The Life of an Artist
San Clemente legend Bill Stewart began his surfing career in South Florida at the age of 12, and became hooked. Born in Bowling Green Kentucky, Bill’s father relocated the family to South Florida where he was hired as the vice president of a newspaper.
In Bill’s words, “My father was the hillbilly red neck type from Kentucky, we lived in a 900 square foot house, and had 4 kids; I’m pretty sure we weren’t rich.”
Bill found his love for surfing because of his love for exploring. Whether it was racing motorcycles, skating, swimming pools, or waterskiing barefoot on a lake – Bill tried every dangerous extreme sport he could find. In school, Bill’s curious mind wandered from the curriculum, leading one teacher to write on his report card, “Billy doesn’t listen and follow directions.” In first grade, Bill was identified as an artist and began painting murals for teachers at the school. Even back then the teachers knew, “Billy ain’t right.”
Although Bill wasn’t much of a student in the classroom, his love for learning manifested in inventions. A true artist, Bill has always been interested in stylistic and unusual things. Bill is one of the most nonconformist, paint outside the lines kind of person you could meet. Bill’s nonconformist personality and creative mind gained the attention of his peers in high school, as he was voted best artist his senior year.
After doing his time in high school, Bill’s father offered him a dream job on a silver platter, an offer to be the newspaper’s cartoonist, but Bill had his eyes on California. Bill saved up $500 to buy a van and chase his California dream with a friend from the South Florida Surf Club. Arriving in Encinitas, Bill worked odd jobs and surfed his way up the coast to San Clemente. Not being able to afford the cost of living in Orange County, Bill waved his white flag and went back to Florida.
Returning to Florida, Bill enrolled at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was at this time Bill was introduced to his trademarked trade, the airbrush. Halfway into the two-year program, Bill had mastered the art of the airbrush. When he asked the professor what the next year was going to be like, his professor replied, “The same as this year, except next year we get better at it.” Infuriated and uninspired, Bill decided to leave the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Bill had a gift, his passion for art and his ability to hone his craft. At this point in his life two things were clear: he loved surfing, and he loved art. With this in mind, Bill decided to take another stab at his dreams and moved back to California. Willing to take any job near a surfboard, Bill was hired as a polisher for Rick James Surfboards. Moving his way up the surf shop hierarchy, Bill was promoted from a polisher, to a sander, to a ding repair guy for eight months before being hired by Hobie as a shaper and airbrush artist.
Bill’s ability to implement his art with the airbrush to his craftsmanship as a shaper allowed him to open Stewart’s Surf Shop in Laguna Beach in 1979. Running the whole shop by himself, Bill shaped and airbrushed boards, worked the register, and ran all operations of the shop. Due to his hard work and dedication, Bill was able to open its current location in San Clemente on El Camino Real in 1985.
Bill’s love for surfing rubbed off in the community as he shaped boards and established himself within Orange County and the surfing world. The artist turned entrepreneur made an immediate impact, becoming one of his old employer’s (Hobie), biggest competitors. After being voted Best Air brusher in Surfer Magazine, modeling for Ocean Pacific, being spotlighted by ESPN, CNN News, Forbes Magazine, Men’s Health Magazine, and an Office Depot commercial titled, Bill and the Shop, it’s safe to say the left-from-center-artist from Florida has made his mark as an innovator.
Bill extended his artistry to shaping boards for celebrities like Bon Jovi, Dire Straits and longtime friend Jimmy Buffet, while also shaping boards for historic shows like Bay Watch and 90210. And just for fun, let’s not forget Bill shaped boards in Japan for 13 years; won numerous short board and longboard competitions; innovated the three fin Hydro Hull and bevel on the rail; surfed breaks from Pipeline to Australia and was the youngest nominee for the Surfers Hall of Fame in 1993. With the sum of all these accomplishments, and Jimmy Buffett mentioning him in two songs, Bill might actually be the most interesting man in the world.
Despite all the accolades he has been awarded through his illustrious career, Bill is a humble, loving, down to earth family man. Not only a surfer and artist, Bill has words of wisdom and a great sense of humor. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he realized his brain functioned a little different than most people.
“Look outside the front there. If asked what they saw most people would say ‘palm trees.’ Of course I see palm trees, but what I immediately notice are the colors the sun creates beaming through the leaves to create a texture of yellow and green. The point being: artists see curves and colors; not grid.”
For years, friends would tell Bill of all kinds of acronyms for disorders they thought would sum up his behavior before Bill coined the term ACD, or “Artistic Compulsive Disorder.” For whatever reason, Bill’s ears love the sound of the blues harmonica, and can belt out a jazzy tune despite never having a lesson. It’s these little quirks some people consider weird that makes him who he is: an artist.