By Jan Sjostrom | Daily News Arts Editor | December 4, 2016
Even if you’re a surfer, you might not have thought of surfboards as works of art.
But you might reconsider after seeing the hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind surfboards married to photographs in 15 Surfboards by 15 Shapers at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County in Lake Worth.
Six years ago, professional photographer and avid surfer Tony Arruza was having a board made for him by shaper Steve Firogenis when he learned about a new material another artist had used to affix photographs to surfboards.
Hold everything, I want to try this, he said. Arruza chose a photograph of Pipeline, a famous surf break on Oahu’s north shore, for the board.
That was the start of a project that took him to shapers’ workshops around the country and as far afield as Australia. Each board is a different shape. Photographs match the boards’ shape, color and design.
“It’s all about the craftsmanship of the shaper and the artisanship of the photographic print,” said Arruza, a West Palm Beach resident. But you can still use the boards to surf.
‘I’ve never seen anything’ like it
The boards are displayed with Arruza’s prints of the images on them, color photographs documenting their creation, and black-and-white portraits of the shapers. There’s also a book chronicling the project.
“I’ve never seen anything of the like created in such a comprehensive collection,” said Nichole Hickey, the council’s manager of artist services. The boards’ hand-shaping makes them almost like sculptures, she said.
The boards allowed Arruza, who got his start as a photographer shooting for a surfing magazine, to unite his work with his favorite pastime.
He financed the project, which he estimates cost $50,000, himself. Everything in the show is for sale, although he hopes a collector will buy all 15 boards.
Now 63, Arruza still loves to surf. Two of the boards in the show are decorated with photographs he shot in Palm Beach, one of his favorite surfing haunts.
He’s lucky to be here to tell the story behind one of them.
On Aug. 5, 2008, he was in the water taking surfing pictures on the North End when “suddenly, in the distance the water turned black and was coming toward me,” he said. “This black mass surrounded me and fish started jumping like crazy. I was kind of freaked out. But what else could I do? I started taking pictures.”
The mullet weren’t frolicking. They were fleeing a shark, but Arruza didn’t discover that until later when he looked at the picture he’d shot facing underwater and spotted the shark.
His eye-level view of leaping mullet was united to a “fish” model board — so named because of its two fins and fish tail — shaped by Ron Heavyside.
When it comes to surfboards, “shapes matter because of the kind of waves you’re surfing on,” Arruza said.
For example, funboards, which are smaller, wider and more buoyant, are preferred for the smaller waves that usually pound Palm Beach. Arruza affixed a black-and-white closeup of a wave off Reef Road to a funboard shaped by Brian Tudor.
But to master the giant waves off Hawaii, surfers need boards such as the long, narrow gun models that can handle a lot of speed. Master shaper Dick Brewer of Hawaii fashioned a gunboard for Arruza that he partnered with a photograph of a slender tropical waterfall.
The board titled Pismo Pilings exemplifies a close collaboration between shaper and photographer. Shaper Jim Phillips crafted the board with triple cedar stringers (strips of strengthening material); a cedar and pine tail block; and a cedar, mahogany and white pine fin that echo Arruza’s photograph of wood pier pilings.
The final board takes modern-day surfing back to its beginning with a board shaped by Australian Bob McTavish, whose maneuverable Genesis board helped revolutionize surfing in 1967. Arruza paired the board with a rose-tinted photograph of a surfer paddling into a wave at sunrise.
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