In the late fall of 2020 Savannah Rusher, founder of IDEAL recorded a socially distant virtual conversation with her surf friend and artist Ava Rosen about life, music, surfing, women, and kookiness in the water. The conversation poetically merges the actions of life with healings found from the ocean swells.
AR: I was born and raised in San Francisco on Ramaytush Ohlone land. I’ve basically lived here my whole life for the community and for nature. I live in Oakland now, on Lisjan Ohlone land. There’s a lot of overlap between my past and my present; like, I teach art at the synagogue where I did my bat mitzvah. So there’s a continuity in my life for that reason. This place has obviously changed a lot, too. It has gotten harder to survive as an artist, but I also resist the narrative that there’s no culture anymore. There’s still a lot of amazing thinkers and makers doing their thing.
SR: Growing up in SF, did you spend a lot of time at the beach?
AR: We would go to the beach, but I didn’t even think it was an option to go into the water. My parents and I did a lot of birdwatching so we’d go to the beach and look at birds and tidepool. Our one long-standing family tradition is to go to the beach at Asilomar down in Monterey Bay every winter. I have a few memories of being a kid in summer camp and boogie boarding. I remember being like, whoah! You can just go into the ocean? And my mind was blown by that. And having the best time, not wanting to get out of the water.
Photo Credits Left: Ava Rosen and Right: Savannah Rusher
SR: When and where did you first paddle out?
AR: My middle school P.E. teacher was a surfer and organized a lesson for us at Cowell's in Santa Cruz. I remember catching my first wave, I think I was on the same board as one of the instructors…
SR: So your first wave was tandem?
AR: I think so! I remember being as stoked about riding a wave as being that close to a real hunk. I was freaking out on many levels.
SR: Only in California do I hear of people experiencing surfing through school.
AR: It was cool because I would never have tried it if my teacher hadn’t wanted to share the thrill of surfing with us and organized it of his own accord. I had a really good experience, but then I was like, okay, I tried that.
SR: So a lot of time lapsed between your first experience and surfing regularly as a hobby?
AR: There were a handful of times in between when I went out with friends. In high school, Alexandra [our bestie] took me out to the beach break at Linda Mar. I got totally thrashed and didn’t know what I was doing, got pushed under by a bunch of waves. I was terrified and traumatized. Like, I never want to do that again.
SR: How did you overcome that?
AR: Well, honestly, it took a lot of pushing from Alexandra to be like, come out with Savannah and me! And I just kept saying no, and she finally just wore me down. (laughs)
SR: Some good old fashioned peer pressure. (laughs)
AR: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to, you know, but I was so scared.
Photo Credits: Top row: Ava Rosen Bottom row: Ava Rosen, Elizabeth Peterson, Lauren Early
SR: You just needed encouragement and to be in the company of other women at a similar skill level.
AR: Definitely. The fact that I had female friends that were encouraging me; I knew that I would have allies and guides in the water. I had a desire to surf when I went to college in Santa Cruz, but the reality of what it’s like to be learning out there and being the only girl out there…
SR: And it perpetuates imposter syndrome.
AR: Yeah, the feeling of, I don’t belong here.
SR: It doesn’t feel like a very inclusive space.
AR: I also just had a very hot and cold relationship with water throughout my life. I took swimming lessons as a child and felt confident in the water. But I went through a phase when I lost my confidence. I didn’t trust myself not to drown. I had to re-learn how to swim. There was a close call in some powerful beach break on vacation...just a mixed experience in the water.
SR: There’s a lot of risks to assess when you’re in the water. If it’s not territorial people, then it’s the ocean itself displaying its power and unpredictability.
AR: Yeah, the ocean gets really wild here. When you see it pounding against rocks out there or a sea wall, it’s really overwhelming.
SR: I would agree that learning how to surf in Northern California is challenging, but it creates a very high level of respect and awareness. How does it make you feel when people use the word “kook”?
AR: I definitely still feel like I’m learning how to surf. I guess I am a kook! The word “kook” has so many levels. It’s fun to make fun of kooks, sure, and it’s a good reminder to not take myself so seriously. Does kook have to do with skill level or lack of awareness? Part of what I learn from surfing is how to be humble and how to be a beginner, and take pleasure in that. I’m a perfectionist; I have high expectations for myself, so paddling out… I obviously want to improve, but I can still have fun as long as I have a baseline awareness of my surroundings.
SR: You go out there for the joy, the recreation, the camaraderie, and being in nature. It’s a joyful activity.
AR: Exactly. The word “kook” is part of the whole aggro, a patronizing culture that is the dominant surf culture. It’s a comparative word, you know? The alternative is, it’s not about competition.
It’s about reading waves and feeling the energy of the wave.
Video Credit: Ava Rosen
SR: It’s funny how some people see surfing as spiritual, and some view it as a sport. And the difference between the two… You can experience both in the same session. Still, I wonder what it is about surfing that people connect with and how those different points of view can intermingle. I think that’s a big point of contention in the water; some people are there for completely different reasons.
AR: Absolutely. I think sport gets conflated with the competition. That’s sports culture. But I also like the sport of it, you know? I enjoy training my body to feel strong and learn how to maneuver; it’s really rewarding to be in your body like that. But I guess there is a difference in approach.
SR: Black Lives Matter has generated a lot of conversation about inclusivity in the lineup, particularly towards women of color. As a biracial woman of color, how does that make you feel?
