Robb Havassy has lived a life that most can only dream of. From an international modeling career to becoming a full-time surf artist, surfboard shaper, and devoted father. Now, living in magical Costa Rica, he has carved out a niche for himself both in art and publishing, with plenty more adventures in store.
Robb’s energy radiates through his work, and his style effortlessly spans multiple genres. From surrealism to impressionism, from the psychedelic to the raw, he opens a positive, beautiful window into the world of surfing and beyond, through his creativity.
We caught up with Robb to discuss his life, art, dreams and vision.
Hey Robb, what’s happening in your life right now?
Well, three years ago my wife and I sold our house in Costa Mesa, California, and moved to Costa Rica with our, at that time, 4 year old daughter Marin and our two Wolf dogs, Oso and Kuna. The plan was to simplify our life and get back to the roots of what we think are the core elements of the “good life”, revolving around family, passion and quality of life, away from the growing rat race, concrete, traffic, and over population.
Costa Rica, and Guanacaste specifically is a place that we had grown to love deeply over the previous 15 years or so. We first went down there in 1998 when I was commissioned by Robert August to paint a mural of Roca Bruja on a wall in his house overlooking Tamarindo Bay in Guanacaste. The following year he invited us back to do another mural and stay. It became a yearly (at least) routine.
As the years went by we started to imagine what a life living part time down there could be like. Online websites and galleries, as well as the evolution of social media like Facebook and Instagram, offered an avenue for artists in any medium to share their “creative” with anyone on the inter-web. With my online gallery at HavassyArt.com and Facebook and Instagram sites I was able to sell my art wherever I was in the world. So post-2009 it started to become apparent that life for everyone was going to be a lot different and more difficult to maintain a good lifestyle, or at least one similar to one we all became accustomed to. I considered my self pretty successful in that I could support a family with my art, book or clothes sales. But as the publishing industry and surf industry startied to collapse there was less and less support for the artists. Creating has always been easy, but the publishing, selling, general economy and opportunities were a fraction of what they were before. Every artist I knew, and that is a lot, as I had been curating the SURF STORY PROJECT for a few years already, and was closely connected with over 200 artists from all over the world, were saying the same thing: “Where did the money go?”
Even the most successful and legendary artists were experiencing real difficulty earning enough from art sales and, plain and simple, were scared. So in the end, the goal was to move to a place we loved, that would be a great place to raise a family. In Costa Rica you are surrounded by beauty, great surf, friends, etc. Its has a great international community, is safe, clean, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and the economy and community is growing… Pura Vida!
So, in 2013 we sold our house, got rid of a lot unessential stuff, but put a lot of my stuff – art, surfboards, and art related inventory – in storage in Cali. We then bought a 40ft container, packed our essentials, including our two 4WD Toyota Tacomas, and shipped them to Costa Rica. Since then we have made a great life here living, creating, learning more about the Tico culture, and working on mastering the Spanish language. My “Spanglish” is pretty good, but Spanish? No es bueno. But we do okay.
The lifestyle here is ridiculously full. In California, life had been more of survival. Owning a house and three vehicles and all our stuff didn’t mean much, as they were just things. I felt successful but rarely had the means to do anything beyond pay the endless bills. We have way less stuff here: rent a house, hustle to make our bills, but the life is exponentially better. We surf, horseback ride, golf, fish, play on the beach, enjoy time together and with friends in an inspirational and beautiful place, safe from terrorists and political rhetoric, social strife, violence and traffic.
My best and most important job is that of “dad” to our 7 year old daughter (as of 2016) Marin James. And just celebrated the birth of our second daughter, born August 25th (2016), Ripley Dane. Life seems complete. At 46 years old, my wife and I thought we were probably done having kids. But after living here in this magical place for a couple years and feeling healthy and invigorated with life we thought we’d try once more to give our daughter a sibling. We are incredibly happy and grateful that life blessed us with another lil mermaid. Keeping my family happy and healthy is all the motivation I need to keep me focused. I hustle! You got to!
Life is ever challenging but that is important for me and any artist. We need to be pushed. Usually the need to pay the bills is enough to kick it in gear. That’s a classic motif of artists throughout history shared by most of the greats at one or more points in their lives. Its the same for me. I don’t paint to sell, but what I have learned is that its usually when I’m focused on my work that my art sells.
