Surf Report: Surf Instructor Just Wants to Make you Smile with Her Art

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Betsy Harris a competitive surfer, surf instructor and artist, whose work predominately features women surfers. We got a chance to ask Betsy a few questions about what inspires her surfing, her art and her passion for sharing both. For more about Betsy, and to see a selection of her playful art pieces, visit


How did you first get into surfing? What has kept you passionate about it for so long?

People usually assume that I have been surfing my whole life and as a kid, I was enamored with the ocean (so much so that I voluntarily went to summer school to take marine biology and oceanography courses), but I didn’t live close by and certainly didn’t surf. It wasn’t until age 27, in the middle of working an unfulfilling job, feeling overwhelmed with the pressures of raising a young son and several years of  weekends sitting on the beach watching a boyfriend surf that I decided there was no good reason I couldn’t be out in the water, too. It was like a tall glass of cool water to my soul the first time I took my board out, paddling away from land and into the vastness of the sea, a classic love tale of catching my first wave and falling head over heels with the entirety of it. There are so IMG_1415many beautiful aspects to surfing, catching the first glimpse of the sun peeking over the horizon on an early morning paddle out, the shimmer of the water on a warm day imitating diamonds, standing on the board and coasting along the face of wave, propelled by the energy of the ocean and drawing close to her rhythms. For me, it’s nirvana.

Can you describe your artistic style? 

Playful. I have no formal training and took up drawing and painting around the same time I took up surfing. I left my 9-5 to have more time to surf and was living on a pretty limited income. A friend’s birthday was coming up so I bought a cheap set of blank stationary and drew pictures on the cards to create a personal set for her. Encouragement from friends and family kept me going from there, exploring different mediums and making some pretty bad stuff along the way. Surfing has always featured heavily in my work as it is what I know best. There’s a lot of incredible art out there designed to spark emotion or delve deep into the psyche, but my greatest hope for my work is that it makes people smile. I like to leave the faces blank so that someone might be able to imagine themselves in the image.  

In addition to surfing and creating surf art, you also teach surfing. How has this influenced your love for surfing as well as the art you create?

Teaching brings me back to the beginning of my own surfing journey and is a constant reminder of what a delight simply standing on a surfboard is. As I progressed with my own surfing, I began to go through phases of competitiveness, with myself and others, which I think in balance can be healthy, but there’s a tipping point where it becomes unhealthy and I’ve been really hard on myself when I’ve not progressed at the pace I envisioned. Teaching young students is the ultimate reminder that at the end of the day, it’s about having fun. In my art and surfing it is my utmost priority to let an unbridled joy and playful nature permeate through, and it is largely inspired by my students. It is a special gift to be able to share something you love with others and in turn watch them grow to love it, too.

Many of your art prints feature women surfing. Why did you decide to focus on women specifically?

I think it’s really less of a conscious decision and more that I just let my heart take the lead and that is what my heart knows. There are mental and physical differences in the way that men and women approach surfing, and I hope to capture and subsequently celebrate the style and grace of women in the water. One my favorite surfer’s, Leah Dawson, said once that the ultimate compliment to her would be not that she surfed a like man, but like a woman. I try to make pieces that embody the bliss of being a woman in the water.

What is your favorite piece of art that you have made? What about it do you like about it?

sanddollarsurfseriesno1_printpageMy original sand dollar girl (Sand Dollar Surf Series No. 1 on my site) is special to me, not because it’s some amazing piece of art, but because she was the point where I sort of broke through and found an approach that I was excited about and a style that suited me well. Previously I was attempting to draw more literal renditions of waves and was making some pretty boring and uninspiring stuff. She was my most whimsical piece up to that time and really reflects how I want to approach art, surfing and life in general, openly and playful.


How welcoming are surfing communities to women surfers in your experience?

In my personal experience, as one of a literal handful of women surfers at the spot I frequent the most, I’ve always been treated well and I’m really grateful for it. I’ve witnessed first hand and read countless stories of women in other areas not receiving the warm welcome I did.  A more pervasive issue in regards to the women’s surfing experience in general is their portrayal in surf media. 

There are still far too many ads that feature a scantily clad woman laying on a towel while her boyfriend surfs or films where the first shot you will see of a female surfer is a slow pan of her backside as she paddles out. A man would never be filmed that way. There is a prominent east coast surfing magazine that still has a monthly ‘Girl’ feature, literally a feature of a woman modeling in a string bikini for men to ogle. There has been some growth over the last 10 years though and I’ve come across more and more women making really good surf media for women, but the girls I teach are between the ages of 7 and 12, and it’s pretty challenging for me to find articles or video clips that I think are appropriate and that I would be comfortable with them emulating. I certainly don’t want any of them to think they’re only worth an eye candy photo in a magazine. 

It seems like your whole family are avid surfers. Can you talk about sharing the experience of surfing with your family?

 The best part of being a surfing family is not getting funny looks when you get up at 5 am for a dawn patrol and that no one complains when you surf past dinner time. It probably isn’t for everyone, but with my partner and I running a surf school together and being very committed to our personal surfing, our routine revolves around the ocean and her moods. Everything else is scheduled around the best conditions and thankfully we both like it that way. My son was raised this way and while his own passions have grown to lie elsewhere, I hope it’s been a good example that success comes in many forms.

What’s your big-picture dream for your art? Where do you hope your artistic pursuits will lead you?

That’s a great question! I should ask myself that sometime. Honestly, I have no idea. Having no formal training, I didn’t even consider myself a ‘real’ artist until 2015 when I was asked to do the art for a women’s surfing event. Today I still get nervous every time I put a piece out.  I’m inspired by companies and individuals that hold themselves to high ethics and give back generously to the world. I’m incredibly grateful to have found surfing which, along with the wonders of the beach and ocean, is not only inspiration for my art, but also my place for spiritual renewal. I would like to give back to people, places and things that have brought me here, so I’m currently looking to partner with non-profits in the surf and environmental communities and offer a percentage of proceeds from Slide into Stoke to support their efforts. I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be kicking this idea off by donating 50% of proceeds from Slide into Stoke for the month of September to Sisters of the Sea, who will be hosting their 19th Annual Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic, an all women’s surf contest, on September 16th and raising money for Bosom Buddies of Jacksonville.

Of course if any gallery owners are reading this and are interested in having some of my prints, I’d love that too.