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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 13, 2002

Sculpture of surf now hanging ten

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Mark Fragale first started collecting surf paraphernalia sometime around 1968, surfboards were trashy treasures.

Surfboards are the focus of the "Nalu: Forty Years of Big Wave Boards" art exhibit running through Sept. 6

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Back then, boards were worthless," he said. "Some people would just leave them on the beach to be taken. Some you could get for $25, some for a case of beer."

These days, many of those same boards can fetch a patient collector tens of thousands of dollars at auctions or direct collector-to-collector sales. But for Fragale, the boards, like the experience of surfing itself, transcend financial reward.

"I always thought of them as art," Fragale said.

So did Raina Grigg, who, with co-curator David Behlke, is seeking to illuminate the artistry behind Hawai'i's unique big-wave surfing tradition with the new exhibit "Nalu: Forty Years of Big Wave Boards."

"Nalu" opened yesterday at the Exhibit Space at 1132 Bishop St. and is scheduled to run until Sept. 6.

The exhibit features dozens of rare boards from influential shapers such as Dick Brewer, Pat Curren and Mike Diffenderfer. "Nalu" focuses on pieces specially crafted for the mammoth waves of O'ahu's North Shore.

"Surfing originates from Hawaiian culture," Grigg said. "We wanted to focus this exhibit on the North Shore so there would be no question about the boards being uniquely from Hawai'i. The 'guns' are distinctly North Shore."

The impressive collection spans the history of big-wave surfing in Hawai'i.

The oldest piece is a pre-fin 1947 board shaped with the rugged surf of Makaha in mind.

There are also representatives of each of the major periods that followed: 11-foot "elephant guns" from when surfers migrated to Waimea Bay in the early 1960s; "mini-guns" from the short-board revolution later that decade; Lightning Bolt designs from the '70s; colorful boards from the pro-influenced, commercialized '80s; long boards designed for the extreme big-wave hunting of the '90s; and contemporary state-of-the-art tow-in boards.

"There's basically significant examples of every big-wave era," said shaper and collector Randy Rarick. "And having it down here, I think brings this modern art and modern equipment to the masses."

Grigg, an artist and the daughter of surfer, author and oceano-graphy professor Ricky Grigg, said she's been wanting to stage such an exhibit for years.

"I grew up loving ... (surfboards) as beautiful objects and sculptures," she said. "When people surf, they're actually feeling the wave and transferring information from their body to their mind. These shapers took this information and created a whole new object that would allow you to ride on these massive sources of energy. It's really beautiful."

Or, as Ricky Grigg said: "There's art in the board and in the soul of the artist who makes the board."

Shaper Ben Aipa was on hand at yesterday's opening to spend time with surfing friends and visit a few of his creations.

"Surfboards are the cheapest form of art," he said, laughing.

And like art, they can also inspire strong emotional responses.

Honolulu attorney Greg Lui-Kwan started collecting boards in 1978 after a strange and fortuitous encounter with his past. Lui-Kwan said he was running in downtown Honolulu during lunch when he saw a surfboard he had sold on the Big Island 10 years earlier sitting in the window of a Salvation Army store.

He got the board back for $15 and in the years since has amassed a collection of nearly 100 boards.

"It's like I started my mid-life crisis when I was 28, and it hasn't stopped yet," said Lui-Kwan, 52. "At least it's a clean habit."

"Most people think of artwork as representational," Raina Grigg said. "I'd been thinking a lot about abstract and contemporary art and wondering how I could bring contemporary work back to the community in a way that was meaningful.

"Surfing is something that many people share here," she said. "This is a way to get people to stop thinking about art only as representational images. The boards themselves are very abstract and elegant, but they are also a part of our daily lives."