James McMillan - Byron Bay Surf Festival Director

With a life as colourful as the canvases he expressively paints, James McMillan is so much more than the sum of his individual talents. Surfer, artist, writer, photographer, director, father, husband; James is a true creative visionary in the world of surfing, and advocate of the healing power that it provides.

Oozing inspiration with a deeply spiritual understanding of his surroundings James has cultivated a living from everything he loves. With a desire to share what surfing had provided him throughout his life, James created Byron Bay Surf Festival, an experience that encompasses all elements of surfing and the lifestyle surrounding it. This festival is a piece of art in itself, an expression of the vibrant culture of surfing, set in the beating heart of Byron Bay, celebrating everything from the diverse art of wave riding itself to the creativity inspired by the experience of time in the ocean. From art to music and words to the shaping of surf crafts, Byron Bay Surf Festival is a tangible impression of all that surfing is, was and will be. The sum of its history and its progression, punctuated with the inspiring characters that populate it. It is a gentle reminder of why we all picked up our wave riding craft and slipped into the ocean in the first place and let surfing seep so deeply into our existence. To escape and to connect perhaps and experience what James so aptly coins “nomindstate”. As the festival barrels towards its 10th year, we can expect to see more colour, more culture, more of surfing’s hero’s old and new and more funding to take this festival experience to the next level of surf utopia. 

James’ existence is an embodiment of a creative life and we are honoured to share just a fraction of his heartbreakingly honest and inspiring tale of a life lived to the fullest in every sense. We can only hope to glean even a small amount of James’ wisdom to transmit into our own artistic and wave sliding journeys.  


Where are you from and where do you call home now?

I grew up 30 mins from the beach. When I was 11 years old, me, my sister and my Mum had to run away forever from Mums abusive drunken boyfriend. It was scary. We packed our lives and left the house at night. A few years later we landed in Cronulla. From our new house I could run down the hill to the Alley and learned to surf the left hand rip bowls there whilst watching Jim Banks, Gary Green and Occy. 20 years of that and then after my book Blue Yonder was published late 2005 we moved far north to Byron Shire where I live today.

Making art for a living is a dream many people aren’t able to realise. How did your creative journey start, and tell us about your path to becoming a successful artist, photographer and published author?

Writing a book for 5 years or doing a single painting for 3 months. It’s got to be about passion. What else would drive you to rise at 3am to write or paint before your family wakes up? It’s hard work and it’s risky, but I do what I love and hope that the rest follows. I’ve also done and do many other jobs in between to put bread on the table. Everything I own and I have is from surfing and art. I was naïve enough to pursue writing and photography, as, first a hobby and then secondly as a job in the mid 90’s whilst I was competing as a surfer/snowboarder. I got published in Oz, USA, Japan and Europe. When the magazines began demanding smaller articles, my writing had matured and I wanted to write meatier pieces, so I said goodbye to those guys and spent half a decade writing and photographing Blue Yonder. Painting was something I was always interested in. My Dad painted and also made sculptures. My sister was a really good painter too. In my late teens I started drawing. I wasn’t great. I had my first art show in Newtown at a skate & record store in 1992. I started painting pretty solidly around ‘97. When I hit Mullumbimby early 2006 I was full-on painting…I had a small studio in the hills where I lived and painted. I built a bed hanging from the roof where me and my 2 oldest sons slept because the floor had canvases and half worked ideas all over the place. From there the Japanese spotted my book and my art and began inviting me to show in Japan. It worked good over there and I still exhibit there today, and now also in Hawaii.

What is it about surfing and the ocean that makes it a focus point of your creative craft? Tell us about some of your other influences?

Surfing allows total expression and freedom. I like turning my back on the land and heading out to sea with all that water in front of me. Riding a wave is different things to different people, to me it’s a chance to be totally alone, get creative and just have a real lot of fun. A simple speedy highline can feel just as amazing as a radical carve, but it’s a different amazing…one is adrenalin and one is meditative, both addictive. Other influences on my art are dreams and old spiritual literature. Just recently I’ve began a shift in my art away from my larger surreal type Waterbird landscapes to some more simpler and minimal pieces. The thing I’m really enjoying about these is that I can get an idea out and on to a canvas in a day rather than it taking a month or two. It’s relieving and satisfying.

A lot of your work encompasses all three disciplines, but if you had to choose between painting, photography and the written word, which would you choose?

I would paint. I love the esotericness of painting. The written word can be quite direct. I like putting words on my paintings as suggestions that may wake the psyche into a challenge or a new way of thinking. Photography for me personally is about capturing a unique moment in reality, not trying to bend it. I like to reflect on photos but I like to get lost in paintings.

What lead you to turn your artistic hands towards creating Byron Bay Surf Festival? And what is it about Byron that makes it so special?

