Surfing has become a monstrous, mega-million dollar international business, but at the center of it all, there is a dance. It's a critical and sacred and unendingly beautiful and rewarding dance betwixt rider and water. Nature and man. Some people understand this linchpin truth and grow their relationship with the holy art of wave-riding accordingly, while others get the concept but forget it as soon as dollar signs start waving in front of them. And then there is the rare -- some might say, endangered -- breed of surf slider who not only knows the cosmic score of things but takes it even further. He or she works with reverence to preserve and protect the power of the dance no matter the cost. With freshly plowed foam smeared on his face, paint splatters covering his shoes, and his brain slightly high on resin fumes, Ryan Lovelace hand-builds surfboards with precision of ballet shoes.
"I need to use my hands." explains the 25 year old, "I feel unfulfilled if I'm not building stuff." A soft-spoken transplant from the wave-starved shores of Seattle, Lovelace rocked up, or down as the case was, to sunny Santa Babylon eight years ago. Growing up the son of a rather accomplished landscape painter and all-around crafty dude, Lovelace was no stranger to rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty. He came to Santa Barabra for two reasons, evolving his personal love affair with surfing and to study photography at the Brooks Institute. The former has not been a problem but the school stuff never really happened. Surfboard shaping got in the way.
A surfboard is an art tool or an instrument. It's the only thing between a rider and a wave, and under control of a fine surfer, beauty can be carved into a wave, music can be conjured from the crashing tide. Surfboards come in all shapes and sizes and colors and, though generally made out of foam and fiberglass, they can be comprised of a wide variety of materials. A well-crafted board allows a surfer to channel elegance, precision, and self-expression. Without the board, sure you can ride a wave and have heaps of fun doing it, but your options, once engaged with the pure energy of nature that is a wave breaking, are very limited. Traditionally, these boards have been handmade affairs, crafted by skilled artists and or people who just need something to ride. There is magic in this connection if you think about it; something is handmade with love and skill, years, if not decades, of experience and wisdom coming to bear as an assortment of tools is used to shape a raw hunk of foam or wood.
Then this freshly minted vessel, once fortified by fiberglass and resin or some such similar water-proofing and strengthening concoction, is dragged to the edge of the ocean where its would-be rider jumps from the safety of land and enters wilds of the water. Armed only with his/her wits, fitness, and, of course, surfboard, a surfer attacks the sea. If things go as planned, they will soon catch a wave and ride the wild surf. Surfboards, though often quite easy on the eyes, especially when shapers infuse them with artsy touches like psychedelic paint jobs or abalone inlays, are meant for action.
However, as technology and big business bottom-lines have had their way with surfing in recent years, the origin story of surfboards has changed. Computers now do most of the dirty work, factories in China pump out sexy shapes for the masses like bunnies make babies in the springtime. The building process has been scavenged by specialists, and, accordingly, much of the art and craftsmanship, behind the boards that are ridden is being pushed to the brink of extinction.
But why does craftsmanship matter? Don't computers make a better board? Surfing luminary Greg Noll disagrees. "The day we lose that connection between a shaper, his hands, and a surfboard," Noll once told me, " is the day all of the magic is gone from surfing."
Noll surfed when riding waves was a penniless, thankless, and rough-around-the-edges pursuit. Sufers were people on the fringe, a reality that often included building your own board or, at the very least, being good buddies with the guy that did.
Lovelace is that guy.
On his 19th birthday, Lovelace decided to make his first surfboard. It was a simple and innocent thing, really. He couldn't afford the sticker price of the type of board he wanted and, after doing some quick math about the cost of materials, he decided to do it all himself. It was this self-starting sort of motivation that was, unknowingly to Lovelace, taking a page straight out of the playbook of surfing forefathers like Noll and, more locally speaking, famous salt-water stoked Santa Barbara do-it-yourselfers like George Greenough and Renny Yater. Now, several years and hundreds of boards removed from that fateful first afternoon, Lovelace recently reflected, "I didn't even know then that you are supposed to hire someone else to glass your board so I just did it myself. And then it actually worked, so that was pretty cool too."
Currently, you can find Lovelace most days working away in his modest -- and perhaps entirely illegal -- workspace just one long golf shot away from the ocean's edge in Santa Barbara's More Mesa neighborhood. His 10' by 16' shaping rectangle is cluttered, and Herbie, his dog and "spiritual leader," takes up some space too. From here, Lovelace inches into the surf world one board at a time, every step of the process the result of his own two hands. From single fins and displacement hulls to step-decks and weird finless spinners he calls "Rabbits feet." Lovelace's boards are not your typical 21st century wave riding fare; their basic looks and designs often coming from a bygone era -- generally, the late 60s and 70s -- but their personalities, thanks to a healthy infusion of modern performance sensibilities, are contemporary. And, when the mood hits, Lovelace's boards are often finished off with a fine art finish that runs the gamut from fabric inlays and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lyrics scrawled cryptically in the paint job to pin lines and resin tints that smack of a particularly potent LSD experience. "The art side of board building is important to me because that's my background," he says while in his "one-stop shop" shaping shack, "but really, if a board doesn't work, I couldn't give a shit about it no matter how it looks." He gestures to a rack of half-finished boards next to him that included a backward displacement hull and fiberglass flexspoon kneeboard, he continues: "I mean, these boards are not retro, they are full-on progressive. I don't build something just because it's romantic or something. It's about doing things that work."
However, to pigeonhole Lovelace as some sort of luddite/ throw-back artisan type would be a mistake. His preferred board-building methods are more a function of personal experience and place than philosophy. He has gulped his way through a steep learning curve in the shaping world, thanks in part to a combination of above average hand-eye coordination and artistic inclinations but also to the fact that Santa Barbara, with its long, easy peeling point break waves and rich tradition of both surfing and surfboard shaping, is the ideal spot to be doing what he is doing. "There is no doubt, that the biggest influence on the way I shape is the type of waves we get here [in Santa Barbara]," he says. "All the eras of surfing that I like are rooted here and there is this legacy of board building. I'm just really, really, lucky. It's not like I had some big design to move to Santa Barbara and start building surfboards. It just sort of happened."
Looking to grow his operation after a couple years of initial and unexpected success, Lovelace took on two business partners. Then the deal went sour. Lovelace doesn't want to recount the specifics, but the story is as follows: Shortly after teaming up, Ryan's new partners, no doubt with their fiscal bottom line in mind, wanted him to change the way he built surfboards. They wanted him to make more boards, use computers, and yield higher production. "Mass production is valid, it's just not for me," says Lovelace with a shrug of the shoulders. And so, with some bitterness, the trio broke up and Lovelace was once again on his own and free to pursue the art of surfboard-building on his own terms and without expectation. On average, he makes a dozen or so boards a month, all of them built, from first cuts to final finishes, by the same set of hands. "There is a point where you are doing too much and a point where you are doing too little [to survive]" says Lovelace from behind his respirator mask while sanding down the edges of a custom hull. "All I want to be is right in the middle; that is the place where I and the people who ride my surfboards get the best value." Then, as if caught off guard by his own words, he stops sanding and looks up. He pulls the mask from his face and turns to the far side of his shop looking towards the radio, the first sounds of Pink Floyd's "Money" crackling softly out of the speakers. Reaching for the volume nob, Lovelace cranks it up a notch or two and says over his shoulder before snapping his mask back over his face, "Notoriety in surfing doesn't come in 4 years, it comes in 40."
Top Image: Photo by Morgan Maassen / Courtesy Ryan Lovelace.
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