By Annette Hinkle
In its role as a utilitarian object, the surfboard is a prime example of form meeting function. A well-designed board with strategically placed fins and a sleek shape that slices effectively through the water can make or break a surfer confronting a giant wave.
It can also make for some pretty amazing art as well.
Perhaps no one understand this better than Richard Kenvin, a surfer with a keen love and sense for art and design. Mr. Kenvin is the curator of “Surf Craft — Design and the Culture of Board Riding,” an exhibition of 45 surfboards that highlight the craft and design of the form through the ages.
“Surf Craft” comes to LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton this week after its inaugural run at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Mr. Kenvin notes the show began with a project that had him investigating old surfboards from the 1960s and early Hawaiian boards in the collection of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
For Mr. Kenvin, surfboards are about far more than simply style. His interest was inspired by “The Unknown Craftsman,” a book by Soetsu Yanagi which explores how handcraftsmanship has survived in the modern world, even with mass production. After reading the book, it occurred to Mr. Kenvin that surfboards embrace that philosophy in a powerful way, merging a high level of craft into form and functionality.
The “Surf Craft” exhibit spans the ages and Mr. Kenvin explains that it will start with a couple of rare examples of 19th century Hawaiian boards made from bread fruit wood, or ‘ulu, which were later repurposed for poi pounding.
“The Hawaiian designs have been around for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years. They had an advanced surfing scene going on,” says Mr. Kenvin. “As their culture suffered, as it did with European contact, a lot of that got lost.”
But Mr. Kenvin notes that some of those designs have been revisited by surfboard craftsmen like Hawaii’s Tom Stone in the last two decades.
“These boards are challenging to ride, but their hydrodynamics are incredible,” says Mr. Kenvin. “A lot of them got lost in revival and no one was standing on alaias [shortboards] like the old days. It’s more about big planks, that kind of stuck a long time until the late ‘60s when there was the short board evolution.”
Ultimately, the surf board is a tool, and the exhibit moves from the boards of old Hawaii to obscure surf bathing boards from England and California, as well as a squared-off Otago board, which Mr. Kenvin notes the Japanese have been riding for a couple hundred years and is actually a bench from a fishing boat and is also used to clean fish.
Surf Craft also focuses on more modern surfboard makers, such as Bob Simmons, an important designer who started making surfboards on the West Cost in the early 1940s.
“He died at age 35 in 1954, but between 1947 and 1954 he mastered hydrodynamics with planing hulls,” explains Mr. Kenvin. “He basically took the dynamic speed of finless boards, which the Hawaiians had going on, and took the rails — or edges — of the board and designed them like airplane wings.”
“He also pioneered the use of fiberglass, foams and resins,” adds Mr. Kenvin. “Now he had a good way to attach fins.”
Mr. Kenvin notes that Bob Simmons major contribution to surfing was the addition of dual fins and his boards fulfilled the design requirements that would meet the way people surf today.
“It makes a dynamic interface with the waves and frees the board up in terms of speed and maneuverability,” says Mr. Kenvin. “He was really advanced. Surfing wasn’t ready for him, and his board didn’t get used back then the way it should have been.”
Mr. Kenvin should know. He and a couple of his friends have begun riding original Simmons boards again.
“It’s the first time they’ve been ridden since 1954 — those pure old Simmons designs are just so different,” he explains. “He made them out of balsa wood and it does amazing things – tapping into higher performance surfing. The same is true of riding an ancient Hawaiian alaia. There’s a tremendous feel of kinetic energy. Both are a little out of control in a way — it’s such raw speed and energy they release.”
Which is why last week as Mr. Kenvin talked about his impending arrival in East Hampton, he had more on his mind than just the exhibit.
“I’m hoping there’ll be some waves,” he said.
Incidentally, the “Surf Craft” exhibit comes to East Hampton from San Diego with help from Good Circle, an online crowdfunding platform which pairs local businesses and individuals with non-profits in the area in order to complete specific projects.
Good Circle was founded by East Hampton residents Fred Doss and Joan Overlock just over a year ago and already it has helped a number of non-profit organizations on the East End and around the world raise money for their projects. Among the organizations Good Circle has helped are the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center in East Hampton, the David E. Rogers M.D. Center at Southampton Hospital, and the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, i-tri and Fighting Chance.
“The is the first time we’ve crowd sourced an art show, but we’re always working with non-profits to crowdfund some type of project,” notes Ms. Overlock.
For the “Surf Craft” exhibit, Good Circle is looking to raise $37,850 to help transport the exhibit from San Diego and has partnered with Firewire Surfboards, which has donated $10,000 to the project, Main Beach Surf + Sport, and Pilgrim Surf + Supply which have both given $5,000 toward the show. Suffolk County has provided a $6,000 grant, which leaves Good Circle looking to crowd fund the remaining $11,850. As of last week, $27,900,00 had been pledged toward the project.
As an incentive, Good Circle is offering donors at the $50 level two free tickets to the Surf Craft opening, and for $250 they also get a LongHouse Reserve membership and a copy of Mr. Kenvin’s book based on the exhibit.
“For $2,000 you get a surf board,” notes Mr. Doss. “Lars at Main Beach is donating that.”
“Surf Craft — Design and the Culture of Board Riding” opens Friday, July 31 with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. LongHouse Reserve, 133 Hands Creek Road, East Hampton. Admission is $30 ($55 for two). The show will be on view through Saturday, October 10. Call (631) 329-3568 for details or visit longhouse.org. For more information on Good Circle visit goodcircle.org.