ENCINITAS — Mark Patterson, the artist behind the Surfing Madonna mosaic and co-founder of the subsequent Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, died on Sept. 20 after years of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
He was 70 years old.
“His gift to the community of Encinitas, The Surfing Madonna, will live on,” the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project said in a statement.
Patterson’s mosaic, featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe surfing a big wave with the words “Save our Oceans” down the side, now hangs on the exterior wall of Leucadia Pizzeria facing Encinitas Boulevard.
Patterson was an avid beach runner and ocean lover, but not a surfer; a calm and spiritual man, but not religious. According to friends, the iconography in Surfing Madonna is secular.
Longtime friend Bob Nichols, former chairman of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, said another of Patterson’s mosaics about protecting oceans depicted the Buddha on a boogie board.
Patterson graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California Davis in 1975. His career would take him through software companies, nonprofit organizations and even an Alaskan fishing boat before he made the mosaic that achieved local legend status.
In 2010, Patterson, then working for Microsoft, learned how to mosaic on a vacation to Italy, and that’s where his vision for the piece came together.
“[The instructor] probably thought, ‘Oh these tourists — what are they thinking?’” Patterson told The Coast News in 2014. “‘You’ve never done mosaics before, and you want to make the face of the Madonna.’”
Patterson came home and quit his job to pursue what would become the “Surfing Madonna.” After working on the piece for nine months, Patterson and Nichols covertly installed the artwork under the Coast Highway 101 rail bridge. The friends wore bright construction vests and told an inquiring firefighter they were taking recalibration measurements on the bridge.
Though they didn’t plan it, Patterson and Nichols were pleased to find that the mosaic made its debut on Good Friday and Earth Day, both of which fell on April 22, 2011.
After some pushback from city officials who said Patterson didn’t go through the proper channels, labeled it graffiti and ordered its removal, the community rallied around the art and the unnamed artist. The commotion in a small beach town started to draw international attention.
“The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project started to see where the energy could go with Marks’ creation,” said Mike Redman, vice president of the organization.
The organization has served over 1,800 children with disabilities at its annual Special Needs Surf Camp, hosted the longest beach run in the world and offered scholarships and awards for local youth and art.
Patterson contributed to the community beyond the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, frequently playing piano for churches and plays and writing Christmas plays for the Children’s Hospital of San Diego.
“Mark did not have a bad bone in his body,” Nichols said. “That guy was 100% all that is love.”
Surfing Madonna Oceans Project will host a celebration of Patterson’s life at Leucadia Pizzeria, 315 S. Coast Highway, where the mosaic is displayed, on Oct. 8 from 2 to 5 p.m.