James McMillan, founder and festival director, Byron Bay Surf Festival

As he paddled off into the line-up, I stood up – and surfing changed my life ...

Few people are as in tune with the ocean as Byron Bay-based artist James McMillan. The self-taught creative has captured water and surf culture across a plethora of works, ranging from photography, literature and painting. As founder and festival director of the Byron Bay Surf Festival, James has found another outlet to channel his love of the sand, salt and surf. Ahead of the festival’s arrival on Wednesday February 20, we caught up with James to talk about his earliest memories of the ocean, highlights of the festival and what has influenced his artistic practice over the years.

Let’s take it back – what’s your earliest memory of surfing or being in the ocean?
My uncle brought back a block of Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax from Hawaii in 1978. He said, “James, smell this”. I could smell coconuts and pineapples … I was hooked on something that I didn’t realise the power of. He took me for my first surf two years later, put me in the shore break on an old single fin and said, “go for it!”. As he paddled off into the line-up, I stood up – and surfing changed my life.

What are some of the highlights of the Byron Bay Surf Festival this year?
The guests – Tom Carroll, Steph Gilmore, Mark Occhilupo, Lisa Andersen, Dave Rastovich, Lauren Hill and more. All of the events and live music are amazing this year. There’s so much rad stuff, including the women’s panel with world champs, Women: Beyond the Curl, and the Surf Legends Lounge. I can’t wait.

What sparked the idea to start the festival back in 2010?
A one-minute conversation with a friend as I hunched over an old surfboard repairing it on a farm behind Byron Bay. I was travelling around the place surfing and showing my art, so I thought, “hey, I should get my friends from overseas to all come here to Byron”.

You’re also a commended artist and published author and photographer. What are some of the major influences in your work?
Surfing and old spiritual literature. I love mystery, the unseen and I’m into unplanned expression. Tim Winton was a huge influence when I wrote Blue Yonder … I was reading Cloudstreet at the time and painting. Well, I paint nothing like Brett Whiteley, but I’ve spent many a long day in his Surry Hills studio sketching and contemplating his brushstrokes. I don’t like to paint from reality, so photography has a place.

How have you seen Byron Bay’s surf culture evolve over the past decade?
It’s always been very alternative. The big brands have come to town but they’re usually a year behind the core movement of surfing, art and culture because they need to organise and plan things. Derek Hynd came up the mountain to my Mullumbimby studio in 2006 with a finless board. It took everyone else … well, they’re still catching up.

What’s your weapon (surfboard) of choice?
I grew up riding shortboards in Cronulla and started longboarding up here in 2006. There are always at least three boards in my truck. My 5’10″ D’Arcy Quad, my 5’8″ DMS Fish and my 9’1” Matty Yates Log.

Finally, what words of wisdom do you live by?
Too many from JC and Yogananda. A couple of keepers I like from George Greenough – KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), and he also told me in 2002, “get as many go-outs as you can”. I think he is 78 now and he still gets out there.

This year’s Byron Bay Surf Festival hits shores from Wednesday February 20 to Sunday February 24. Check out the full program on the festival website


Sign up for our weekly enews & receive more articles like this: