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Metaphors From Artifact Art : Craig Stecyk Uses Castoff Surfboards to Punctuate His Message About Hawaiian Culture

Craig Stecyk is an artist who finds much of his inspiration--not to mention his materials--in society’s castoffs.

Stecyk, 39, actually accumulated discarded paintings and sculpture for 10 years, taking them out of trash cans. In 1983, he piled them on a gallery floor at Claremont Graduate School and lined the walls with information cards such as the ones that document archeological artifacts.

He called the exhibit “Art Trash.”

In “Fishtale,” three years later, he hung car parts trophy-style in USC’s Atelier Gallery. The parts were the spoils of what Stecyk calls “trophy hunts,” during which he cut the fins off abandoned ‘50s cars and collected hubcaps from freeway medians. Part of that installation is on view at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.

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In his newest installation, “Papa Moana” (Hawaiian for ocean board ), the focus is on derelict wooden surfboards that Stecyk collected from trash bins while growing up in Santa Monica during the ‘50s and ‘60s, back when the city was the center of mainland surfing activity. “Papa Moana” will occupy the Laguna Art Museum Satellite at South Coast Plaza through Oct. 1.

The relic boards, now brightly painted, range from 10 to 16 feet long and would barely be recognizable to a modern surfer. Today’s boards are usually less than seven feet long and are made of foam and resin. The ones in the show date from the 1920s and ‘30s, before new synthetic materials made wooden boards obsolete.

Stecyk salvaged the boards but was not sure what to do with them until about 10 years ago, when he thought of incorporating them in a piece that would symbolize the hybridization of Hawaiian culture.

Lining corrugated-metal walls in the shopping mall’s dimly lit gallery, the boards are adorned with various images. There is a portrait of King David Kalakaua, the last Hawaiian king, who, before he was deposed in 1899, championed the resurgence of surfing and other traditional Hawaiian activities suppressed by missionaries.

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Another board carries, in calligraphy, a Zen statement, “Silence like a clap of thunder"--a nod to the pervasive Japanese presence in Hawaii. Still another board is adorned with symbols from ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, including a depiction of a man surfing. Other images--on one board, the Nazi SS symbol is juxtaposed with the herald of the famed 1913 Armory Show of modern art in New York--may not be so easy to interpret.

“It would be a mistake to think this piece is really about surfing,” Stecyk said during an interview in Woodland Hills, where he lives with wife, painter Lynn Coleman, and their two sons.

“They’re metaphorical elements as much as anything else,” he said. For Stecyk, the Hawaiian concept of koana --the hidden or other meaning--plays strongly in the installation. The Hawaiian language, according to Stecyk, has more multiple meanings than any other.

“The shades and nuances of meaning are more important than the explicit meaning,” he said. “It’s a lot like art, or what art should be like.”

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One tableau, entitled “Captain Cook Memorial,” is a bust of the famous navigator, the first Western European in the Hawaiian Islands. It is mounted upside down in a box pierced by spears. The gentle sound of lapping waves is heard--a recording, Stecyk said, made at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, where Cook was killed in 1779 during a fracas with Polynesians.

“He was stunned by a European trade knife, fell down and drowned in knee-deep water, which I think is a superb metaphor,” Stecyk said. “One of the greatest mariners of all time in any culture drowning in knee-deep water, stunned by a trade knife that came from his culture. . . . I think he’s a superb metaphor for that kind of (cross-cultural) fusion.”

The installation has a false front, metal doors flanked by two tall surfboards (the only two that Stecyk has built from scratch). It looks like a storefront. The mall setting “is one of the reasons that the facade evolved,” Stecyk said. “It’s vaguely reminiscent of an old surf shop in a certain sense, but again it’s not quite.”

Inside, with its metal walls and split-bamboo flooring, the room seems to offer an off-kilter vision of an officers’ club at an Army post in the South Pacific circa 1940. Recordings of Hawaiian music from the ‘30s are heard intermittently from an old floor radio, while a neon sign alternately flashes “Aloha” and “ha"--a comment on the trivialization and commercial exploitation of a word that signifies an entire philosophical concept to Hawaiians.

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In a darkened back room, visible only through the porthole window of a locked door, is a 1950 Ford station wagon; flickering images of 1920s surfing at Diamond Head can be seen on an old TV, propped on the tailgate.

