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The Story of Imperial Beach's Iconic Surfhenge and the Artist that Brought it to Life, Malcolm Jones.

Sep 09, 2018 01:37PM ● By Paul Spear

Imperial Beach's Iconic Surfhenge and the Artist that Brought it to Life, Malcolm Jones.

Visitors to Imperial Beach often have their photos taken in front of it. Residents know it's an iconic part of Imperial Beach. Yet few know the name of the art, the story behind it, or how it came to be part of Imperial Beach- almost by accident.  Or, the artist that made it. 

Surfhenge is the name of the art piece that sits at the entrance to Portwood Pier Plaza and the Imperial Beach Pier. The project was commissioned by the Port of San Diego in 1997. The artist, Malcolm Jones, now an Imperial Beach resident, was living in La Jolla at the time. 

Malcolm Jones grew up with visions of being a rocket scientist and was well on his way- entering Harvard University in 1969 as a physics major studying quantum mechanics. But, a 3rd grade after school program where he learned about the art of mixing colors put on by RISD, the Rhode Island Institute of Design was to change his life in a way he never had anticipated. After 3rd grade, art became a regular part of his life as a hobby. At school, he turned to art classes to lighten the load from a grueling schedule of quantum mechanics related classes. This was especially true at Harvard were the pressure put on students to be successful is very demanding. It was while taking an art class at Harvard to escape from those grueling classes that he met a student of Josef Albers who was teaching an art class at Harvard at the time. Albers- a German-born American artist and educator whose work, both in Europe and in the United States, formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the twentieth century. It was Albers demonstrations with colored squares being surrounded by other colored squares and how it changes a person’s perception of the color inside the square where Malcolm saw all his loves blending together. It was Albers’ influence and teaching that turned a boy with dreams of being a rocket scientist to a young man that shocked his parents one day with the announcement that he was changing his major to Visual Studies. Malcolm, you see, had discovered the rhythmic dance between art and color with mathematics and science and a way to merge his enjoyment of colors and art with his keen sense of math and science.

him to a friend at UCLA, Professor Vasa Mihich. Vasa worked with colored acrylic plastic (Plexiglas) and how colors reacted to those materials. Vasa taught Malcolm the ins and out of the business end of the art world while Malcolm was there-how to deal with art galleries and museums.

In 1973, he moved on to an up and coming art community, Venice, California. In the early 70’s Venice was a dive but it was starting to become pricy. The bikers were on the way out. The hippies were game. Venice was now a colony of young and upcoming artists and art galleries. 

Venice was a great place for Malcolm at the time, he had an art studio in a garage and a place to show off his work. His work was now transparent colored art pieces he was making out of plexiglass.

He wasn’t alone in Venice, there were other up and coming artists there such as James Turrell, Larry Bell, and Duane Valentine. But Venice was temporary, his college girlfriend from Harvard had followed him to UCLA. After 2 years as a starving artist, they went back to Boston and were married. But after a large winter storm that hit Boston his wife got an offer to move to San Diego to continue her work as a biochemist and Malcolm ended up in San Diego's trendy La Jolla. A perfect place for an up and coming artist. Malcolm had his art displayed and sold in galleries there while he worked out of various studios and garages and continued mastering his art of blending colors into plexiglass.

In 1996, he ventured into public art for the first time- bidding on art projects for the Port of San Diego who ran the San Diego Airport's Lindbergh Field at the time. The Port had requested 17 Art proposals for their Airport Expansion Project. He bid on 5 projects (or RFPs) they had out and ended up being chosen to do one. However, the Port ended up only funding 16 of the projects and the one project Malcolm had won had been put on hold. It was a hard lesson. He had spent considerable time and expense bidding on the 17 projects and continued to wait hoping one day the County would decide to finally fund his Art Proposal. He called them and waited, repeatedly.

One day to his surprise, during one of his numerous phone calls check in to see if his project was going to be funded Malcolm was told by the Port they had a project in Imperial Beach that they thought he would be perfect for. The Port and Imperial Beach were looking for an art piece for the Pier Plaza and the last proposal, a rock with an old man sitting on it was going nowhere. Malcolm was brought in and the rest is history.

Malcolm's proposal for the Pier Plaza was chosen and Surfhenge came to be. After that was completed, the plaza still seemed to be missing something and Malcolm proposed benches designed after historic surfboards. And, as the professional he is, he not only did the surfboard benches but with every one of the 10 original surfboard benches there is a plaque in front telling the history of Big Wave surfing in the Imperial Beach Sloughs. Over by the Dempsey Holder Safety Center you’ll find a bench dedicated to Dempsey Holder, the “Dean of the Sloughs” with the bench a design of his famous Red Dot Surfboard and the plaque telling of Dempsey first riding the Big Waves of the Sloughs in 1937 in suffers from around the world coming to meet him at the Lifeguard tower that was originally at Palm Avenue The bench closest to the IB Pier is referred to by Malcolm as the Mayor’s Bench since the plaque contains a quote from IB Mayor Serge Dedina. Other benches contain the names of big wave surfers who traveled to Imperial Beach to take their shot at riding the big waves at the Sloughs in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Legends like Buzzy Bent, Phil Edwards, John Elwell, and Jeff “Spiderman” Knox. Another containing local legends that surfed the Sloughs during that same period. Names like Jack “Woody” Ekstrom, Jim Voit , Buddy Hull, and more.

Malcolm later went on to do another very important public art pieces in Mission Beach dedicated to the infamous “Green Flash” as the art piece is named. Located at the very busy 3100 Block of Ocean Front Walk

Today Malcolm is still busy doing his art having recently put in the surfboard benches at the new Imperial Beach Library.

So next time your down at the Imperial Beach Pier Plaza, take a stroll around the plaza and check out the surfboard benches and read the plaques dedicated to the big wave surfers who surfed the Sloughs and were legends were born and enjoy the wonderful art of Imperial Beach’s Malcolm Jones.


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Paul Spear, Publisher, and Editor of Dig Imperial Beach 


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