Kem McNair’s surf art stems from the 60’s. Having lived by the coast his whole life and being a former East Coast and Florida State surfing champion his art works and photography have been influenced strongly by the ocean. His talents and passions do not just lay with art and surfing, Kem is also a professional musician and photographer. Travel has been a huge part of his life and has shaped his art with his work often depicting tropical idles and turquoise waves. Many of his pieces of art have an air of the exotic to them with perfect barreling waves and vivid colours. His works are well known as he has worked with well known brands. Ron Jons Surf Shop, Budweiser, Corona Beer, 20th Century Fox, Marvel Comics and Daytona 500 are a few of his well known clients. We managed to interview Kem around the time just before hurricane Irma was predicted to hit the east coast of Florida, so we are grateful for him spending time on this interview.
Tell us a little about your yourself?
I’m an Artist, Surfer, Photographer and Musician, I have been doing all these endeavors for over 50 years. I was nominated to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame this year. I’m a former East Coast, Atlantic States, and Florida State Surfing Champion and still surf almost everyday, when the surf is decent. Which it is quite a bit here in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, but it’s also known as the “Shark bite capital of the World”. We see sharks here almost every time we surf so it’s not a big deal when you see them on the bottom under you when you’re riding a wave. I have been surfing here for 53 years and had a total hip replacement a few years back and am surfing as hard as ever and totally pain free. As an Artist, I have been drawing and painting for over 50 years and doing digital art since 1983 and working in Photoshop for over 21 years. I have been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and playing in many great regional bands and played all over the Southeast as my main source of income for many years. I’ve been doing photography since the 60’s and have my camera with me all the time, because there is great images hiding all over the place. You just have to look and be quick to capture them.
Why do you love photography, art and making music?
They are all creative and require a different skill set to do them, with any amount of proficiency. Photography is very spontaneous. I shoot mostly surfing images, ocean related and nature. So you have to be quick, so quick till some times you don’t even realize the image you have till you upload them to the computer and get a very pleasant surprise. Art can be spur of the moment abstract or very planned and very thought out, but its always in need of inspiration and sometimes great reference materials. Almost all the worlds greatest artists have worked from reference, live or photographic or study sketches. Music is the same, when playing a lead guitar solo, which are always improvised for me. So you are sort of flying by the seat of your pants which requires you to, kind of not think about what your doing, but to just let it happen from your subconscious. That’s always fun. I have tried jobs that were not creative and I was miserable and I didn’t last to long doing them. So I guess I need to be creative, be having fun, and it has to be a challenge, that’s why I love all 3 – Art, Music and Photography.
How did you start out in each of these fields?
I remember starting all 3 about the same time when I was about 13. I was over at some friends house and his older brother had an acoustic guitar and I picked it up and started noodling around and he saw me and showed me a couple of songs. I was hooked and begged my parents for a guitar, and got one for christmas and I was on my way. I was always doodling in my notebooks in school and my mom noticed and enrolled me in Art instruction schools, they always had the “draw me” Ads in magazines. I learned a lot but always hated having to draw the assignment twice. One was to be graded and sent back to me and the other was kept by the school. I was always drawing something and then took art classes all the way through school and into college which started the digital art side of things. I forget how I got my first film camera but was always trying weird shots and they never looked like what I saw in my head and through my viewfinder, but I kept at it and shot some surf movie films and loved that, but then digital cameras came along I went nuts. I was finally able to get the shot to look like what was seeing in my minds eye.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start out in creating their own art pieces, photography and music?
If any of these disciplines interest you, you have to jump in with both feet and immerse yourself in it. The internet is totally amazing as a learning tool! As long as I have been doing these things I go on the web or Youtube and learn something amazing 2 or 3 times a week. It’s a great time to be alive. You could learn to be very proficient at just about anything by just watching others do it and by practicing a lot. They all take tons of practice. The thing is I have a very short attention span so I was always jumping around from art to music to photography which kept me interested! Never a dull moment.
Do you enjoy any extreme sports or any forms of adventure? If so how has it moulded your life?
Well if you consider surfing 25 foot waves in Mexico and Costa Rica an extreme sport or an adventure then I enjoy that. Being in those dangerous life threataning situations teach you to remain calm when life throws you a curve.
I have trained myself to not get upset and to dismiss those kind of events when they are presented. It’s a good way to live. Don’t get upset and stay positive. Dismiss negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.