It was 2010 and it had been 5 years since my book. I’d been mostly surfing, showing my art overseas and some small writing and photo projects for Japan. Not many people know this, and I’m not quite sure right now why I’m choosing to say it here, but through my 20’s I went through gnarly depression after my Dad died. Surfing was my saving grace. It was the only place where I could get away from my mind and the dark places it was taking me. When surfing on a wave, and particularly in very intense situations like far out to sea on my local Cronulla reefs, I found this state of mind that was my only peace…I coined it the nomindstate (one word). Surfing gave me that. Surfing was a big part of a long healing process. The ultimate healing that saved me is another crazy story that deserves more space. I felt I owed it to surfing and to people in general to turn them on to surfing, not competitive surfing, but freesurfing, the culture, and the lifestyle. Byron Bay being the capital of surfing in Australia, particularly Surf Culture, it was crazy that something like BBSF wasn’t already happening to celebrate surfing. The community seemed open to it so we got started. I had a tiny bit of business experience, but I knew a lot of people. Again, passion got me there. Enter the Byron Bay Surf Festival.

What can we expect from Byron Bay Surf Festival this year, and how has the event developed since its inception?

It's grown to be a lot bigger with more events and better event locations. Having VIP guests like Tom Carroll, Stephanie Gilmore, Occy, Ozzie Wright, Lisa Andersen and Bob McTavish involved has been great. More people know about it so when our partnership people talk to the company's that we prefer to work with, re. getting involved, it's a little easier because we have a great rep as a fantastic event doing good things. Bigger corporate companies are trying to get involved and if the right ones knock the door will open. I also have a much better idea on how to make a festival happen than I did 9 years ago. Next year is the BBSF 10 Year Anniversary. I have already began talking to a couple of bands and some artists. I would expect that one would walk away from a BBSF inspired.

The theme for this year is 'Connection...what connects you to the sea?' Hopefully all these connections are covered at this years Festival.

If you could only describe your event in three words, what would they be?

Surf Culture Now

What’s the best thing about what you do as an artist and event creator, and what is the most challenging?

The best is the creative process of an idea into an event and then inviting people in to that experience. It’s like inviting someone into your painting. Challenging aspects are time, money and also stretching myself to the very limits of what I think I’m capable of, and then realizing I can actually go beyond that. What I have learned is that any long-vision process takes something that not many people have, and you do need to be a little mad to persevere all the challenges. You need to be willing to take a big risk and then back yourself to the max.

Surf Talk:

When and how did your passion for surfing start?

My Uncle giving me a block of sex wax upon returning from his first trip to Hawaii in the late 70’s. I smelled it, my eyes rolled back, and I wanted to do what he was doing. A short time later he gave me an old single fin and took me surfing. That was the start of a lifelong journey to carve the perfect figure 8 cutback, and I’m still trying to achieve it.

What does surfing mean to you, and how has it shaped your life?

Surfing sets my mood for the day. My life has been shaped, entirely 100% by surfing, in a way that the tides and new waves of each day have helped me understand that the only constant in life is change. Go with it.

From all your adventures, is there a wave that you love the most?

Desert Point in 1990 was amazing. Hike in, no one there. Living under bamboo shelters in the dirt and eating rice and fish out of very large clam shells that we found on the beach. 5 long days with no waves and then the best waves of my life hit at 4am. Me and my mate Matt surfed it for days with a handful of guys. Any wave you wanted. We hadn’t realized that Pablo and Chris Calisas were camped further up around the point. Had it like that for quite a few years before the web slowly began revealing all.

Do you have a favorite surfer, one that you could just watch all day, every day?

Occy forever. Dane. Jarred Mel on any board at any time

What does your quiver look like at the moment, any magic boards in there?

I have around 40 boards. At the moment I ride my 5.10 Darcy, 9.1 Matty Yates Log or my wifes 7.10 Matty Yates mid length. Occasionally I’ll ride my 5.8 fish. My Darcy Waterbird model is magic. Over the course of a few years I developed this model with Stuart Darcy. To get to the magic we went through a fish shape, two quad fishy shapes and an assymetrical. Best craft I’ve ever had under my feet. So fast. It’s a quad. It’s in stage 3 now.


Get to know you:

What are you known for?

Not totally sure but maybe Blue Yonder and the Byron Bay Surf Festival.

What are you most proud of?

My family. Doing things with purpose, and for a purpose. Spreading the word through my book, my art and BBSF.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration?

There’s a few. Jesus, Yogananda, Yvonne Chouinard, Alby Falzon, Mark Ryden, Sir Edmund Hillary

Defining moment?

Each time one of my 3 sons was born I was re-born in some way. My first barrel in ’88 at Uluwatu defined the following 20 years of my life, and I guess until now.

Guilty pleasure?

Road trips south chewing on Dark Chocolate

What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?

Love is Number 1

Of all the places you have travelled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?

A very hard single answer. So many back stories. Recently it’s Chile…It’s harsh, cold, empty waves, hot food, and very raw nature. When you go surfing it’s a process. Wake in the dark, get up & get warm, yoga, eat knowing you’re going to be paddling a lot, squeeze the last drops of icy water from your 5mm steamer, pack a couple boards, music ready and settle in for a long drive.

What brings you the most happiness in the world?

My wife, my sons, and a wedgey lefthander

What are you most grateful for?



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Where can we find you online?

Websites: www.jamesmcmillan.com.au
Instagram: @jamescmcmillan




Posted by: Emma Gibbons, on April 19, 2019
Categories: Interviews