MEET: Scott Sullivan aka Surfing's Most Interesting Person You've Never Heard Of

Matt Rode

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Updated 451d ago

The surf industry can be one big, weird clique. We're told who to worship, and celebrity comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Either you are known or you don’t exist, and that applies to just about everyone—athletes, photographers, hell, even writers.

But for every name you know in surfing, there are a dozen others who are just as interesting and just as involved. Some work behind the scenes, while others simply don’t chase the limelight or care if their genius is ever put on display. And in a community such as ours, which has its roots in the counter-culture and a desire to do anything besides work a 9-5 gig, one thing is pretty universal—we are all a bit eccentric.

Spot guide: Take a tour of Rhode Island, here.

Renowned photographer, Scott's comfortable on the south side of the lens.

Renowned photographer, Scott's comfortable on the south side of the lens.

© 2021 - Scott Sullivan.

Scott Sullivan is certainly not your run-of-the-mill Average Joe. Although you may not recognise his name, he’s floated around the heart of the surf community/industry/media for half of his life, creating images and clips that you’ve likely seen, and working with some of our most celebrated alternative thinkers. And he was even more involved with snowboarding, helping turn the fledgling sport into what it is today—a massive, mainstream culture and industry.

But for everything Scott has seen and done, one doesn’t get the feeling that he is ready to rest on his laurels. In fact, a visit to his place up in northern Washington makes it pretty clear that he is only getting started.

Late last winter, as the last of the swells faded in the Gulf of Alaska and the snow stated to melt in the Olympic Range, we sat down with the most interesting person you’ve never heard of, and chatted about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Surfing has been a big part of your life pretty much as far back as you can remember, right? Tell us about your early memories of surfing, and how your introduction to the ocean ended up shaping the rest of your life decisions.
I grew up in Rhode Island and was a little beach rat, always playing in the water. I used to stand up on whatever I could find, but eventually ended up getting my hands on a fiberglass board. I bought it with my sister for $50 from a beach lifeguard. It was a 6'9" David Nuuhiwa yellow single fin Dyno with a tight pulled in swallow tail.

From there I was pretty much hooked. Rhode Island is cold as fuck in the winter, but I was always drawn to the cold. Rhode Island is cold as fuck in the winter, but I was always drawn to the cold The lobster claw mitts were so thick that they were hard to get on by yourself, so if you got lucky and saw someone you could ask for help. Surfing in the winter in Rhode Island—and in the cold in general—made me feel like I was doing something special. I still feel that way today.

I went through a pretty fucked up childhood and couldn’t adapt to school very well. It was later determined that I had ADHD and depression issues. Surfing became the outlet for me, where I could turn my back on the world and immerse myself in the constant motion of the ocean to stimulate my mind and emotions.

Surfing led to snowboarding, and back then it was still in its early stages. I bought a Burton Backhill from the Watershed Surf Shop and started doing 25 yard long bottom turns on my snowboard down my neighbours’ backyards.

Forecast: Washington

I was pretty heavily into photography as a teen—I had my own darkroom and did all my own processing. My first main subject that I loved to shoot was surfing, and when I was 16 I had my first photo run in Surfer mag—a shot of my friend Steve Rasmussen. It was barely bigger than a postage stamp, but when it ran but I got a check in the mail and it definitely fueled my dreams.

Looking back, surfing set me on a life path of interacting with the natural world and meeting a group of like-minded people. Almost everything I do now, and who I am as an individual, stems from those early years surfing.

You were pretty heavily involved in the snowboard industry during the golden era of the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. What was going on in the mountains in those days?
When I was 20 I decided that, as much as I loved the ocean, I was going to move to the mountains of Colorado and get more involved in snowboarding. I rode professionally through the late ’90s, but after a knee surgery from tearing my ACL, I switched gears to photography. I started out shooting snowboarding in Utah, up in Little Cottonwood Canyon at Snowbird, which at the time had an incredibly rich talent pool of riders.