Do you have any favourite artists, photographers and musicians? Why have they caught your attention and why?
John Singer Sargent from the old school paints in a beautiful loose realistic style. If you look at his paintings from 20 or 30 feet away they look like photographs but up close, 2 or 3 feet away they are just a bunch of abstract brush strokes that don’t look like anything. It’s extremely hard to do. I haven’t latched on to to many photographers, but everyone is a photographer these days and so styles are so deluded till its really hard to stand out. Every so often I will go to an art show and some one will be unique as a photographer, and I will always stop and pick their brain. As for musicians there are tons of them. Singers, drummers, guitar players, and recording engineers and producers. They all interest me! The thing about music and recording is, you can do it your whole life and never learn it all, you will get pretty good but there is still more. All these things I do are a pretty deep subject and I will still be learning till I’m passing into the wild blue yonder!
What types of media do you use to create your art pieces?
I work in Oils, Watercolor, Acrylics, Airbrush, Pencil, and Digital ( Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator, Corel Painter, and ProCreate on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil).
Which beach do you feel most connected with and why?
New Smyrna Beach. Florida. It’s a small beach town just south of Daytona beach and North of Cape Canaveral. I have lived here since 1962 and it’s home. New Smyrna inlet, (the whole Inlet is called Ponce Inlet) is known as one of the most consistent surf spots on the east coast of the U.S. When the whole state is flat there will be a 3 foot ridable wave here at the inlet all the time. It goes flat maybe 3 or 4 days a year. That’s why we have so many surf contests here and so many great international caliber surfers. It can get really crowded though, with up to 200 surfers in the water at the inlet on a good swell. Magicseaweed.com rated it, #1 most crowded surf spot on the planet and #1 the most dangerous surf spot, because of the sharks. But, I still get lots of waves, but I give away lots of waves also. The vibe in the water is pretty mellow because us old guys keep it that way. We don’t stand for any violence and put people on notice when they get out of line. A lot of the lifeguards are surfers and know who the trouble makers are and when they get out of line a few times they get banned from the beach for a period of time.
Does your family have the same affinity with the beach and sea?
My wife loves the beach and taking photos down there. She bought a soft top board last year but is afraid of the sharks, so I can’t get her in the water. She is a shark magnet! Quite a few times she has had a shark swim right in front of her when she was knee deep in the surf, and freaks out and says, why didn’t I tell her there were sharks here today. Fact is they’re here all the time, but much less so in the winter when the water is cold. They migrate to South Florida.
Is there a beach that you aspire to live by or visit anywhere in the world and why?
Mentawai Islands, Western Sumatra, Indonesia. Beautiful Big Barrels that are somewhat predictable and won’t kill an Ole guy, Well maybe an Ole guy that can’t surf.
Has the ocean taught you anything in life?
The ocean is just amazing! I have learned so much about the creatures that live in and above the water here and around the world. I have educated myself as to the currents and tidal events that happen here and how they effect the waves and what takes away or adds to the sands on our beaches. For those that don’t know you can drive your car on the beach at New Smyrna and pull right up to your chosen surf spot. The ocean has taught me to be patient. This is not a race except when you are paddling for a big beautiful wave. Then you can hurry!
What brings you the most happiness at the beach?
Surfing great waves with my many great friends and the strangers I meet every time I surf, and taking cool photos of them ripping it up, and the great conversations on the beach afterwards.
Who, either friends, family, famous who have connections to the sea most inspire you?
I have lots of guys and gals that inspire me. Some of the surfers here are internationally known and surf so well. You can’t help but improve if you’re an old dog like me. but last year I was about to leave the beach and a girl came up to me and said Kelly Slater(11 time world surfing champion) was surfing just up the beach about a 100 yards. I drove up there and got my camera out and got some insane photos of him which were published in Eastern Surf Magazine. It was totally insane how good he is. I have seen him surf many times on the surf contests on the web, but to see him live was a whole new level of excellence! Everyone (about 50 guys and girls) were just amazed seeing him surf and gave him every wave he paddled for, just to watch his brilliance on a water. His graciousness on the beach was really cool. Seeing him interact with the youngest surfers! He is a very special person and casts a huge shadow, but is very down to earth and engaging with everyone he meets. It was an inspiring moment that I will never forget.
Visit Kem McNair’s website here. Here you will discover his music and have the opportunity to view and purchase his art, surfboard art and phtotography.