AR: It’s been inspiring and cool and validating to see projects like Brown Girl Surf, Textured Waves, and SF City Surf Project. Representation really does matter a lot, especially to young people. There’s a lot I could say about being a non-black biracial person because I do relate to it, and also I don’t feel totally a part of it. I’m ever in the in-between space between white and POC. There have been times recently when I’ve been identified as POC and given opportunities for that reason. Everyone’s trying to uplift POC voices, which we should be doing, and at the same time, I think the intent and the impact are different. Well-intentioned folks end up tokenizing me and undervaluing my work by offering me exposure rather than compensation.
SR: What are some ways that surfing has influenced other aspects of your life?
AR: This is super cheesy, but it’s true. It’s really shown me that what I think is impossible is totally possible. I used to think I could never do that. I truly believed that. So being proven wrong was an A-ha moment. If I can do this, what else can I do? It just opened up more possibilities. It teaches me humility; it’s a constant reminder that I’m small and mortal and alive. In terms of my life’s work, which is in the form of art practice and earth-based practices, surfing brought in the water element of my learning about the natural world. I didn’t have that much of a personal connection to the ocean. Now I get close to seals and pelicans gliding past us, and it is such a treat. Now it is centering, healing. My therapist and I joke about my appointments with Dr. Ocean and get my “ocean therapy,” -- which started because I am always rescheduling therapy to go surf.
SR: It sounds like surfing has deeply intertwined with different aspects of your life. As your friend, I know you have a wide variety of interests; you’re a nature guide, you are in a band, you’re a writer, you’re a printmaker.
I think of you as a “yes” person who loves new experiences.
AR: I love learning new things and doing a lot of different kinds of things. I’m a Gemini so I kinda bop around. That beginner’s mind is really helpful for someone like me. It’s helped me understand the benefits and the gifts of being a beginner; surfing helps me internalize and accept that aspect of myself. It’s okay to be constantly learning and not be an expert. And also the seasonality of it, you know? The conditions, it’s the windy season or the king tide season, and it’s okay if I’m not doing all the things all the time. There’s a time for each thing. I knew that intellectually but it’s different to really feel it, like, this is just how life is. There are flows, and there are seasons. Like, my band’s not happening right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a musician.
SR: That was my next question. You’re in a band called Galore. Can you tell me about how Galore was formed?
AR: It’s kind of a parallel story to the surf story because it was another thing where I would go to shows and watch these amazingly talented musicians and be like, Oh, I could never do that. It wasn’t until I met a few women who invited me to meet up and play and experiment and just be bad, just for fun, and let loose. It was really a catharsis at first, a fun way to hang out together and make a ton of noise. And we wrote some songs, then we started playing shows after a while, and it just kind of went. I did not expect that we would record an album. We were planning a tour earlier this year, and we have actual vinyl records, and it’s just so wild.
Video Credit: Regina Tsasis
SR: The record turned out really good. It’s so fun and full of energy. Did you always imagine Galore as an all-girl band?
AR: None of it was premeditated. But I think the fact that we’re all women is not random. I think I felt more safe and comfortable messing around with them. Also, my female friends are incredible, and I want to hang out with them and make stuff with them as much as possible.
Video Credit: Ava Rosen
SR: What are some of your other favorite Bay Area bands?
AR: Good question. Healing Potpourri, my partner Simi’s band, is amazing and a really good group of humans. They have a really full sound, and I’ve had the honor of singing with them a couple of times. April Magazine: we’ve probably played almost every single show with April Magazine. Without that band, I would not be playing music because they have been really encouraging and supportive. They’re kind of our sibling band. Blues lawyer is super good too. Rays were one of my favorite bands to go see before they broke up. Dingbat Superminx is a whole performance experience, and their music’s great.
AR: What are some of your favorite local bands?
SR: I’m a big fan of Candies, formerly Froogy’s Groovies. Another one of my favorite local musicians is Space Lady, who is a total legend. Healing Potpourri is also a top fave for me. For the first time at Adobe Books circa six years ago, I remember seeing them that was such a fun show.
AR: How did they even fit in there?
SR: That’s a good question. I feel like most of the crowd was on the sidewalk (laughs). Galore’s and Healing Potpourri’s LPs are easily my favorite ones of this year. I also love Cold Beat’s album, Mother, which came out this year.
AR: And Twompsax with Cher Strawberry! We played a show with them and Blues Lawyer at Dildo Factory, which was so fun.
SR: Yeah, I remember that. The venue’s right on the train tracks, and it was so loud when it went by.
AR: It nearly drowned out the music (laughs).
SR: My last question for you: What are some things that have helped keep you grounded during the shelter in place?
Photo Credits: Ava Rosen, Savannah Rusher
AR: Walks with friends, cooking a lot, and trying new recipes like tamales and Liguria Bakery-style focaccia, my dog Iggy and surfing.
SR: Oh, we should mention our dogs are best friends.
AR: Yeah, we’ll have to include pictures.
SR: One day, they’ll have their own calendar.
AR: Life goals. The other thing lately has been our weekly ladies skate session at Lake Merritt, which is so fun!
SR: And it’s a fun thing to do on days when the conditions to paddle out aren’t great. It’s hard to muster up the nerve to paddle out when it’s 50 degrees and 15 mile an hour winds! Skating is also more accessible for us living in Oakland.
SR: I think that concludes our interview. It’s always so interesting to hear how people arrive at where they are. Thank you for sharing, Ava!
AR: Thank you so much!
Photo Credit: Ava Rosen
More information about Ava's art practice can be found on her website.
More information about Savannah's graphics design practice can be found on her website.
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