“You walk in, and you’re really not sure if it’s a shop or if it’s a crypt or if it’s a shrine,” Stecyk said. “I conceived of this as kind of a cultural curio environment of undetermined time frame, so when you walk in there’s not really a year to it.”

Ambiguity-- koana --"is kind of what I’m after with most of the stuff I do, at least with the installations,” Stecyk said. “It’s exciting to have an environment that you walk into, and it works on a number of different levels, instead of just kind of a sculpture on a pedestal or a painting in a frame on a wall.

“These are a little more interactive. People can go through and determine what kind of experience they are going to have with it.”

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Those experiences have run the gamut, said Stecyk, who has visited “Papa Moana” several times since its June 30 installation. “Some people have sort of violent attitudes about it,” he said. “They say, ‘Well, if this is art, I’ve got a whole garage full of art.’ Which is a great statement.”

Another Hawaiian concept figures into “Papa Moana.” It is mana , a person’s spiritual essence that can be passed onto the person’s possessions. While Stecyk often uses discarded objects in his works as a comment on society’s wastefulness, the old surfboards are precious because of their past.

“The prior history of the boards was important because they actually did have mana . They had been owned by people,” the artist said. “Some of them had been owned by some fairly influential people,” such as Tom Blake and Pete Peterson, who were instrumental in the popularization of surfing in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Blake was the first to commercially produce a composite surfboard, with a then-high-tech material: plywood. Stecyk called Blake’s board “the bridge point between past and future,” between Hawaiian and mainland culture.

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Minnesota native Blake was also the first haole (outsider) to win a surfing championship in Hawaii.

“These men were still active when I grew up,” Stecyk said. Pictures of Blake and Peterson hang in “Papa Moana,” alongside a photo of Duke Kahanamoku, the “father of modern surfing,” a champion swimmer who rescued surfing from cultural oblivion and helped popularize it as a sport.

Growing up in Santa Monica, Stecyk had started bodysurfing and rafting by age 6, surfing by age 10. He was also heavily influenced by the custom-car movement: His father was a partner of George Barris, the best-known of the customizers of the ‘50s and ‘60s. A third influence was art.

“I grew up around artists. My parents were involved with ceramics and photography and whatnot, and all of our neighbors were artists, and a lot of my parents’ friends were artists,” Stecyk said. “There was just a long pattern of involvement with art. It was kind of expected that you did that--it was kind of expected that you have kind of a broad-based cultural approach to things.”

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Also influenced by local gangs, Stecyk at age 15 adopted graffiti as his first art ventures. “I never thought of graffiti as vandalism,” he said. “I always thought of (graffiti) as an art form.”

Designs adapted from gangs’ insignia became a personal code that first graced his surfboards and soon graced buildings and other structures. His efforts were documented in several non-art publications, including Surfer and Rolling Stone.

Later extensions of the graffiti were his “street rods,” cast aluminum rods that were anonymously bolted to the ground in unauthorized locations, and painted metal plaques that were surreptitiously attached to buildings.

This guerrilla approach to art has continued, in various forms, into this decade. A few years back, he would travel with a portable foundry looking for road kills. He would skin the animals killed by cars, make an impression in bronze of the innards, epoxy it to the road and reattach the skin.

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In 1985, as part of a work called “Deep Six,” he sank six bronze female torsos at unrecorded locations in Santa Monica Bay. Partly inspired by underwater archeological finds and also making a comment on the commercialization of art (by destroying his product), Stecyk called the process “reverse historification.”

Santa Monica has changed, but Stecyk, who maintains a studio in Ocean Park, still traces his work to his early environment. “In a certain sense, I guess what I do is partly autobiographical,” he said. “There was always a feeling of heritage, no matter what your activity was, in Santa Monica. It was next to Los Angeles, but it was on the ocean, and you were very aware that you were different. . . .

“I never made a conscious decision to do things. It’s just that the things I was doing were identified as art. Growing up in Santa Monica, there was always a feeling that there was an indigenous life style and perhaps, I would argue, an indigenous aesthetic.”

“Papa Moana” is on view through Oct. 1 at the Laguna Art Museum Satellite at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa. Admission is free. Hours : 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Information: (714) 494-6531.

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“Fishtale” is on view through Sept. 3 as part of “The Traveling Show: Art Influenced by Transportation” at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave. , Fullerton. Suggested donation: $1 for adults, 50 cents for children and the elderly. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Information: (714) 738-6595.


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