The first year I moved here was a full transition spent getting my family settled in a good spot, begin creating a new body of work, get acclimatised to the life and routines of Costa Rica, get Marin into a good school (my daughter goes to a Waldorf School in our community, and there are about 6 or 7 private international schools in our area).
There were lots of expenses but I made very little money on art or book sales and pretty soon we were tapping into and depleting the little savings we had after the expensive move, and things got pretty stressful. Fortunately, I made a few big art sales back in the states which helped our cause considerably for a time, and my wife Petrice started working as a massage therapist again, finding more and more local clients. By our second year here, 2014/15, things had stabilized a bit. I had started to sell more of my art locally to some collectors, opened a gallery in Tamarindo with a handful of other local, international artists and we settled into a routine and familiarity with this new life.
I’m currently working on some commissions, as well as my own evolving body of paintings and sculptures. It’s been a crazy year anticipating the birth of our second child, moving into a new house, and trying to keep everything flowing and the bills paid. Right now I couldn’t be more grateful that I have been selling. The timing couldn’t have been better and I’ve had probably my most successful year selling my art in a long time. I’d like to think that’s due to the “truth” in what Im creating, always a good meter for any artist trying to figure out what to do next. People are feeling what I’m making and are finding a way to make it part of their own life. I am so grateful that people enjoy my work. I love my collectors! It’s a special relationship… mutually beneficial.
In addition to my painting and fine art, I am still in the process of publishing my second book, SURF STORY Vol.2, the follow up to the massive SURF STORY book, the 440 page coffee table book I self-published in 2009. Together, the two books feature over 200 iconic and relevant artist/surfers from a multitude of genres over 5 generations. It features their art, personal story and their own “surf story”. Literally it’s the largest collection of surf inspired art and surf stories ever collected. Volume 2 is at the printer waiting for the green light and will hopefully be released next year sometime. V2 is even more massive than the first, at 540 pages and features artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, writers, entrepreneurs and icons.
Over that past 8 years I’ve started shaping surfboards. The surfer, designer and sculptor in me really needed to express itself and its been a wonderful new platform to explore. I have had some great tutors in this craft, first and for most, David Pu’u, who has shaped 20,000 or so boards, at least. I’ve been lucky to have had his fine-tuned creative mind at my disposal, as well as a range of supporting theory and approach from Mike Minchington, Robert August, Malcolm Campbell and Dennis Ryder.
So I have been making boards down here for myself, my daughter and a growing group of friends and collectors. I shape and paint them so the have a signature “artsy” look, and they go really good in just about everything. At the moment they are primarily shortboards, real similar to the boards that MR is making… modern versions of his classic twin swallow tails from the ’70s and early ’80s, but with modern bottom contours like concaves and channels and multi fin setups. I ride mine as twin, thruster and quad, with all kinds of little tweaks with foil and rake. Quite simply I’m having a blast making and riding them and sharing them with others, who are digging them.
I’ve got a “pet project” that I’ve been working on as well, which is the creation of a broad based community hub for art, food, surf, family, yoga and education. This would be a significant evolution for the local community and really be a special addition to what is happening down here socially. I’m never happy with just sitting back and resting on my laurels. I’m always looking to go beyond where I’ve gone before and open doors for myself and my community, which starts locally but has the potential (always) to become broad and international.
Had any good waves lately?
Si claro! One of the big reasons I wanted to move here is the waves. There are so many great spots around and most of the past three years we’ve been living here has seen constant energy and the conditions. Well, they are more often than not, blissful. Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook or Instagram, where I do most of my social interaction, knows how good it gets and how often I am scoring some fun waves locally. I primarily surf in and around Tamarindo, Playa Grande, Avellanes and Playa Negra, with the occasional boat trip to Roca Bruja or Ollies Point (my fav), or a run down the coast to Marbella.
We get lots of offshores and groundswell, and the ocean is incredible, averaging around 84deg F. Air temp is usually between 80-90 deg F. My favorite shape that I ride is my Gaviota design, as I mentioned before. I’m 6ft2 and weigh about 175lbs. I typically ride a 5ft 6 swallowtail, 20 in. wide and about 2.5 inches thick. They have an entry single concave running into a double concave through the last half of the board. The design has 5 fin boxes and I shift from twin to thruster to Quad depending on mood or condition. These boards are extremely versatile and go well with some size and power, tube ride really well, and are incredibly fast, positive, and responsive no matter what the conditions. Simply, they go wherever you want them to. The better the surfer the further you can push them, and for the average surfer they give you more paddle, push less water, but are really easy to maneuver or just cruise.
I’m usually surfing alone, or with a handful of my local friends. Its a really popular surf tourism area, so obviously we have to share with all those who come to play, but I am often out scoring overhead, offshore conditions with just one or two buddies. I’ve got a pretty good balance in activities so I’m not that surfer who has to surf everyday. I’m patient and cherry pick my sessions when everything aligns. I quite honestly don’t ever need another surf trip… I’m living one.
You’ve had an exciting career path, including international model, surf artist, creative design, and book publishing. What are three milestones that really stand out in your life thus far?
Yea, its been an interesting path. I’ve learned so much from all of it and am really content with all that I’ve already accomplished and experienced and learned. For sure first on that list is becoming a father. It is by far the most significant and important thing that I have done and is still my most important role in life.
2nd would have to be the beginners art kit (a $20 artist kit from Aaron Brothers) that I received for my 26th birthday from a good friend, who has never given me a good answer to “why” he gave it to me. He says he had a “feeling.” The art kit was the catalyst, 3 years after graduating with a degree in Psych and Sociology, to begin painting. I honestly never thought of being an artist, or making lots of art up until that point.
Even when I received the gift I was mystified… I had no idea why he gave it to me or what to do with it. It took a few months before I broke it out and tried to paint something. It was kind of a floodgate after I began. Almost like it was charmed and it lit a fire inside of me and the rest is history.
Probably 3rd would be the creation of the first and soon, second SURF STORY books. They are pretty amazing and I’m really proud of them. Not only because they are huge and full of beauty and story, but because they celebrate the culture as a whole and hundreds of amazing surfing creatives. Its not normal for an artist to elevate those around them. We are usually so caught up in our own struggle that we don’t have time, energy or money to do much for anyone else.
My thought was that it needed to be done and that no one else would ever do it. I had the vision and the will and knew I could. I figured if I could pull it off it would elevate us all and connect us to the surf culture and beyond, celebrating what we all had contributed to what is the brick and mortar of the surfing and the culture and even the industry, when there was one. That part of it is a shadow of its former self, but the culture is as healthy as ever.
If I could pick a 4th thing it would have to be the choice to move from California and relocate to Costa Rica. It has been a wonderful time and an important evolution for me, my art and my family.
Has your relationship with the ocean always been significant? What sparked your interest in the surf scene?
For sure. I have always been enthralled with the ocean, the life within and around it and the for sure the shoreline and waves. I spent my early summers at Huntington Beach and Newport, and began playing in the waves at a very early age. First it was riding shore pound on Airmats, then when Tom Morey made the boogie board we all jumped on those. The early ’70s and ’80s I was inspired by the Lightening Bolt crew: Rory, Gerry and crew. Vans was a fledgling brand and the whole “off the wall” vibe was just too cool. We all had our Vans! And I dreamed about surfing.
The older I got and the more I grew acquainted with the magazines, SURFER and SURFING, which I would check out at the school library when I was 12 yrs old, helped fuel the fire. 1982/83 was when I got my first subscriptions. Its was Potts on the cover flashing double peace signs while parked in a Cave Rock barrel… so iconic!
It was watching Bill Delaney’s FREERIDE with Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards at Honolua, OTW and Backdoor and Rabbit at home in Oz. Then PERFORMERS with an epic soundtrack, and the new wave, Tom Curren, Richard Cram, Wes Laine, Willy Morris, Marvin Foster etc…. it was Chris Bystrom with BLAZING BOARDS and Herbie Fletcher and WAVE WARRIORS. This was my world. In my early teen years I was bodyboarding with my eye on stepping up and standing up like my surf heroes, but that would soon change.
