It is great to see surfboards as a functional art pieces and it looks like they were a great draw card on opening night.
Peter Walker – new wooden surfboards
"If any human artefact can claim to provide a direct sensory interface with the elemental kinetic energy of our planet it is the surfboard. Connecting us to the vast and exhilarating power of oceanic wave energy, surfboards are a means by which one may encounter and engage with nature. Meticulously crafted in selected timbers, Walker’s sculptural and beautifully hand-made boards use traditional furniture and boat building techniques whilst being informed by aero dynamic technology. This is eco-design integrated with craft skill to create stunning iconic sculptural forms, some selectively further decorated by chosen artists. A significant showcase of ideas: a balanced resolution of sport, energy, ecology and craft. "
"It is often observed that most modern Australians choose to live on the very rim of their country, on the collision point between two vast elements: the sea and the land. When a wave or swell approaches the land and meets shallow water, the wave topples over in a striking display of fluid dynamics we know as a breaking wave. The forces at play in this interaction are massively powerful and have long been a source of human contemplation and pleasure. It is this power which is mercurially harnessed by the surfboard rider to carve a fluid path across the face of a shifting wave for a few adrenalin-filled moments.In this exhibition of handmade surfboards, Peter Walker pays tribute to the design form that is used to achieve these streaks of brilliance.
When Captain James Cook’s expedition arrived in Kealakekua Bay on the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island in 1778, the Europeans were amazed to see the local people riding the waves on long wooden planks. This ‘great art’ (he’e nalu or ‘wave sliding’ as it was described in Hawaiian language) almost died out as a result of pressure from Christian missionaries to discourage Hawaiians from surfing. The fact that there was a powerful spiritual component to the activity – from building the boards to praying for waves – must have been difficult for the strait-laced European missionaries to grasp.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that surfing started to spread around the world as Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku and others gave demonstrations in the US West Coast and elsewhere. Kahanamoku’s surfing appearance in Australia in 1914 at Freshwater Beach near Manly, NSW, caused a sensation and set in train what was to ultimately become a robust local surfing culture.
The early Hawaiian surfboards, made in a wide variety of sizes to suit riders, style and wave size, were of solid construction and were very heavy in comparison to today’s surfboards but the characteristic streamlined shape was abundantly evident even then. As a designed form, the surfboard had gone through a simple evolution in pre-industrial Hawaii but once the surfboard met the industrial cultures of the US, Australia and elsewhere, the relatively static form and construction was subjected to a hothouse process of design refinement.
One early change was to drill and plug holes in the solid board – an innovation of Tom Blake (1902-1994), an American who went to live in Hawaii in the 1920s and was an early proponent
of the surfing lifestyle. Tom Blake also invented the skeg or ‘fin’ which helped stabilise the board and built lighter, more manoeuvrable hollow boards. Blake came to characterise much that was notable about surfing and surfboard design and Walker acknowledges his contribution in this exhibition by utilising principles of his hollow frame innovations.
Another surfboard designer that Peter Walker references is Californian Bob Simmons (1919-1954). In the post Second World War period, Simmons matched the new technologies of fibreglass, Styrofoam, epoxy resin and plywood construction with his experience as an aircraft engineer and his fascination with Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli’s (1700-1782 ) theory that an increase in the velocity of a fluid results in decreasing pressure and the creation of dynamic lift. Simmons’ resulting explorations into planing hulls, rail contours and the dynamics of drag and turbulence have greatly influenced the evolution of surfboard design. Peter acknowledges this vital design contribution in the 5’2” Mini Simmons that incorporates many of these features. (It must be mentioned that all Peter’s surfboards are functional.)
Both the Blake and Simmons design influences are only the tip of a design evolution process. That design process – entailing trials with different tails,fin configurations, board lengths, widths and many other variables, continues unabated up until the present day. The types of waves being surfed also changed: the elegant 8’ Gun in this exhibition for instance is a specialised board whose dynamics only come into play when ridden on the monster big
waves that were once considered impossible to surf.
What to the untutored eye is a pleasing but apparently simple shape is the product of endless
trials from Byron Bay and Banzai Pipeline to Malibu and Torquay. The form is the result of
countless discussions in the beach car-park or at the board shapers in industrial sheds near a beach somewhere. Every surfer has an opinion about how their board works and about how it can be improved, which has resulted in a vigorous and democratic design evolution.
Ultimately, the might of a wave and the finer points of fluid dynamics dictate much of what will work.To this design history Peter brings his personal furniture making and design experience. Discussing making these boards, Peter says that making surfboards is a lot more interesting than making furniture. Perhaps it is the discipline required to make an object that needs to work in a very intense environment. There’s every building/making/ construction challenge of furniture and more: it’s the complete package of art, design, craftsmanship and science. And when it comes down to the crunch the board either works or it doesn’t.
One traditional woodworking skill that Peter has made considerable use of in this exhibition is
parquetry, notably on the Finless Double-ender. The 8’ Swastika board has not only a 1930s style cut off tail but has inlaid marquetry in a herringbone pattern reminiscent of wooden boat decking. It’s a charming of old and new.
Peter superimposes another layer on his review of surfboard design: decoration. The original
Hawaiian boards were plain wood, as some are in the exhibition but by the 1960s, surfboards had become a canvas for visual expression. Drawing on influences from psychedelic LP album art, car spray painting, comics and Hawaiian shirt design,the decorated surfboard became an artistic vehicle as much as a marine one.
Peter has asked a number of artists to contribute their own ideas to decorating boards and they range far and wide. Stephen Bowers gives us an eternally bemused Boofhead wandering in an antipodean willow-patterned world. Gerry Wedd has chosen to enlarge up the microscopic world of Paulownia wood cells, while Phil Hayes has continued the broad appropriation of graphics by using Chinese calligraphy and decoration in subtle ways. In a similar vein Quentin Gore has used traditional Indian paisley to make an elegantly simple design reminiscent of Indian henna Mehndi painting.
For his own part Peter contributes One True Religion, a reference to a quote from American
art critic Dave Hickey that ‘surfing is the one true religion’. Peter also takes board decoration into a new sphere by subtly burning the boards over heated rocks This is a dangerous process as hours of careful building work could be destroyed. The result, when glassed and smoothed, is curiously compelling, reminiscent of perhaps a leopard seal’s fur or evidence of some strange and terrible ordeal by fire.
From the hybrid history of surfboard design, Peter has combined his design and furniture making skills and a passionate scholarship of surfing history in a stylish homage to the surfboard and the rich culture that surrounds it. He has taken an object, that to the uninstructed might seem commonplace, and honoured its past and celebrated the pleasure it brings people. Equally, for Peter this beautiful series of snapshots of surfboard history are a near perfect combination of his occupational skills and his recreational and cultural interests. He’s a lucky man for having found that place."
Written by : Mark Thomson
Institute of Backyard Studies