Dreaming by the Sea: New Wave Art with Matt Ortiz

A good mural is vibrant and colorful, but a great mural moves you. It draws you into its world, makes you think, and makes you dream. Born and raised in Hawaiʻi, Matt Ortiz and his wife, Roxanne, are an art duo who collaborate under the name Wooden Wave. The two, by the way, paint such murals. Romantic and adventurous with a hand-drawn aesthetic, their famous treehouses present a whimsical take on the notion of a sustainably integrated community, islands unto themselves. These nostalgic treehouse murals, found on walls around O‘ahu, also incorporate the ocean—a sanctuary and space of wonder near and dear to Matt. With murals in California, Nevada, and Washington, DC., Wooden Wave also specializes in illustration and design, having created logos and apparel images for a variety of clients, including a capsule collection of shoe designs for OluKai. We caught up with Matt Ortiz to have him paint a picture for us about his relationship with art and the sea.

What inspired you to get into art?


I was inspired to be an artist by my father who, when I was a kid, used to draw these pictures for me before he’d leave for work. He’d tell me to copy it and then I would draw, and I’d try and get the designs right. A lot of times they were surfers, so I would copy that drawing and show it to him when he came back from work. He was a true Creative and someone who loved to draw as a kid, but he never really followed that path. I think he’s really happy to see that his son was able to follow in his footsteps, though.  


That’s really cool. So you were drawing surfers a lot?


Yeah! While I was drawing surfers, I definitely was surfing and that was just part of growing up on the North Shore—part of the culture; it’s a part of everyday life. In Hawai‘i, the surfers were our version of star football players. They were the heroes there, and so my sketchbooks were full of them - not superheroes like Superman and Batman, just surfers.


That’s amazing. So, I take it that the ocean plays a pretty big role in Hawai‘i


Definitely. The ocean in Hawai‘i is a critical part of the culture, the lifestyle, and also for sustenance, so it has naturally worked its way into our narratives and cultural stories. It’s worked its way into our way of life and how we access food, and how we stay healthy. So, as artists, my wife and I gravitate towards making art that acknowledges the ocean’s importance.


A lot of our work also has to do with the idea of finding joy and adventure. For us living in Hawai‘i, that comes in the form of playing in the ocean. On land, there’s that idea of adventure—because not everyone has access to the ocean—so when you look at our work, often times you’ll see this kind of whimsical narrative.


Is that why your name is “Wooden Wave?”


Yeah, when my wife Roxy and I were trying to think of what sort of name we wanted to work together under, we came up with the name Wooden Wave because that encapsulated both the ocean with the wave, and the wood represented our love for the land and playing in that environment. Our treehouse illustrations are a way for both of us to acknowledge the importance of some sustainable concepts living on an island. Resources are limited, but we emphasize that you’ve gotta make sure that you’re having fun and enjoying yourself, too.


Do you find connections with some other artists while being in the ocean?


Absolutely. Being out in the lineup while surfing with others, it becomes less important how many waves you get or how good the waves were. It’s more about the idea of fellowship and hanging out and being in the water. Honestly, coming out of the water after a day that was stressful, the ocean washes any stress away.


Is there ever a day that you don’t want to get in the ocean?


Nope. If I don’t get in the water for long periods of time, I get kind of grouchy. So it’s pretty necessary. Also, when you’re out there, surfing, you’re just being really present. So when you get back on land, the responsibilities come back, but you kind of wipe the slate clean, and you’re able to deal with it all in a more positive and refreshed way. The culture here in Hawai‘i is so tied to the ocean, but you really learn a lot from surfing. Sure, it’s a cultural practice that as Hawaiians we value and love, but you’re also learning how to respect your elders, how to navigate a lineup—it’s all very critical.


What’s been an important project to you that you’ve done for OluKai?


My favorite project I’ve ever worked on for OluKai was the Hawai'iloa shoe collection. That was an amazing experience for me because I was able to go on the Hawai'iloa and actually get my feet on the deck and see the way the masts were lashed. That’s not something I get to do on every project. So, it gives it a certain gravity to know that what you’re designing came from something very tangible and real. Even more so for me being Hawaiian and being very tied to the ocean—to be able to set foot on that canoe gave me a sense of responsibility. That Hawai'iloa collection to me feels really pono.