Every year the OP pro would come to HB and everyone would convene and witness the drama. Sometimes in 2 foot waves, sometimes during hurricane or southern hemi swells… it didn’t matter, I loved it all! When you get to that level of inspiration you suck up every little bit… every surf video, every new film, every magazine. It’s an obsession. By the time I had my drivers license in high school, stand up surfing had begun to replace bodyboarding for me almost entirely. I loved body boarding and was pretty good, getting deeply barreled and doing some contests and competing against some of the greats, like Mike Stewart, Pat Caldwell and Ben Severson. For a while they were my heroes too, though I was never at their level. But standup surfing is the evolution and I was destined to turn my back on bodyboarding outside of the occasional blackball day in Newport when its firing, empty and surfboards are banned… you can’t just let those empty waves go unattended!
By the time I was 17 the bodyboard was in the closet and I was fully committed. I went from my 5ft 10in McCoy single fin to a brand new 6ft 4 INFINITY thruster, squash tail shaped by Chris Hawk. I got boards from Shawn Stussy (and later, Ludwig Abrahmian, Blake Case and Mike Estrada) after that and that’s when I started designing art for, and eventually painting, my boards. This was 10 years before I actually started making “art” and paintings. So little-by-little I became more and more ingrained into the life of a surfer and intertwined into the culture.
The real evolution for me came when I started making my own art in the late 90s after college and while I was modeling and traveling around the world.
As an artist your styles span so many genres. We love the simplicity of pieces like “Marin Surfer” and then there’s the wild, raw energy in pieces like “J-Bay”, where you can almost feel the African sun on your face.
Who in the art world do you look up to, and how do you decide which styles to use for your next work of art?
Thank you! Those are fun pieces! I really enjoy my work… I think some artists are dissatisfied with what they produce and can become tortured. I’m so glad I’m not one of them. I guess I could say that I have always painted and created for myself and my sensibilities.
I ‘m not trying to please anyone, just satisfy my own desires. I love to cook too, and have been since long before I was making “art”. Cooking is a lot like painting … I think, “hmmnn, what would be really good to make?” or have an inspiration for a meal based on something I saw, or ate or felt and I would just go for it.
It’s the same with my art… I think, “Oohhh that would be cool!” I think that because I had no formal art education or training and am entirely self taught that my style or styles are unimpeded by “art school” or any formal training or apprenticeship. I think that that is what allowed me to just explore the creative energy that was growing inside me. Once the floodgates opened in my late 20’s I didn’t try to stifle it, just tried to express what was coming out in the moment.
It felt and still feels very much like channeling something or someone else. I have no idea how and where it comes from but just try to empty my mind and allow it to come through me. For sure I am and always have loved art but just never studied it or thought it was something that I would or could do. But I have always loved some of the masters like Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Dali and Van Gogh early on. Later I grew enamored with Surf art via Ken Auster, Rick Griffin and John Severson, but this was still before I was actually making art.
I actually began to collect some fine art editions from Ken, and even attempted to commission him to make me a painting. This was in the mid ‘90s, after college, when I was modeling and had some expendable cash. I think Ken was a little uninspired with my idea for a painting which was of a secret spot in Baja that I loved. I was a little disappointed and I think that, in part, eventually led me along the path to make my own.
I had always been interested and involved in taking pictures and shooting movies. I grew up with a camera in my hand and experimented with the little super8 film cameras with fun results since before I was 10. When I eventually started making my own paintings and drawings they were often drawn or inspired from my own photos. Other times they were inspired from surf magazines or images that I was exposed to. As my painting progressed I became more interested in art history and started collecting art books and soaking it all up. I found so much in common with the stories and art of so many great artists that I felt I was destined to become part of that community and brotherhood. It seemed so natural for me and I felt like I could understand each painting and the personal stories and struggles of the artists.
I guess I drew a lot of inspiration and feeling from all these different artists that I connected with and over the following years I became much more interested and aware of other artists, their styles, techniques and stories. It was through this process that I understood my calling and role in life. The ease at which I created was surprising to me and that was undeniable. It happened in my late 20s, after college. You figure by that time in life you know yourself pretty well and that there are no big surprises. Well, to be honest, I was pretty blown away at what I could do artistically. I just had no idea and never thought at any point that I wanted to make art or be an artist. So that realization and confidence drew me down the path of being an artist, even though I knew that it was possible that I’d be a starving artist.
