Propelled on a Zephyr of Compressed Wind

CR Stecyk, the Smithsonian, and the first airbrushed surfboard.

Light / Dark

Stored somewhere deep in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, along with other markers of pre-collapse American life gleaned from hundreds of years of material history, is a singular surfboard almost as mysterious and only slightly less powerful than the lost Ark of the Covenant. 

Should you somehow have occasion to peruse the 155 million artifacts collecting dust deep in the Smithsonian underworld and stumble upon this surfboard, you might not even look twice. It is unremarkable on its face: a mid-60s longboard with a clean deck, from a time when most surfboards were intentionally unassuming. Or, as Skip Engblom says of that era’s sticks: “Big or short, they just look like they look.” 

And, at first glance, so would this one. If, however, you were able to flip it over for a bottoms-up view, the paradigm shift this surfboard represents would start to reveal itself in layers, as would the trail of the man responsible for it: Craig Stecyk. 

The board we speak of is a step-decked stringerless 9’5″ made by CR with Dave Sweet in 1966. The latter, one of history’s most influential board builders, was part of the polymath postwar Ocean Park, Santa Monica, neighborhood in which Stecyk came of age. OP was then a beachside barrio that before long would be known as Dogtown following a separate, but entirely related, exercise in culture jamming by a more seasoned Stecyk. 

It was in 1950, though, right around the time Stecyk had slipped the womb, that Sweet was initiating major moves in surf-craft materials development. Notable efforts include a 1953 Styrofoam-core board glassed with red epoxy, its opaqueness an effort to keep his developmental process a secret. In 1954, Sweet designed a steel and fiberglass mold that he commissioned Techniform, an aerospace-related company, to build for him. Years of research and design followed.

In 1956, Sweet sold the first polyurethane-foam-core surfboard to a customer on the beach at Malibu. It would be two years before others caught up with him. By 1958, Sweet had developed a thriving business and shop in Santa Monica, and his polyurethane-foam core remains the predominant basis of construction for the surfboards of the world. Variations on other developments, which can be traced back to his Olympic Boulevard experimental atelier, live on in gliders, drones, and other military applications. 

By 1966, the teenaged Stecyk had logged years of hang time in Sweet’s shop. This was due to a variety of propinquities, not the least of which was the affinity for hot rods and custom-car culture running through the Sweet and Stecyk family trees. The July 1963 issue of Car Craft magazine—the “Wild ‘Woodies’ and Surf Wagons!” issue—serves as an apt marker of these culture confluences. On the cover, you’ll see the lovely Bonnie Sweet in a baby-blue bikini, pretending to pull a single-fin log off the top of what appears to be a customized 1932 Ford wagon. 

At that same time, Stecyk’s father was in cahoots with brothers Sam and George Barris, and young Craig would frequently park it around the seminal Barris Kustom Shop in Lynwood, where he watched Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard hand-letter custom finishes and absorbed, literally and figuratively, different varieties of paint formulation and application techniques.

As for the 1966 Sweet Smithsonian board, and other, more recognizable sticks Stecyk was messing with at the time, we can see the artist starting to hone a signature move: Take the opportunity presented by a technological breakthrough—synthetic blanks, in this case—follow the cues of custom culture, and turn performance into something performative. Stecyk realized these new blanks were ripe for content and commentary, and, consciously or not, he set about postmodernizing the soft-hued suburban-escapist patina right the hell out of them. 

Years later, he and his familiar accomplices would—more notoriously and more self-consciously—do the same when polyurethane wheels accelerated a performance paradigm shift in skateboarding. In this context, we can think of the Smithsonian board as totemic of the explosive impact Stecyk would have on arguably two of the biggest cultural influences since the Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport: surf and skate. 

Museum, meet meta. Meta, meet museum. 

Of course, the Smithsonian wasn’t entirely aware of what it was getting. By the time it took possession of Stecyk’s board, that board was already a relic from the artist’s past, one that landed in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection as part of a massive retrospective called A Material World, which ran at the Institution’s National Museum of American History from April 8, 1988, to December 1, 2002. 

The show was intended to be a survey of how hundreds of years of technological advances have impacted the materials we use to make stuff. In a 1991 review, the Journal of American History put it this way: “The exhibition aims to increase the museum visitor’s awareness of the importance of the materials that compose goods, to show how the choice of materials both affects the function of the goods and reveals or reflects broader cultural values, and to demonstrate how the materials used for goods in the same function changed or were replaced by other, often newer, materials.”

(Top) CR at the 1989 installation Papa Moana. Photograph by Anthony Friedkin. (Bottom) An unrepentant hoarder, to this day Stecyk maintains a library of over 40 working paint sprayers. Some, like this 1938 Sharpe Model 25, are works of art in their own right. Top photograph by Anthony Friedkin. Bottom photo by CR Stecyk III.