I ended up scoring the cover of the Snowboarder Magazine Photo Annual with a shot of Mike Basich during my first year shooting. Things got rolling pretty good from there, and I ended up linking up with a good friend of mine, Justin Hostynek, who welcomed me into the Absinthe Films family. He got me into shooting 16mm cinema film on an old Arriflex, and working with him and Patrick Armbruster put me in the middle of the best riders in the world at a time, when the world of snowboarding was in the process of blowing up. Probably one of my most memorable moments was at Superpark in Mammoth one year, when Absinthe filmer Rich Goodwin brought along this young and energetic kid named Travis Rice

Probably one of my most memorable moments was at Superpark in Mammoth one year, when Absinthe filmer Rich Goodwin brought along this young and energetic kid named Travis Rice. Travis blew minds that whole session, but it wasn’t until after Superpark ended, on the last day we were there, that we went up at sunset with Travis and watched him hit a 90-foot spine that nobody had touched the whole week. He ended up stomping a massive backside rodeo, and has been blowing minds ever since.

Another memorable experience has been working with Wolfgang Nyvelt, or Wolle, as we all call him. He is a great friend and inspiration, and a pioneer in both riding and design.

Over a decade ago he began removing the bindings off of his snowboards, and that started a whole new realm of sliding sideways in the snow that truly embraced all three boardsports (surf, skate, and snow). We call them POW Surfers, and there is a big movement worldwide where riders “free the feet, and the mind follows.”

Capturing the all-important shaping process.

Capturing the all-important shaping process.

© 2021 - Scott Sullivan.

You also did a bunch of photography work in the surf industry, including working with Richard Kenvin on the mysterious Hydrodynamica project. Tell us a bit about that.
Well I was introduced to RK (Richard Kenvin) by Andrew Kidman, who I became good friends with while living in Encinitas. RK came with us on the Glass Love film tour back in New England and told us about his vision—all of these shots that he wanted to get for a movie he was going to make about Bob Simmons. His ideas were amazing, and the story he was bringing back into the light about Simmons was revelatory.

I was living close to him, and we ended up becoming good friends. I was able to spend a lot of time over the years down in the La Jolla /Windansea area, shooting and studying under him, essentially, which gave me a first-hand perspective of the incredible world of shapers and personalities that have developed around the Simmons legend.

RK and I did a trip down to the Galapagos Islands with Dave Rastovich, Daniel Thomson, Andreas Fernandez, and Donavan Frankenreiter. We brought the Simmons balsa replica that was shaped by Terry Martin and John Cherry, and those guys all got after in in some great waves. It was such a far-out place—this amazing series of islands with such diversity and raw power.

Lately it seems you have slowed the pace of life down a bit. You have a rad bit of property in Washington, run a pizza joint, and seem to get to snowboard and surf with your kids a lot. What motivated this life transition?
I actually don’t feel like I’ve slowed the pace down. In a lot of ways, I have actually sped it up! I am constantly juggling a lot of different things, including having a family. My kids are my main motivator these days—just trying to show them how amazing the world can be.

They motivate me to kick ass as much as possible—to give them a good example and have fun while doing it. I like to stay busy and work hard, and by doing so show my kids a path towards success. My kids love to surf, skate, and snowboard, and we have adventures together as much as we can.

You run a pretty rad pizza joint too. It sort of has an eclectic, throwback feel to it—you have art on the wall by Jamie Lynn, photos from your various trips and projects, a massive vinyl record collection, etc. And the restaurant seems to be earning accolades from all over the Pacific Northwest.
Back in 2014 I was in a transition period and looking for another creative outlet to pour my energy into, so I decided to open the Strait Slice Pizza Co. Growing up in Rhode Island I had pizza sauce in my blood, and living in Port Angeles I was missing being able to eat the kind of pizza I like.