So to some extent I feel like my art draws from the best of all the art and artists that move me and what I create. I think there is a little bit of so many great artists spinning around inside me. All I do is open a little creative valve when the time is right and magic seems to happen. It still blows me away that I can do what I do and I create what I create. I often feel like a passenger and am being driven somewhere by something distinctly me, but not me. Weird and cool…comforting.
Do you have a creative process or does the art happen spontaneously? Do you seek inspiration or do you have more than enough ideas?
I think my thoughts above tackle this one a bit. I guess I’ll add that I am inspired by life…What I see, what I feel and the life I experience. I paint when I am inspired but am constantly coming up with ideas for art and projects and designs. I have 1000s of unrealized paintings and ideas floating around in my brain. Sometimes I’ll pick one out…maybe its something that I’ve been thinking about or just came up with… there is no rhyme or reason. Some people think that I must paint everyday because I have so much work, but that’s far from the truth. I paint when I feel “it” or have to get something out. Sometimes I don’t paint anything for weeks… other times I’m doing a couple pieces a day or working on 4 or 5 at a time. I work very organically and I think that’s probably a good description for my art and my process… Organic. Inspiration comes through my life and all the things I find inspiring. When you look at my art you see who I am. So many artists create a body of work that doesn’t say a lot about who they are and how they feel, but I think my work is a real window into who I am and my life as surfer, artist, father, husband and human.
You’ve traveled loads, and now reside in Costa Rica, which is a dream. What are some of your favorite surf locations, and what do you love about home?
It is a dream! Its wonderful and challenging and a great place to live how we live and do what I do. I’d say that Ollie’s Point is my soul spot. It’s the place that I’d like my ashes to be laid when my time on earth is done. The boards I make are the perfect vehicle for that place and I’ve shared so many incredible days up there with people I care about and given them that “gift” of a day a surfing there.
Outside of that, of course I love Roca Bruja and had been blissfully barreled over and over. The sandbar in Tamarindo was really good for the first 2.5 years we lived here and I’ve had so many incredible sessions out there when it’s firing, and so many when its tiny and perfect teaching my daughter how to surf. We’ve shared so many daddy daughter days there and my family (wife, wolves and friends) would also chill there all the time. Unfortunately the river/estuary has changed and eroded the beach and the classic sandbar barrels are long gone. Hopefully they will come back in the future and bring the big beautiful beach that once was.
As for the rest of the spots between Playa Grande and Nosara…too many good ones and I’m gonna keep the specifics to a minimum, as they are already crowded enough. Not that Witch’s Rock and Ollies aren’t crowded but they are world famous thanks to ENDLESS SUMMER 2.
What I love about my home…Oh man! List is long. First thing is that the ocean here is perfect, the water is womb-like, warm and welcoming, salty and clean. There is so much beauty and life here…everything grows! That goes for family and community too. There is so much diverse culture here in addition to the Tico culture, so it’s almost utopian. All these people and their families here for a better, purer, simpler life. Each brings the best of who they are from their home country so that food, art and culture are super rich. We all want good schools for our kids, so then schools grow and flourish and we have lots of choices for every family. We are a lot freer here. It’s like the US was back when I grew up in the ‘70s and 80s, and there weren’t so many rules and regulations, and you could live the way you want without being told what you can and can’t do.
The cost of living isn’t cheap here. Some think that Costa Rica is cheap. It is not! The surrounding countries are much more inexpensive, but I would never live anywhere else. The life is rich and the lifestyle is full. We live a life of a family that is much more financially well off and that’s just fine by me. It’s not an easy life and you have to hustle and bring the best you have and try to turn it into a livelihood. Many fail to make the transition and head back to there native countries unable to support a lifestyle, but if you can make it work it truly a magical place.
How do you see your style evolving and what’s the future of surf creativity? Do you think mediums will start to merge in the digital era?
