Swell Women: Life, art and surfing come full circle for Letty Nowak


By Will Bowen

From the window of Letty Nowak’s art studio/apartment you can see the waves gently breaking in the blue-green waters off WindanSea Beach. “I just love going to sleep to the sound of the waves,” she said. “I have never lived in a place that is so alive!”

WindanSea Beach is a major inspiration for Nowak’s new series of 100 portrait paintings, titled “The Faces of Surfing,” which can be viewed at the La Jolla Art Association Gallery, 8100 Paseo del Ocaso in La Jolla Shores from April 23 to May 6.

Nowak has chosen some of the top names in the surfing industry as the subject of her series — surfers like San Diego’s Skip Frye, Cardiff’s Bob Machado, and local world champion Debbie Beacham.

She is also painting images of surf industry tycoons like Rob Hurley of Hurley Industries, Paul Naude of Billabong and Bob McKnight of Quicksilver.

Nowak’s portraits are unusually large (sometimes up to 4 by 5 feet), always frontal, and very colorful.

Sometimes her style seems to verge on characterization. Her images are both bold and striking, and the eyes of her subjects are unique in the way they seem to behold the onlooker with a certain acceptance and benevolence.

But Nowak said she really isn’t after a representation of the person. She’s not out to capture their spirit, essence or character. Instead, her portraits are vehicles for abstract painting.

“I want my paintings to speak as loud as the people I paint. I see my paintings as 
abstract pieces, blocks of color, which come together to create the recognizable image of a face. I work to make each piece more and more about the actual painting, through my marks and color, even more than the subject I am portraying.”

Nowak grew up in South Haven, Michigan, where the countryside is hilly and filled with farms and lakes. Her family lived on the shores of Gull Lake, but in the summer they packed up and moved an hour away to Lake Michigan, where her dad ran several surf shops. In Michigan, people surf lake waves that are brought on by storms and the wind.

As a youngster, Nowak was influenced toward the arts by her father, who was also a part-time sign painter and printmaker. She said he taught her the basics of form, line, color and composition.

After high school, Nowak went to college at Michigan State University in East Lansing. But she did not like being away from the water, so she joined the crew team. In her senior year, her art teacher gave her class the assignment of drawing 250 portraits in a single weekend. She was hooked from there on.

Now her portraits are literally all over her apartment, except for her bedroom. “I just could not sleep with those faces looking at me,” she joked.

About 14 months ago, Nowak moved to La Jolla “just for the inspiration,” but once a month she flies back to her other art studio in Key West, Fla., where she paints and runs the three surf shops that she owns. She has a book of portraits out, “The Faces of Key West,” and has done another series of urban landscape paintings that depict nearby Stock Island.

Nowak says her artistic influences are Lucian Freud, for his painterly style of portraits; Alex Katz, for his simplicity; and David Hockney, for his use of color. While in the midst of a painting, she said she often consults the work of these sources.

Nowak’s typical schedule is to get up, go surfing, and then do some yoga. After that, she said she works for 4-8 hours on her paintings.

Besides surfing and yoga, Nowak likes Iron Man Triathlons. She believes that a balance between the active life and the arts is important. “Sports calm my mind down enough so that I can paint.”