I had worked in kitchens over the years, during all of the adventures, so I had a basic understanding of what it took to run a restaurant (even if I was a bit naïve at the beginning). I knew I wanted to build a simple restaurant that made hand-tossed, East Coast-style pizza with an open kitchen and pizzas flying everywhere. We make our own dough, sauces , dressings, and cookies, and we’ve teamed up with a local salad grower, Chi’s farms, to have some of the best organic mixed greens. It was a lot of work building the business, but really fun and exciting.

While I was getting started, I figured if I was going to have to be in there working all the time, then I may as well build it as I like. So the first thing I put in there was a turquoise piano, and then a record player to listen to good music. I also decided to turn an archive of my photos into a semi-permanent gallery on one of the walls, while on the opposing wall I have hosted the artwork of several artists. In addition to being one of the greatest snowboarders ever, my friend Jamie Lynn is also an amazing artist, so I asked if I could exhibit some of his work at the Slice. He was super supportive, and I ended up with a massive collection of some of his finest original works, many of which have become iconic board graphics over the years.

Mr Sullivan.

Mr Sullivan.

Music has always been a big part of your life. Tell us about what you have going on there.
I’ve been playing music since I was a teen, and have always been passionate about songs as a vehicle for self-expression, whether its personal emotions or world view. I grew up on a healthy dose of the Beatles, mixed with some great punk rock, like the Clash, Descendants, 7 Seconds, Bad Religion, etc. I love melody and harmony, but I also love the sense of conviction and passion that punk rock taught me.

I play guitar and piano and sing. I knew I was never going to be a great lead player, so I began writing songs at an early age because I realized if the songs were mine, then nobody could tell me that I was playing them wrong. I’ve self-released six albums since the early 2000s, and had a lot of fun and a bit of success thru song placements in a lot of great snowboard and surf films. I’ve been able to travel in Europe, the US, and elsewhere playing shows, and I’ve been able to make my music passion support itself financially, which is something that I am grateful for.

I currently play in a great band called Crushwater based out of Port Angeles, with violinist Chandra Johnson and some other rotating musicians. We will be releasing our first full-length album soon called “The Wasteland,” which is all original material. Chandra works with me in my pizza place, so we have had a lot of opportunity to work on our songs over the past three years.

Wow, you pretty much do everything. How do you find the time for it all?
My life is based around my passions, and they serve as a roadmap for me. Music has always been a primary passion for me, right there with surfing. I think surfing and music have so many things in common, the two primary ones being rhythm and flow. If you have them both, then the experience can be transcendental. But they can both be unpredictable, too. You can just as easily dig a rail in both music and surfing and fall flat on your face.

It sounds like you've lived a pretty radical, non-conformist life centred around adventure and exploration. And even now that you are a bit more stationary, it still sounds like you have no intention of being a "normal" person. What do you envision the next chapter of life looking like for you and your family?
You know, at this point I can look back and be incredibly grateful for the life I have lived—amazing friends and incredible adventures forged out of extreme high and lows. I am living the human experience as much as I can. The love, the joy, the hurt, the pain—all of it. It what makes us human at the core, to be able to experience the full range of emotions in life. When we die, we won’t feel any of it, so for better or worse, I try to enjoy this beautiful experience as much as I can.

My main goal these days is to share my positive passions and the gifts that I’ve been given with my kids, and hope that they have the opportunity to experience their own passions in their lives, as I did.

As we all get older, I really just want to be able to maintain my relationship with my girls, and I think a great way to do that is to help them to make surfing, snowboarding, and music a part of their lives, so that when I am an old geezer we can spend time traveling and doing these things together. I think it can be easy for families to lose the close bonds as kids grow into their own lives, so my plan is to just make it so they get hooked on all the good stuff as much as I did at an early age, and we can continue to enjoy this lifestyle together.

Aside from that, my main concern for my own well-being is to nurture, grow, and maintain my passions in life, because passion is what keeps me young and inspired. At the end of the day, things like money, power, control, and material possessions are nothing if you don’t have passion and love for what you do in life.