If masterpieces can come in the form of bronze and glass sculptures, what should we call handmade surfboards dressed in original photographs? Functional artworks, if you ask local photographer and surfer Tony Arruza.
His inspirational images are the first thing to hit us upon entering the bright gallery space at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, where 15 custom surfboards are on view through Jan. 21. The exhibition, titled 15 Surfboards by 15 Shapers, is the much-anticipated culmination of a five-year-long project during which Arruza partnered with 15 top craftsmen and watched his two great passions evolve into surf art.
The West Palm Beach resident’s concept was simple. Each board would be handmade and different in design and aesthetic from the rest. The 15 boards were made in Florida, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Puerto Rico, California, Hawaii and Australia. The models featured include single fin, fish and diamond cutter.
Another concept Arruza stayed true to was paying tribute to the men behind the boards. Each carries the signature of its shaper and stands next to a black-and-white portrait of the same as well as pictures of the behind-the-scenes building process. Arruza believes his request to photograph the craftsmen while at work is the reason why a few of them said no to the project. Those who accepted are captured hand sanding, planning and applying green resin tint.
The room’s open layout allows for close examination of these wild instruments of fun, but as striking as their smooth curves and sleek finish are, they still would be just surfboards if it weren’t for Arruza’s images. The Florida Atlantic University graduate has spent close to 30 years working professionally as a photographer for editorial and commercial clients.
The original photographs selected to adorn each piece are also displayed here and explain how a Florida pelican ended up on an LG board, while a South African sunrise landed on a swallowtail. No, these clearly are not masterpieces. They have an actual purpose beyond standing tall looking pretty.
The following is a recent exchange with the mind behind 15 Surfboards by 15 Shapers.
Did you self-fund the project? How were you able to pay for all of it?
Yes, I self-funded the project. The money was in my business savings account that I had accumulated through the years as a commercial photographer. Still, it was very expensive and not easy to do, but I took my time and spread the project over five years.
You fell in love with surfing at age 13 when your father bought you a surfboard. I understand he was also the one who gifted you the camera that opened the door to surf photography. It sounds like your father played a significant role in shaping your life. Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had never come across a surfboard or a camera?
I ask myself that question a lot. I do have a bachelor of science in marine zoology. I guess I might have continued with my studies and done field research, since I loved the ocean and scuba diving. I know my father wanted me to pursue that course of action, but I let my enthusiastic passion for surfing take hold and never let go.
I’m curious about the number. Why end at 15 boards and 15 shapers? Why not 20 or 30?
Fifteen was more than enough and at times overwhelming, but I’m glad that I stuck with it as it makes for a beautiful exhibition, provided I have the right venue such as the Cultural Council’s gallery.
How did you set out to choose the shapers?
At first, it was easy. I started with two local friends and then moved up to the Melbourne Beach area, where a large number of well-known shapers reside. It wasn’t until I went up there and finished a few boards that I started to think outside of Florida and would ask for recommendations from the shapers I worked with. I also did a lot of research, especially as the project grew and I wanted to make sure that the next shapers could make a board different from the previous ones and that they were well-respected craftsmen.
For each collaboration, who would pick the photograph used? You or the shaper?
That was one of the hardest parts of the project. I would make a selection of a dozen or more images to use and put those up for vote with friends and on social media. The top five or so would then be looked at by the shaper and myself. In some cases, I made the final decision. In other cases, the shaper. At times, it came down to the last minute.
Does one have to be a great surfer to be great at making surfboards?
Not necessarily. It does pay to have a strong knowledge of waves and surfing and know the physics and dynamics of a wave. There are many types and sizes of waves just as there are surfboards. Usually a shaper is an expert at one or two, but a good craftsman can pretty much create a highly functional surfboard to fit most types of waves.
As a surfer, how would you describe yourself?
Surfing for me has been mostly about interacting with nature. I look at myself as a surfer who is inspired by the ocean, the wind, the sea life and the waves. Just being in those elements brings me satisfaction, regardless of how I’m surfing that particular day. I also see the aesthetics in surfing and love photographing it almost as much as the act of surfing itself.
What is your vision for 15 X 15? Where is it headed next?
Right now, I just need to take a deep breath and relax a bit. This project grew a life of its own. Maybe it, too, is a bit tired and needs some rest. I would love to see it shown at other large venues. Maybe travel to Central Florida, the Northeast and California. However, if a collector wishes to purchase the entire collection, including the three prints that accompany each board, I would consider parting ways with it. I’m sure anyone who would purchase the collection would give it a proper home and even showcase it for others to enjoy.
I was wondering if you have a favorite board in the show and whether you’ll tell me which one it is.
You are asking a mother or father to choose a favorite child between several. Honestly, in this case there isn’t a clear-cut favorite.