An hour into a Shell Beach surf session, Colleen Gnos has already caught several waves, her purple-streaked hair making her easy to identify in the sparse weekday lineup.
In between the 5-foot sets, she sits on an intriguing piece of art she created— an acrylic rendering of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, painted on the underside of her 9-foot surfboard—but here in the ocean, she’s not thinking about painting. She’s thinking about the last wave —and whatever waves will follow.
“That’s what I love about surfing,” she says, eyeing the horizon. “It’s so in-the-moment.”
When her surf session ends, Gnos will shift her focus toward one of several art projects she’s working on. But even then, the ocean will remain on her mind.
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“There’s something about being in the ocean,” she says at her Avila Beach studio, her hair still wet from the surf. “I don’t know if it’s the salt water or whatever, but it seems to pull all the badness out of my body, all of the anxiety, negative thoughts.”
Her love of the ocean not only helped her get through her son’s cancer treatments, but it has also inspired her art, which captures everything from sea sirens and divers to surfers and octopuses.
While Gnos grew up inland, near Sacramento, her family has ocean roots. Her great-grandfather was a sea captain in the Azores. And her grandfather, Antone Sylvester, was an abalone diver, who also taught Navy divers.
“He used to dive for anchors,” Gnos said. “That’s how he started out. There was big money in that. A ship would lose its anchor, and he would dive for them.”
While Gnos was only 4 when her grandfather died, her mother would share stories about him. Like the time he used the money from a retrieved anchor to pay for his wedding. Or the time he wrestled an octopus in Avila Beach.
“There was a 15-foot octopus — it was one of those great Pacific orange ones,” Gnos said. “It was just terrifying everybody, and he just had to go show off. He went down there and started poking it, and it got its tentacles out and wrapped itself around him and started squeezing him. But in those old suits, you could inflate yourself, so he just inflated his whole suit and puffed it up so it wouldn’t crush him to death.”
When he finally surfaced on a rope, the octopus was still on him.
“They pulled him up, and here’s this huge octopus wrapped all around him, and people were screaming,” Gnos said. “And he killed it.”
While Gnos and her family would come to Avila during the summers, she didn’t live on the coast until she attended school at UC, Santa Cruz. While going to Santa Cruz satisfied her desire to be near the water, she wasn’t happy with the art school, which she felt was too conceptual.
“They were kind of picking on me for being too realistic,” she said.
She transferred to San Jose State for a year, so she could study abroad in Italy — which she did after a year of intensive Italian.
Going to Italy, she said, offered a fresh start.
“You’re surrounded by the most amazing art you’ve been looking at in the history books for years and years and years,” said Gnos, who will have a show at Avila Wine and Roasting Company beginning April 1 and lasting through spring. “I was living across from Michelangelo’s church.”
After studying art in Italy, she moved back to Santa Cruz, where she found her next big inspiration — surfing.
While working on theater backgrounds, a theater employee offered to teach her to surf. And soon her appreciation of the ocean grew even more.
“You see things that other people don’t see from the shore,” she said.
While her art had been political before, after studying in Italy and taking up surfing, her art began to take on a Renaissance-meets- surf style.
Many of the paintings depict a diver clad in an old-fashioned iron helmet — inspired by her grandfather. And some — including a utility box she painted outside the county courthouse — feature an octopus, inspired by the one her grandfather killed. Others feature mythical mermaids, sometimes painted on classic surfboards.
Her main muse for the mermaids is a former neighbor, who posed for a photo shoot at Pirate’s Cove in Avila — a shoot that became the basis for several paintings, including one titled The Queen of Kelp.
Gnos has also painted large murals — on hotels, restaurants and other buildings.
“Most of the time, when you do murals, people just want a reflection of the outer landscape,” she said. You don’t want some kind of crazy, abstract art. Most people want a few waves and some clouds. I’ve painted so many clouds I got to the point where people were calling me the Cloud Lady.”
She’s currently working on an agricultural-themed mural for the city of Woodland that will be 130 feet wide and 60 feet tall.
“They were interviewing artists and quite a few turned it down,” Gnos said, “because they were like, ‘I’m not going up that high.’ ”
While Gnos’ art sells well — her mermaid surfboards, which go for $5,000, sell immediately—her art career stalled a few years ago when she and her husband, Che, discovered their youngest son had a rare form of blood cancer.
“He was stage four,” said Gnos, who has two sons, ages 5 and 8. “He was bad.”
While treatment trips to Los Angeles became regular, Gnos turned to surfing to help clear her mind.
“It’s a big coping mechanism,” she said.
Now her youngest is no longer a patient, but a survivor.
In the ocean, there’s suddenly a lull, the Shell Beach tide causing a shift in the wave pattern. Gnos, who’d caught a string of waves when she first paddled out, is now spending more time sitting than paddling.
“I get a little impatient,” Gnos says during the downtime.
While she’d prefer to catch more waves, on this sunny day, not far from where her grandfather caught the giant octopus, she can still appreciate just being here — a feeling that will inspire her later, when she dips her first brush in paint.
“I don’t care if the waves are terrible,” she says at her studio a little later. “Do you ever see people get out of the water all grumpy because the waves are all terrible? How can you even have a bad session? You’re in the ocean. I just don’t even get that.”