Coast Life

Icons of Santa Cruz: The centurion of West Cliff Drive

The iconic surfer statue on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Who are the people and what are the places or things that are immediately identifiable with Santa Cruz County? Our county’s longest-serving journalist, Wallace Baine, launches Lookout’s new series with a deep dive on the history of our most recognizable icon: the surfer statue.


The famed surfer statue on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz is about to turn 30. And like most people in that stage of life, the young man immortalized in bronze has matured a bit, but he’s still looking good.

But what do you get a guy for a landmark birthday who needs little and asks for even less? A hat? Sure, he has had plenty of those over the years and is likely to receive a few more, as well as necklaces, Hawaiian leis, wristwatches, all sorts of offerings laid at his feet. Given that he’s obviously the strong silent type, we can only infer what he would really want for his birthday.

How about a name?

Solely for the purposes of the following portrait of Santa Cruz’s widely admired and instantly identifiable surfer statue, which has become a meaningful symbol for all Santa Cruzans, surfers or not, let’s call him “Wes Clift” (younger brother of movie star Montgomery Clift, maybe?).

He was “born” in the spring of 1992 — officially erected and unveiled at the spot where West Cliff meets Pelton Avenue — which technically makes him a millennial. But the image that the statue is designed to evoke is much older than that. In fact, if Wes were flesh and blood, and not bronze and concrete, he’d likely be in his 90s.

The statue is explicitly dedicated to all surfers, past, present and future, in Santa Cruz and elsewhere. But its impetus, the reason it exists in the first place, comes by way of the surviving members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club, a pioneering group of headstrong and athletic young men who first established the Westside of Santa Cruz as a prime surf spot in the 1930s and ’40s. It was the artist’s intention that anyone gazing up at the statue would be peering into that golden past.

A community can be measured by what it chooses to put upon a pedestal. And our friend Wes is a lasting testament to how Santa Cruz has come to view surfing. From the professionals to the newbies, from the lifers to the weekenders, surfing in this town is more than a pastime, or an exercise, or a means to have fun. It’s a way of life.

Done well, it is a practice — often a lifelong one and, yes, even a spiritual one. It contains the best of what sports and athletics can offer: the opportunity to push yourself to achieve your best potential. But it also allows for something that the often arbitrary and overly manicured world of sports does not: the chance to harmonize with vast and powerful natural forces utterly indifferent to human achievement.

In the eyes of locals and visitors alike, the Santa Cruz surfer statue somehow captures that essence. There are several other surfer statues in California. In Huntington Beach, the “Nude Dude” statue depicts a naked guy in the curl of a cresting wave. Another, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, north of San Diego, often called the “Cardiff Kook,” catches a surfer in a show-offy pose that is widely unpopular in the surf community there.


The artists’ vision

But the Santa Cruz surfer is designed to conjure up a nobility, almost classical in nature. The figure is the work of veteran sculptor Thomas Marsh, a longtime San Franciscan who now lives and works in Virginia. “I wanted it to be referential to other time periods,” said Marsh in a phone interview, “like the idea of a guardian or a centurion. There’s certainly classical Greco-Roman overtones in it, but there are also samurai figures represented in Eastern sculpture that are standing with this kind of intense stability.”

Marsh has created a number of monuments in his career, many of them religious in nature. In fact, a few of Marsh’s creations are close neighbors of the surfer statue. Right across the street, at the Shrine of St. Joseph Guardian and Redeemer Catholic church, are several of Marsh’s religious works, including the statue of 19th-century bishop St. Joseph Marello, the church’s namesake. St. Joseph and Wes are close enough to toss a football back and forth, if they were so inclined.

Marsh is insistent that the statue is not his alone. Indeed, the 7-foot base on which Wes stands is the work of Santa Cruz artist Brian Curtis, a friend and former student of Marsh. The surfboard in the sculpture was designed and shaped by David Steward and Bill Grace of the original Surfing Club, meant to be true to the boards of the era. But the young man depicted is purely Marsh’s creation.

“The idea was that this would be a particular figure pulled right from that postcard,” said Marsh, in reference to a well-known photo of the Surfing Club standing on Cowell Beach with their homemade longboards. “It’s a boy, late teens, 1937, ’38, who is about to become tested as a man, but standing and looking at the distance, seeing into the future perhaps.” (You might assume that Wes is looking to the west, but, thanks to the peculiar geography of the cliffs, he is actually looking almost due south.)

Since the statue’s unveiling, much speculation has centered on whom the young man is modeled after, whether it’s a particular person in the Surfing Club, or perhaps a likeness of famed East Side surfer Jay Moriarity (Moriarity would have been a middle schooler when Marsh was making the piece, so the math doesn’t quite work there). Marsh said his model was the 20-year-old son of a friend, a surfer and soccer player who grew up two blocks from the ocean in San Francisco. “He had that look of the guys in the postcard,” said Marsh.

To further enhance the look, Marsh made a request of the young man: “I told him, ‘Can you go find a really elderly barber?’ This was 1989, 1990. I asked him to find an elderly barber who could give him a Charles Lindbergh haircut. And he did!”

Marsh’s sculpture attained a kind of universality that allows for misidentifications. At the statue’s unveiling in May 1992, Marsh spoke. While addressing the crowd, he asked if his model were present. “About 10 hands went up,” laughed Marsh. The actual model wasn’t there that day.

The surfer statue on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)


A lasting legacy

One of those who feels a particular kinship to the statue is Bob Rittenhouse Sr. At 95, Rittenhouse is one of only two surviving members of the 1936 Santa Cruz Surfing Club (along with 98-year-old Harry Mayo). The statue is not only an homage to the pioneering surfers of the Club, but it’s a product of their efforts as well. As Rittenhouse remembers it, some time back in the mid-1980s, the surviving members of the Surfing Club — about a quarter of the original core had passed away by that time — held a bash celebrating surfing at the Cocoanut Grove, during which they raised a few thousand dollars in donations.