I’m not sure how different my evolution will go. I think that I’ve found my “future” here and at least for the moment we feel that this is the place that we want to raise our family and that is “home”. I think that I will continue to do what I do and hopefully I will realize my dream of a creative and community hub that would be a blend of art, food, culture, health, surf and family.
This area needs a communal meeting place and I have a vision for this that includes all that I know and do. I am an entrepreneur at heart and my creativity lives on so many different levels so my routine never gets boring or old. I’m always working and playing on so many diverse projects with so many different people and companies. I think the future will see me doing more of the same …making art, books, food, surfboards…as well I will be teaching art and consulting on design and marketing, curating galleries with all my artist friends, touring art shows with all the SURF STORY Project artists, and building my dream down here.
But most importantly, at least to me, I hope to be deeply involved in my growing family, helping my daughters become all that they can be, and supporting them in their own creative adventures and life path so that they become independent, happy and healthy.
As for the digital era goes, for me and others like me, I think the greatest role that it has is via social media and the medium of interconnectivity that it provides. I literally make my living selling my wares and marketing my brand and life via the inter web and my presence on Facebook and Instagram alone, balanced by my website, which now is just a back up and conduit for a older body of work and what I had done up until my move to CR.
I guess I see its greatest significance now and in the future to empower us to be able to digitally represent, market and sell online. It’s freedom. I don’t have a ton of galleries selling my work. I work with a handful of people I like and mostly sell my own work. It blows my mind that I’m able to make a decent living this way. There’s so much more I could do, but just as it is, it’s enough.
You’re given the opportunity to go on a surf trip with three people (historical figures included) to anywhere on earth. Where would you go, and who would you be surfing with?
Impossible question with a million answers. I have no idea. Let me pick out of a hat…
Day at Ollie’s point when its ON and nobody but us… I’m assuming that “anybody” means anybody and that for the sake of this question they surf…Obama, Kelly Slater and my dad.
Obama… because there are so many things I want to know and talk to him about… like him or not he’s an incredibly deep, intelligent man who has led the US through one of the craziest, most uncertain times in modern history. Boy I bet he’s got some good stories! I’m all about good stories.
Slater… because I would love to watch him surf that wave and love to swap boards with him and see him ride one of my shapes there. He and I have a lot of the same passions, surfing and golf being the most obvious. He’s got an “artist soul”, having expressed that creativity on so many different levels. I am a fan and would love to spend the time with him just talking life, surfboard design, culture, art, golf, politics, theology, sociology… and just hanging out.
My Dad… because I miss him dearly and couldn’t think or anyone I would rather spend a day with. Plus we got lots of catching up to do. Hopefully he’s watching his son and granddaughters grow up. Hopefully he’s proud of me.
What keeps you passionate and motivated? Any words of advice for creative people afraid to follow their dreams?
My life, family and friends are all I need. Being a father. Having been given such a gift in the talent I have been blessed with, I couldn’t live with myself if I squandered it. I never asked for this life, but it is such a blessing and I’m so grateful that my life “found me” and that I had the courage to embrace it and go into that great uncertainty.
It’s the most difficult thing I have ever attempted, to make a life with a family as an artist, but by far the best thing I could have ever asked for. I am motivated and inspired with the ability to make the world a better place and inspire others by what I do or what I create. It’s subtle but powerful and it is the secret to life.
To anyone who feels deep down that they “must” do anything… you owe it to yourself to give it everything you have and more before you say quits. There is great truth in art. If you are deserving of that life, things will fall into place to make it happen. If there is truth in what you create, “they will come” to use a line from Field of Dreams. It’s true. I swear by it and mentor so many young and old artists alike in respect to this. And like any good surf trip…you never know unless you go.
How can people connect with you and find out more?
The best place to see what Im working on and contacting me is on Facebook or Instagram. I post the latest Everyday on INSTAGRAM @Havassy_Art and on FACEBOOK. My personal page is my primary conduit: ROBB HAVASSY (I have additional pages due to the 5000 maximum friend limit), so check out HAVASSY ART and SURF STORY PROJECT.
My website is HavassyArt.com
Thanks Robb, we can’t wait to see what you create next.
PURA VIDA! Thanks for sharing my work.