Surf Shacks 089

Michael Townsend + Lara Wilson
Joshua Tree, CA

Michael Townsend’s photography has an uncanny ability to capture the raw moments, stylish personalities, and sublime textures that still make surfing “cool” in this day and age—all in a very timeless way. It is surf reportage at its finest. Mike is a master lensman, but is also a creative Swiss army knife in many ways, adept at art direction, with a deep understanding of branding and the business side of things, as well as being a superbly talented surfer. Lara Wilson on the other hand is a professional dancer, choreographer, and graphic designer. The creative couple have a very yin-and-yang existence that plays out in their working relationship and how they live between their two dwellings—by the beach in San Clemente and in the desert in Joshua Tree via their Sprinter van.

How do you split your time between the coast and the desert these days?

Mike: I commute to San Clemente every week for work and to shoot and surf.

Lara: I go with him a few days every other week or so to keep the marriage on good terms.

And before that, you guys were living out of the van, right? How long was that adventure?

Lara: We were only in the van from September 2016 through March 2018, and then we leased a commercial space and opened our gallery near Joshua Tree. It had a shower, so we were like, “We’ll take it!” We slept in the back a lot of the time. But we didn’t move into an actual residence until January 2020—so nearly three and a half years.

Where did you drive in your van while living in it?

Mike: We went cross-country to Florida right after the 2016 election. That was surreal. Then we did a trip up through the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. We’ve been up to San Francisco countless times, and we hang out in Baja and San Diego a lot too. A lot of times we stayed close to home in Orange County though, both for work and for climate reasons. Plus it helps to really know a place and the people there.

What were some of the highlights? What would you say are the pros and cons of van life?

Lara: I would say that one highlight was the feeling, which was maybe an illusion, of self-reliance and low commitment to anything outside of our relationship and our living situation—both of which were, of course, huge commitments! But there’s a certain lightness to living life without a lot of stuff and on your own terms.

Mike: The highlights for me were being able to be where the waves were and having friend groups in all different places, and shooting anything and everything around us, from an editorial piece on Tijuana to Trump rallies that popped up out of nowhere, to nature.

Lara: Obviously there were low points as well. Being sick sucked. Never feeling like you’re on level ground. In the winter, it gets dark super early, and if you don’t have the best electrical setup, there’s nothing to do but to go to sleep. There were definitely new lows with hygiene, eating out of the same cast iron pan every damn meal—I’ll spare you the details. And we had to coordinate with each other whenever we wanted to participate in things. So you have to prioritize aspects of your lives together. But I think it was strengthening, to see Michael 100 percent there for me when I had dance projects, and being there for him when he needed to surf or shoot.

What are your favorite parts about the areas in which you live?

Lara: I love the community of friends and artists we’ve found in the desert. And San Onofre feels like home after so many years of coming here in the van.

Mike: The ocean is definitely home, but I love the light, the scents, the people, and our house out in the desert. We’re still adjusting to being there and just having nice dinners together.

Lara: We use plates now!

As someone who has been in and around the surf industry for a while, what do you find interesting or inspiring today?

Mike: There’s a renaissance of shapers right now. I’m inspired by craftsmanship and seeing people incorporate hints from the past with modern ideas.

On the flipside, what bums you out about the surf industry or culture in general?

Mike: The commercialization and competitiveness of it.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice?

Mike: Be careful of herd mentality.

Lara: Don’t live in your van if you can avoid it.

Discover more creative surfers’ homes in our books; Surf Shacks® Vol. 1, and Vol. 2 available now!


Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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