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Canceled check to Carl Ekstrom from Andy Warhol for two surfboards ordered in 1968. Courtesy photo
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The artist Ekstrom

Anyone who has ever shaped a surfboard understands that shaping is more than a craft. Shaping is an art and, like glassing, sanding, glossing, and polishing a surfboard, is done by a skilled artist who labors over each creation like a love letter.

Some have speculated that if Michelangelo were alive today, he would shape his masterpieces from foam and glass them with 10-ounce cloth.

Of course, there’s no way to know that, but ever since foam’s introduction to the surfing world, it has been carved into vehicles capable of handling the full weight of the ocean. Some boards handle the impact better than others and end up in two pieces.

This, however, can be attributed more to the city block of water landing on you than the strength of the board, for even a surfboard sculpted of marble would fare no better under certain conditions.

To my knowledge, Carl Ekstrom has never sculpted anything from stone. Still, I am certain he would excel at that medium also if he put his hands and mind to it.

While Carl began working on surfboards made of wood, he is most famous for his polyurethane foam masterpieces and the invention of the asymmetrical surfboard.

Famed pop artist Andy Warhol saw surfboards, especially those handcrafted by Ekstrom, as works of fine art. To that end, he purchased two asymmetrical surfboards from Ekstrom and planned to display them in an upcoming art show he was putting together.

The event was canceled when on June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas, a troubled writer who had appeared in one of Warhol’s films, shot Warhol in the abdomen at his new studio. Warhol recovered and Ekstrom went back to producing some of the finest and most advanced surf craft ever ridden.

We were too young and unsophisticated to call surfboards art in 1964. All we knew is that when we gazed through the showroom window of the Ekstrom shop in La Jolla Shores that we were looking at functional items of great beauty where everything from the shape and the laminated fiberglass tailblocks to the color of the laminate worked together as something that could be appreciated simply for its beauty.

Warhol knew that, and when Ekstrom asked him what sorts of surfboards he wanted, Andy replied, “Make them big.” Although he had never surfed, he knew good art when he saw it.

My final thoughts on the matter are that art should be made by the caring hands of a master rather than mowed out of some impersonal machine or slapped together by someone who has never set foot in the ocean.

Next time you’re near your favorite local surf shop, browse the surfboard racks, and look at the boards not just for their riding potential but also for their aesthetics. I think you will agree with me that there are few works of art so pretty to look upon, especially when they are highlighted underfoot by saltwater.

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