Rittenhouse’s eyes sparkle as he conjures up the memory sitting in his beautiful beachside home near Black’s Beach. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we put a statue out on the cliffs somewhere?’ I was thinking something to commemorate surfers for a long time. Someone said, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Why don’t you be chairman?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to be chairman. That sounds too much like work.’”

In fact, Rittenhouse and fellow Club member Doug Thorne became co-chairs of the effort. Clubbers Mayo, Grace, Steward, Alex Pedemonte, Bob Gillies and Hal Goody also volunteered to get the plan moving. When the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum opened in 1986, Santa Cruz seemed ready to embrace surfing’s legacy and the time was right for the statue idea to find traction.

Surf community activist and business owner Barney Langner Jr. was recruited to help with fundraising and organizing, and a selection committee was drafted to seek out artists and designs. About two dozen artists submitted maquettes, or models, of possible statue designs. Many groups and nonprofits, from the Santa Cruz Longboard Union to the Pleasure Point Night Fighters, got involved. Five maquettes were chosen as finalists and displayed in the window of Gottschalk’s department store on Pacific Avenue. The public was asked to vote on its favorite.

Two of those five finalists were submissions from Brian Curtis and Thomas Marsh. Curtis is a Santa Cruz native, born at the Sisters Hospital (a 10-minute walk from the present site of the statue in what is now a parking lot across from the Dream Inn). He was living on the East Coast at the time, but his family sent him newspaper clippings on the search for submissions. He approached Marsh, from whom he had taken an art class at Cal State Long Beach, with an idea for a collaboration. The Curtis/Marsh team submitted three maquettes. “I thought we had a pretty good shot at it,” Curtis said.

When the final design had been chosen, the effort was turned to raising the $60,000 needed to build and erect the statue. O’Neill Wetsuits donated T-shirts, the sale of which brought the project two-thirds of the way to its goal.


‘Why do you have to gild the lily?’

There were arguments and controversies about the proposed statue, its design, its size, and where it might be placed. At one point, the city council voted down a proposal for the statue, believing it to be too big and unsafe.

“Nothing can be uncontroversial in Santa Cruz,” said Mike Rotkin, who served two separate stints on the city council in the 1980s and ’90s but was not part of the council that voted down the original statue proposal. “I do remember some of the objections. First of all, some people just don’t like statues generally. You know, ‘It’s a natural environment. Why do you have to gild the lily?’ A couple of people raised questions about why it had to be a man, and not a woman or something more androgynous. Like anything in Santa Cruz, there were those who were not happy with it for one reason or another, but they were certainly in a small minority.”

Today, 30 years after it was erected at Pelton and West Cliff, “Wes” is as emblematic of Santa Cruz as any other image around town. He’s used in posters and flyers for events and causes. He’s constantly selfie-ed and Photoshopped. And he serves as a kind of barometer of the seasons. In October, the handsome young surfer is often obscured by a jack-o'-lantern on his head. At Christmastime, he wears a Santa hat. Someone is always stepping forward to outfit him as a commentary on the times. At the beginning of the pandemic, he was spotted wearing a surgical mask. During the devastating fires of 2020, against a backdrop of a sickly orange sky, he wore a firefighter’s helmet.

It is within the purview of the city’s parks and recreation department to maintain and protect the statue from everything from graffiti to bird droppings. But there are plenty of others looking out for Wes as well, those who police how he’s dressed and what is left at his feet. Both the city and the statue’s defenders tolerate much of what is left on the statue, if it’s done in the name of good taste.

Kim Stoner of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society said, “You don’t know how many times I’ve hauled my ladder out there over the years, just to take stuff off that statue.” Stoner, one of maybe a half dozen people who serve as the statue’s volunteer watchdogs, is fine with Santa hats and Hawaiian leis. But anything political, commercial, or off-color will be taken down as soon as possible.

“We remove things periodically,” said parks and recreation director Tony Elliot. “But if it’s related to a holiday or something, there’s a level of acceptance of that in the Santa Cruz spirit.”

There are, of course, many statues and monuments that are never festively decorated, or get the attention that the surfer statue gets. Carol Scurich worked at parks and recreation for 30 years before her retirement in 2019. For years, she watched how the community interacted with the statue. “People generally really respect and revere the surf statue,” she said. “It’s a symbol of our community, and it’s about something more than surfing. It something that really resonates and it’s just a source of great pride.”

Often, attitudes regarding monuments change over time as they became part of the lived-in environment. What is controversial at its inception often becomes a beloved totem of the community. Bob Rittenhouse said that years after the statue was finally completed, one of those on the city council who had voted against it expressed regret at that decision. The councilmember apologized and told Rittenhouse, “The statue is beautiful. I love it.”

“I think that’s the only time I’ve ever heard a politician admit they made a mistake,” said Rittenhouse.

Thomas Marsh, the creator of the statue, got his commission to create the religious icons at the Shrine of St. Joseph after the surf statue was built and erected. He said that the church’s pastor was inspired by the surfer across the street.

Marsh today is a deeply religious man. He said that in the years just prior to creating the surfing statue in Santa Cruz, “I had come back from a period of atheism to a belief in God. So my mindset was very much on what it must be like to be in that deep water and feel this awesome power of a wave over which you have no control, except to follow it. And I was very much thinking in those terms (during the creation of the statue). I have such tremendous respect for surfers, because how many people can really experience the power of nature in that way? It’s a rare experience.”