Just the other day Red Bull surfer Julian Wilson posted a curious photo to his Facebook page, a tangle of busted surfboards. "One of Herbie's famous 'Pipeline Wrecktangle' pieces featuring a busted clown board of mine from Hawaii last winter. Awesome!" he wrote in to the caption field. The Herbie that Julian is referencing is surf legend Herbie Fletcher.
Fletcher is a fascinating dude, a true surfing renaissance man -- he was almost single-handedly responsible for the longboard revival of the 1970s; he's made dozens of surf movies; he owns the traction-pad company Astrodeck; he raised two sons, Nathaniel and Christian, to be trailblazing surfers; he studied painting under Julian Schnable and has launched a successful career as an artist.
Anyway, back to the Wrecktangles: Herbie and Jerry Lopez shared a house on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii -- overlooking Pipeline -- and about 10 years ago, Herbie was on a flight to Hawaii, daydreaming about the house and all of the snapped boards that his friends, some of the best pro surfers in the world, had lined up along the walls of the house. "You know, this was all going through my head, and I thought, 'Wow, this would look pretty cool if they were all stuck together on the wall,'" Herbie says. "They were all guns, you know, for riding big waves, and they all have a story to them. You could see all of the art that these surfers put on the board to go out and ride these giant waves."
So Herbie approached the guys who hung out at his old house, not just his sons, but guys like Bruce and Andy Irons, about the project and they were happy to contribute. Andy immediately donated three boards. Materials were not difficult to come by.
"Everybody breaks a board at Pipeline," Herbie says. "When I presented the idea to a couple people and showed it to them they thought it was really new and fresh." Schnabel liked that first piece so much that he included it in an exhibition in New York.
He heaped praise on Herbie's vision in the exhibition catalog, writing: "The fragments of these boards that comprise these works that he calls 'Wrecktangles' tell the story of the culture whose logos are brandished on these broken accidents, adventures, and rudimentary failures embodying the whole that I find in this work very complete. It doesn't matter whose surfboard they happen to be; it's nice if it means something to Herbie, but that's not the meaning of the sculptures ... Herbie Fletcher's scultures bring the present surf culture to a poetic close. They form a radical portrait of the late-20th century practice by a longstanding member of the tribe."
"Everybody breaks a board at Pipeline. When I presented the idea to a couple people and showed it to them they thought it was really new and fresh."
Herbie is in his early 60s now and says he doesn't surf as much as he used to and so making art -- painting and sculpture -- takes up a lot of his time. He's a laid-back guy, sweet and smart and just overflowing with stories. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with him, but I could have listened to him tell his story for hours. After that first Wrecktangles exhibition he continued collecting broken boards. He constructs a metal frame and then fastens the boards together using epoxy and screws.
The number of boards he uses varies on the size of the piece he's working on -- most of them are gigantic: 17 x 7 feet or something like that. "It starts out like a blank canvas and you just start adding stuff onto it and taking stuff off. Most of the time I hit it right on and keep going and when it's done, it's done. I just know," Herbie says.
The pieces are expensive; they range in cost from $25,000 to $60,000. He's sold more than a dozen Wrecktangle sculptures so far. Schnabel has three. New York real estate impresario Ian Schrager has one in the lobby of one of his buildings. Another will be on display at the Modern Honolulu, the new luxury hotel at Waikiki. And now Herbie is working on a Wrecktangle sculpture -- 18-feet high by nine feet wide -- that he describes as being shaped like a waterfall for an upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles.
When I point out that that's a lot of surfboard carnage, he laughs and says, "It's really great that the guys think of me. They're all stoked to be included. Each board has a story and they can't believe that I make art out of them. They're all, 'Oh, I gotta get a board in one of them."
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