me, “What? Where are you from?” They see me, and I’m brown, so they think I should sound like a local.
Scut: Monterey and then Hawaii—what did you do when you got to Hawaii?
LG: I was in middle school—I went to a public school. Like I said, it was weird. People expected me to speak pidgin, and all the kids in class would have a thick pidgin accent. They’d say something, and I wouldn’t understand them. I’d say something, and they’d tell me that I talked funny. It took me a little while to get comfortable.
Scut: When did you first start surfing?
LG: We were living on the West side, in Makakilo. There was a little beginner’s beach on base, and my parents got me a super shitty Costco-brand boogie board—so I’d just get it and play around. Of course, my mom would always yell at me, “Get back here, Laarni!” after an hour of being in the water. It wasn’t until I was fifteen when my dad and his friends went surfing and they took me along with them. My dad borrowed his friend’s giant 10’ log—it was a beautiful banana yellow—I got on it, closer to the shore, and I caught my wave. I don’t know how, but I guess because it was huge. I remember paddling, standing up, and being so happy and excited. It was the best feeling. I remember riding it all the way to the beach, because I didn’t know how to stop. I hit the bank and it tore the fin off. My dad had to fix it for him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it—it was my first wave.
My dad bought me a board for my birthday that summer—every time I had time or could get them to take me to the beach, I would surf. I was hooked from then on.
Scut: Where do you surf now? Where are your favorite spots?
LG: My favorite spot is Diamondhead. I went to the University of Hawaii—I was supposed to go to the University of Washington, but at the very last minute, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t leave. I just wanted to stay in Hawaii. My parents were stationed elsewhere, so I stayed here and they left.
I’d ride my bike—it had a little surf rack—from UH all the way up to Ala Moana or Diamond Head. I’ve been surfing Diamond Head forever. It’s my spot. It gets so crowded, but if you surf a spot long enough, you figure out who’s who, and who’s just there being a buoy; it’s pretty easy. It’s like Cheers. Everybody knows your name.
Once in awhile—my boyfriend’s a shortboarder—he’ll drag me to the North Shore, so I’ll get on a short board and kook it out. It’s fun—I like getting pounded sometimes.
Scut: It’s good for the soul. What made you start painting the sea?
LG: Well, I was just painting something that I love and that is so familiar to me. It’s so natural. I paint what I love, really. I’ve painted bacon before because I love bacon.
Scut: I was looking over your portfolio on your website—my favorites are some of the ones in which you can’t tell if it’s a photograph or a painting. Your shading is very impressive.
LG: Thanks. I like painting realistically, but lately I’ve been trying to get funky. I want to have an identity someday. So I’ve been playing around with a lot of things, like ceramics, wood, or paper—just whatever I can get my hands on. I’ll go to this really cool warehouse called Re-use Hawaii — they have old stuff there — and buy a cart full of things and have all these ideas, and it just ends up piled in my room—but I’ll get there.
Scut: Is that how you started painting over prints?
LG: Yeah, I like the texture of it. I’ve been going to used bookstores here, trying to find old books and magazines, trying to find anything interesting I can use. Even clothes—I’m always looking at prints or materials. I have all sorts of ideas. I just have to get to them.
“So Far East”
Scut: What’s your favorite thing about the sea?
LG: Maybe its cleansing nature. When I used to work 9-5 and I’d had a long day, I felt like I had to take that dip and wash off everything that happened that day—then you’re fresh again.
A few of my favorite places in Hawaii are in Maui, on the way to Hana. It’s a red sand beach—so the snorkeling is so beautiful. You have to climb around this cliffside, and it’ll open up to a cove. The sand is a burnt sienna that goes into the clear blue ocean—it’s gorgeous, it’s one of my favorite places.
But it’s a nude beach, and the first time I went there I didn’t know that. I sat next to a pile of clothes, not thinking about it. I had my eyes closed—I open my eyes, and I see this sixty-something year-old man walking up to get his clothes, bending over to get them about six inches away from me. He said, “I’m so sorry you had to see this, sweetie.”
Scut: At least he was cordial. What are your favorite colors to work with? Do you have any? I was drawn to a lot of your blues and grays.
