Family, tradition, and caring for the land—these are the things that matter most to professional surfer and surfboard shaper C.J. Kanuha. When he spoke to me on the phone last week from his home on Hawaiʻi Island, he repeatedly wove these themes into the discussion of his past and current projects, and what it means to be a part of Hawaiʻi in Design.
To talk about how he started shaping boards meant discussing his father’s guidance and lessons about his Hawaiian genealogy. Talking about shaping surfboards in traditional ways recalled the momentous visit and subsequent mentorship from Tom “Pohaku” Stone, a master crafter of early Hawaiian board designs, like the alaia. And to talk about his growing success as an artist with boards hanging in the Smithsonian, and as an athlete making appearances in Speedo commercials, called for sober reflections on the loss his mother last year. Her passing gave him pause, “to make sure I was pono and everything else was pono around me,” he said.
A large part of ensuring that everything around him is in righteous order deals with staying sustainable. On view in Hawaiʻi in Design are two of his handcrafted boards—an alaia and a kikoʻo—made respectively from mango and koa trees that Kanuha found near his home. He shaped them with simple tools—a hand plane and sandpaper—and finished them with kukui nut oil.
As part of the Honolulu Surf Film Festival, Kanuha will come to Oʻahu to take part in a panel at the July 8 screening of Fish, with fellow artists from Hawaiʻi in Design. I went ahead and got a few of basic questions out of the way, so visitors that night can dive right into the deep stuff.
Do you shape foam boards or only wood?
Everyone asks me that. I don’t sell foam boards. I basically just want to ride my traditional boards and make my traditional boards. I love doing foam boards and I actually have three of them that I shaped at the house, but I’ll only shape those boards from recycled, old beat-up, broken boards and give them to kids I see at the beach.
How do the tools used for traditional alaia differ from modern board-making technology?
The first few I did, I did really traditional. I had the adze and was chipping away at the thing for a very long time. And I used sanding stones and different things and they came out alright, but still sandpaper and a planer is huge. If Kamehameha had a D9 [tractor] we would have pyramids here. For me it’s being able to use modern technology to redo and remake what I want. I tell people I’ll make those boards traditional, but I also do modern traditional. Nothing can replicate the past. You can keep everything as traditional as you want, but there’s no one out there right now that is ever going to get there. Those old shapes weren’t like what we have now. Modern traditional was when Uncle Duke [Kahanamoku] was around. That’s still traditional, but that’s modern traditional. They had tools to be making those. They weren’t using adzes.
And even in the past, traditional boards probably weren’t static designs, right?
Yeah, and that’s something I learned from my kupunas. I asked DeSoto Brown, who wrote a history of Hawaiian surfing, “Do you know where Hawaiians got their shape from?” and he couldn’t answer the question. I told him it was the penis. For the Hawaiians everything was very sensual—you can look at all of our chants, and the way they talk about different areas and and talk about things. My kupunas always told me that’s what it came from. It didn’t matter, you look at all the old shapes of different styles of boards, and there was one certain shape that they had. But now you can do your own, and do it to what you feel like it [should be].
Is making traditional boards purely about a cultural and historical connection for you, or is part of a protest against modern technology?
Not at all. For me it’s a balance of opposites; it’s yin and yang. Surf technology moving to the future is always super cool, but with the sustainability of traditional surfboards any kid can go out in their yard and get a piece of wood. If they learn how to use a saw properly, even a handsaw, they can cut a slab out and shape a surfboard, just with those small tools and leave such a small impact on the environment, where you basically just put sawdust back into ground.
I shape my boards outside; I don’t shape anything inside. People are tripped out. I’m not out there blowing out a bunch of stuff that’s going to kill the environment. And I notice when I am shaping boards that the earth and the dirt just grips right; it’s really nice. But for me it’s not a protest at all. I can still surf my traditional short boards and show the young kids that, though I won’t be doing airs, I’ll be doing hacks and 360s, and going just as fast if not faster than the majority of the people in the water on my modern-traditional alaia. And if I inspire 10 out of 300 kids, then those 10 are stoked on it. And I know not everyone has the means to do it. If I can go and leave a board somewhere with someone that’s never had surfing, that can then go and make their own or teach somebody how to make it, it’s pretty killer. Art transcends many boundaries, and surfing does as well. It’s a multicultural thing.
So with such an emphasis on surfing, what does it mean to you to be part of a show that’s about design in Hawaiʻi and pairs your boards with furniture and fashion?
For me it’s full circle. I use my boards in the ocean, but they’re functional pieces of art. It’s cool to have our surf culture and surf design carry a major impact of Hawaiian culture, and spread that throughout the world.