Like all Aussies, I have a huge passion for the ocean, especially the liminal space where the ocean and the land interact/collaborate/dispute. Even though I was raised on a gorgeous beach south of Sydney, I foolishly missed my chance to learn to surf.
I have since tried to make amends by learning to surf here in Bayarea. I have certain disadvantages; I’m over 50, my ears don’t like getting flushed out with icy cold water containing various not so friendly biota, I mostly surf within the poetically named Red Triangle where Great White Sharks come in the Fall (the best surfing season) to fatten up on the rich aquatic sealife found here, the ocean water here is perennially icy cold and the coast is most often shrouded in fog.
To make up for these negatives; the coast here is magnificently picturesque, the fog is often an almost animate entity adding a visual richness to any view, the cold water keeps many people out of the surf and so the waves are less crowded than further south, I have a deep understanding of ocean ecology from living on both sides of the Pacific and having studied and worked in the ecological sciences in my early professional days, my sculptural work has focussed increasingly on the oceans and my skills and interest as a maker have given me a keen appreciation of the craft of making (and learning to ride) surfboards and other watercraft.
So you can understand my joy at seeing the recent work of my long standing friend, colleague, compatriot and fellow designer-craftsman Peter Walker.
For the last few years, Peter has been designing and constructing a series of hollow wooden surfboards with all the care, precision and nuanced understanding of a highly trained and experienced furniture craftsman and sculptor. These are beautifully crafted ‘craft’ drawing on the traditions and aesthetics of solid wooden board construction, incorporating the evolution of board shaping over the last 40 years or so and embracing the latest hollow core construction techniques. On top of this (literally) Peter has used traditional wood inlay techniques, burning and other techniques derived from the history of furniture and has also worked with a range of contemporary Australian artists to decorate the boards. Here are some samples of his work.
This is ‘Making Waves’, an older piece not from his recent exhibition. It is decorated by the well-known Australian ceramist Stephen Bowers, who rifs on historic decorative motifs with a liberal dose of Aussie humor and irreverence. Th deep blue pigment references both ‘Willow plate’ and tattooing – two decorative traditions that are poles apart culturally but remarkably similar visually – I wonder what Adolf Loos would think?
In a similar vein, his new work ‘Paisley’ brings decorative motifs from textiles which are scorched into the board’s surface. The paisley pattern itself has a rich history of cross-cultural appropriation and conjures the innocent youth of surfing culture in the 60’s.
Referencing furniture processes and decorative details –
The following piece “Paulownia Planing Hull” was decorated by Gerry Wedd. It references the cell structure of the wood from which the board was made, as if the water droplets on the surface of the board provide a super powered Leeuwennhoek-ian lens. It also calls to mind other oceanic patterns such as the suckers of octopi or the bleached exoskeletons of sea urchins.
Perhaps my favorite piece is “Firestick”. As a kid growing up on the South Coast of New South Wales, it seemed like every summer was a mix of surf and bushfire. It was either salt or smoke in the air. “Firestick” was scorched using hot stones; a process that threatened to destroy the board if left uncontrolled. The resulting image seems to conjure landscape. The title and the work itself call to mind the indigenous peoples of Australia, and their primary tool for managing the landscape – the firestick. The surfboard is now one of our tools for engaging with and becoming part of the liminal landscape of the oceans edge.
Those of you wanting to probe deeper i can highly recommend the exhibition catalog essay by Mark Thompson which speaks to the nuances of Peter’s work. I have posted it here. The well known designer, ceramist and surfer Gerry Wedd’s opening night speech at the Jam Factory in Adelaide was excellent and is posted here.