LG: I like the blues.
Scut: What’s been your most terrifying ocean experience?
LG: Three years ago, my friends and I decided to fly to Kauai and camp in Kalalau for a couple of days. Kalalau Valley was closed then so we ended up having to camp in Miloli’i. Instead of hiking in the 11+ miles, we decided to kayak the coast because most of us hadn’t done so. It was gorgeous. We were able to kayak into sea caves and hang out under cool little cave waterfalls. Every few feet you look up the cliffside and think it couldn’t get any better, and then you make it down the bend and it’s even more breathtaking.
Anyway, we kayaked in some of our gear — but some of us didn’t want to really rough it out too much… Someone had a friend who had a boat, so they asked him to sail our gear (which, knowing we didn’t have to kayak it in, was bottles of beer and wine, gourmet-like food, and shit that makes camping comfy, but not at all necessary…like pillows and chairs. and a 40-inch tv. (Just kidding, wondering if you’re still paying attention.)
The next day, we were sitting on the sand, and the captain was leaving in 10 minutes when one of the guys pointed at the boat and started yelling “Your boat’s sinking!”…and we looked up and the boat was already tomb-stoning and in 3 minutes only the antenna was above water. We all swam 50+ yards out (maybe 11 of us?) and tried to tow the boat in before the Coast Guard had to get involved (we found out that the boat wasn’t insured either!). We spent the entire day swimming and tugging the boat to shore… It was like playing tug of war with the boat. We were kicking each other in the face with our fins, and our hands burned from the rope/line. Our best freedivers swam under and looked for the key and found it on the seafloor.
Our captain friend had a tour-business that would have been in jeopardy because this event would have made him lose his license. So we HAD to get this boat out of the water. After a few hours, we managed to pull the boat to shore, but we couldn’t flip it to have even the chance to get it towed. I looked around and everyone’s just slumped on the sand–feeling defeated. Then maybe an hour before the sun set, Rob stands up and says, “Let’s do it again!” And I was like “What makes you think we can flip it now that we have even less people?!” I felt so negative at that point. But we all got up and gave it another go–and then the windshield part of the boat broke off and somehow the boat flipped! After 2+ years or repair, it was finally fixed again.
It sank because a $5-or so plug got loose during the night and the boat took in water.
“Gotta Right Hand It to Ya”
Scut: So what’s next for you?
LG: I’ll be painting a couple of bigger pieces for a restaurant here in town. So more painting— and hopefully more traveling. I’d love to travel. I want to get back to New Zealand—I think New Zealand is my favorite place in the whole wide world, for now. I haven’t really been to a lot of places. Going there was the first time that I’ve left Hawaii and didn’t really want to go back. I seriously thought about moving there, but it’s cold.
LG: It’s such a pain to put on a wetsuit—and if you only have one pair, you’ll go on your second session and you’ll be in your wet wetsuit. But it’s beautiful there, it’s magnificent. Think about Hawaii, and triple that. I love New Zealand.
Scut: Do you have a favorite book about the ocean?
LG: When I was traveling late last year, I started reading Michael Kew’s short stories collection in book called Crossings. I read about half way then I lost it. I’ve been meaning to check it out at the library. He reminds me of how Rob & I travel– which is mostly just surf-centric, and each day is about chasing waves in an almost compulsive manner. At least Kew has other distractions… like whisky. And he tells his stories in a way that you really get a good feel for the places or culture he was experiencing and writing about.
Scut: Do you have a favorite tool, gadget, or piece of technology you like to use on the water?
LG: I was going to get a GoPro, but I can’t do it. I don’t want to be a hero. I remember when it first came out—the day after Christmas, everyone had one mounted on their surfboard. I thought, “I’m never going to do that.” I don’t use gadgets… —
Scut: Haha, me neither.
Laarni’s melds paint on canvas, printed paper, wood, fabric and whatever else she finds that strikes her eye. Check out her website, follow her on tumblr, and if you happen to be in Hawaii or cross paths with her in the lineup, wave hello. She doesn’t bite (but she may out-surf you).