The objects on display spanned nearly 300 years of American history (from a primarily non-Indigenous perspective) and ran the gamut from pre-industrial millstones and whale-oil lamps to early industrial home technologies like sewing machines and metal-fused household items. Things start to get real Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby–ish (to cop from the Barris-inspired eponymous essay in Tom Wolfe’s first collection) when the “American” century kicks into high gear, starting with the Art Deco era and hitting hyper speed during the postwar boom. 

And because there was, as Mr. McGuire said to Benjamin Braddock out by the pool in The Graduate, “a great future in plastics,” and because history was just a year from being over in 1988 (and surely done by the time A Material World rolled up its runners), Stecyk’s surfboard landed in the show’s “Synthetic Realms” section, an unwitting icon of new composites and disruptive art. There, The New York Times noted in a contemporaneous review, it stood alongside such items as a chrome-plated toaster, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, artificial hearts, a vintage American Graffiti–style jukebox, electric toothbrushes, and, I read somewhere, Big Daddy Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat dragster.

Current context may have rendered these objects sentimental signifiers of more innocent times, but as Robert Post, the exhibition’s curator, told the Times, “Materials have to affect human values. ‘Plastic’ means infinitely moldable. When people can define what they want and fire up a plan, they feel in charge of their environment, but people also lose power over nature as certain craft skills are lost.”

People can also lose the script at the confluence of art, lifestyle, and commerce, even in the postmodern commodification complex, also known as branding, that Stecyk would help erect during his Zephyr and Powell-Peralta iterations, but was only starting to mess with back in 1966. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that he was already showing an astute awareness of what he had helped wrought, willingly or not, by the time the Smithsonian’s gears were grinding away on A Material World. 

In fact, as the behemoth Smithsonian exhibition was getting ready to open, a then-38-year-old Stecyk and Laguna Art Museum director Charles Desmarais were putting the finishing touches on the artist’s sly investigation of those very issues. Papa Moana, for which Bolton Colburn’s companion catalog is a must-read for attempting to grasp Stecyk’s unfathomable impact on our culture, cheekily debuted in 1989 at South Coast Plaza, the mall serving as a museum satellite. 

If brevity is the soul of wit, I dare say Papa Moana made the more powerful statement about the dizzying impact of materials and manifest destiny (and plastics!) during the postwar boom that was pretty much out of steam by the time Reagan limped off into the sunset. 

Like I said, though, you’d have to turn that Smithsonian board over to notice anything out of the ordinary. 

“The deck was clear. It was at times collaged/airbrushed/painted on in this area. It was ironically returned to its unadorned state, since the Smithsonian show theme was ‘Material World,’ about the impact of technology on recreational activities,” Stecyk explains. “The Smithsonian asked for it for its appropriateness for their overall exhibition premise. It was displayed in close proximity to Charles and Rae Eames fiberglass chairs.”

The flip side is where things got weird. 

Stecyk had been tinkering with offset fins for enhanced performance (he might have tried clipping a couple feet), and the offset made the bottom appear asymmetrical. There, he had his way with it.

“The bottom of the board is a five-colored abstract resin job that I executed. It was an experimental personal board and not standard issue,” says Stecyk, who describes its overall impression as “uncontrolled abstract—something between a Jackson Pollock and a toy marble. It had depths and layers and streaks.” 

Stecyk lost track of the board for a while. As the story goes, it went missing sometime after he had stashed it in a commandeered storage space beneath the Pacific Ocean Park Pier. In those days, Stecyk was a raft wrangler for Kent Sherwood, Jay Adams’ stepfather, who had the Ely’s Beach Rentals concession stand. The board would likely have gone down with the POP ship, which by then was taking on the financial water that would soon tank it like the Atlantis of amusement parks, had it not turned up like a bad penny in the hands of Nathan Pratt. 

Pratt apparently brought the board out of storage as a prop for a Horizons West (erstwhile Zephyr shop) photo shoot for GQ magazine. Stecyk unexpectedly happened upon his long-lost stick just as it slammed into the low-tide rocks of Malibu Point. He reclaimed it from obscurity and eventually shipped it off to the Smithsonian for posterity. 

Maybe it’s better left the stuff of legend, for it may not even be the best representation of what Stecyk was up to at that time. By 1966, he was already well into fucking with the Miki Dora boards coming out of Greg Noll’s shop. 

“I painted a lot of boards for an assortment of individuals,” Stecyk says. “A number of things were done with Dora, and I received Da Cat project boards directly from Greg Noll [whose boards Dora was then riding]. Tak Kawahara was my shaper of choice in Greg’s stable. Da Bull’s ‘joy’ over my art ‘desecration’ of his efforts, and the messes I left behind in what was then the ‘world’s biggest modern surfboard manufacturing facility,’ are the basis of our decades-long friendship.”

I have seen one example of Stecyk’s Dora boards from that time, and it’s quite arresting. Painted on its deck is a crude, nose-to-tail tarantula (the 16-year-old Stecyk was into them) with the Greg Noll and Da Cat logos caught in a web within the thorax. The mixed-media image was rendered with brush paint, sprayed automotive lacquer, decoupage, ink drawing, and hand aerosol applications. 

