The crowded opening of "Surfing Florida: A Photographic History" at FAU's Schmidt Center Gallery looked more like the parking lot at a Jimmy Buffett concert than an art show. There were well-tanned, middle-aged men in shorts and earth-tone tropical shirts sporting gray ponytails and silver-flecked beards and women wearing sundresses or shorts. "Mature surfers," 72-year-old Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman called them. "Not old surfers."
The event attracted its fair share of young people as well. Teenagers and 20-something surfing enthusiasts with coppery sun-streaked hair and checkered Vans slip-ons amusedly browsed the early-20th-century photos of surfers posing with their impossibly tall and heavy longboards on the same South Florida beaches they play on today. Inside the main exhibit space, a sizable collection of sleek, teardrop-shaped surfboards of varying vintages adorned with neon and primary-colored patterns was on display, suspended and perched beneath directional lights in the ceiling.
Such an exhibit may not be considered fine art, but one can't help but admire the works by people who devoted themselves to pursuing the interplay of humans and the fickle waters of Florida, honing planks of wood into shapes that both rider and water find acceptable with only basic regard paid to the decorative graphics that might otherwise meet the definition of artistic.
The true art form is played out solely upon the water by men and women who travel the coastal roads of Florida in the winter, hoping that the whims of the Atlantic will favor them with the secondslong opportunity to harness the momentum of a roiling swell.
"Surfing equals nature, God," Leah, a Latvian immigrant says, holding a bottle of Bud Light with both hands and stealing a glance at one of the photo collages to her left. Her boyfriend, Rick, a Florida native from Pompano Beach, nods emphatically and says, "You're wasting time if you're not a surfer."
Music was provided outdoors by local surf rockers Cutback, who played jangly, pitch-warbled, 4/4 instrumentals underpinned by a ticking ride cymbal with picks scraped across the reverb-treated strings on the changes. South Florida's Guy Harvey also performed toward the end of the evening.
A table outside the exhibition space was piled deep with empty bottles of craft beer, and the gallery opening felt more like a classic car show as people gathered casually near the show and spoke of surfboards and surfing both past and present with equal enthusiasm. The connection between the makers of custom surfboards and hot rod enthusiasts is more apparent than a first glance would reveal; they are people who are as much blue-collar craftsmen as they are determined seekers of the otherworldly exhilaration that can be experienced only in the rackety growl of a modified Detroit engine or the hollow draining sound heard inside the crystalline curl of a breaking wave.
Florida has produced its share of champion surfers, but the opportunity to surf arrives infrequently south of Palm Beach County when the right combination of wind and tide bring about suitable waves in areas around Pompano, Deerfield, and Miami Beaches. "You get to be like a weatherman from having to study the wind and ocean currents so closely," says 27-year-old Ryan Heavyside, a professional surfer from Boynton Beach whose father, Ron, has been making surfboards at his beachside shop since 1968.
The challenge of surfing in Broward and Miami-Dade counties may be the explanation for the dearth of photos on display of people catching waves at those beaches while the towns of Palm Beach, Sebastian, and the legendary Space Coast are featured prominently. Though the geographical placement of South Florida makes its surfers work hard and travel far for their waves, those who truly know the singularly exhilarating experience that is surfing are perhaps the most patient, appreciative, and creative among us. And it is worth knowing about them.
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