That might help explain the process, but the sheer transgression of the art, done for that era’s most transgressive surfer, is hard to overstate. Stecyk, of course, will do his best to understate it. 

The genesis: the only known photograph of Stecyk’s Dave Sweet experimentation, which now resides in the underbelly of the Smithsonian. What happens when just the right kid comes along—hauling all sorts of subcultural reference points, mentored by foundational figures, and given free rein to make as he pleases? Well, the whole game is changed. Stecyk, of course, would do it repeatedly over five decades in various mediums and topics. Surfing, though, remains the center. Photograph courtesy of CR Stecyk III.

 “The board is overt painting that doesn’t have seagulls and any of that hippie crap which later came into vogue,” he says. “It’s much closer to a graffiti practice.”

That it would be so is not surprising given that Stecyk’s free-range adolescence involved navigating between two different gang territories, making it incumbent to learn to decode the graffiti messages. Stecyk was also presciently attuned to the growing impact of Chicano art and culture on the larger landscape. The Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose 1932 América Tropical on the south façade of Italian Hall in El Pueblo kicked off the mural era in LA, was a significant influence. “I continue to be an associate of Siqueiros’ grandson,” says Stecyk. LACMA’s 1974 exhibit of the famed Los Four Chicano art collective would be similarly influential. 

Not that Stecyk had to go looking for influences. He was born into them. 

“Growing up around the Barris brothers’ car customization shop, seeing Von Dutch hand lettering there, and visiting the Ford assembly plant where my father was employed meant that I was exposed to a variety of paint formulation and application techniques. The commercial-split, fountain-color technique used by commercial printers was another influence,” he says. “My father used Sharpe spray guns in his pursuits of auto restyling and furniture building. My mother, in the glazing of her ceramic pieces, utilized that same equipment. Periodically we would venture to Sharpe’s manufacturing headquarters in downtown Los Angeles to pick up replacement parts. I subsequently employed Sharpe spray equipment in the painting of surf and skateboards, as well as posters, bikes, etc.”

As for how and when he started viewing surfboard decks as canvasses, Stecyk says, “Surf vehicles are graphic surfaces, which optically interact with conflicting environments and situational contexts. The dynamism of the air versus the water perpetually is at crossed purposes in the vicinity of the intersection of sea and land. Skateboards were originally referred to as sidewalk surfboards. I enjoy these dichotomies and communicate this discord.”

Indeed, the Dora board and others he would later spray paint under the Zephyr imprimatur can be viewed as examples of an artist finding his voice in this discord. Here is Stecyk just starting to assemble the disruption bomb of hard-edged West Coast bohemia he would soon drop into the middle of the Gidget cum The Endless Summer stasis that had been gripping the scene. You can look at that board and see the point at which a 16-year-old’s artistic DNA started commanding the lexicon of decades’ worth of youth culture and street art.

“He was the first person that I know of who would have brought spray-painting artwork to surfboards. In terms of graffiti, he’s definitely the guy,” says Colburn. “It was subversive, a thread to the Beautiful Losers era.” 

As the years passed, those Dora boards became harder to find. Indeed, when Claudine Klose, who was a curator for A Material World and who also happened to be Miki Dora’s first cousin, came calling about a surfboard for the show, Stecyk recalls that “Miklos III had absolutely no interest in any of it, which was indicative of his orientation towards reductive theology.”

So, off went Stecyk’s Dave Sweet board. And that is the tale of how the board in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, while certainly a hallmark of postwar progress in synthetic compounds and of proto-punk sensibilities, is sort of there by default. 

That’s okay—those mid 60s boards were just the seeds. The big bloom came almost an entire Vietnam War later, when Stecyk suggested to Skip Engblom and Jeff Ho that they put his airbrushing techniques into production at the Zephyr shop. 

“Jeff and I looked at him like, ‘How are you going to do that?’” recalls Engblom. 

To answer, Stecyk came in one day and started hooking up an airbrush. It may have been the very same vintage Sharpe Model 25 Stecyk’s mother had been using for her ceramics practice. They experimented with paints and tapes and colors and techniques. “It wasn’t like we did it one day and bing, it worked,” says Engblom.

After a series of misfires, mostly with the resin rejecting the paint during the glassing phase, Stecyk suggested lacquer. The resin and paint held.  Soon they discovered they could use lacquer-based sprays and, with the right tape, at last hold a sharp line.

2019 Legacy installation with Gypsy Rose, Costa Mesa, California. Photograph by Derek Bahn.

At the same time, they were trying to add something more to the sharp lines and flat graphics, something deeper. “We were trying to do multidimensional, layered colors. It was a continuing process of trying to get more depth, more depth,” Engblom explains. “Craig was laying down undercoats and coming back and frosting other coats over it.”

Once they got the techniques dialed in, they didn’t look back. 

“We were a full year or 18 months ahead of Rainbow. We had to keep the fucking doors open. We had a product that no one else had. It was cooler. It was way cooler,” says Engblom. “A lot of people really liked what we did, and a lot of people really hated it. For better or worse, we were the problem or the solution.”