Story and photos by Ben Hogwood
Craig Gurganus opens the front door of his house on Pine Street, a wide, pockmarked residential road in the old “Union Town” section of Beaufort, and picks up a shark.
OK, it’s a sculpture of a shark. And it’s not exactly designed to instill fear into its audience. Instead, the shark has Ping-Pong eyes that pop out of its head, and a goofy grin featuring a set of choppers that looks more interested in chewing gummy bears than portioning out thigh meat from beach goers.
“I painted teeth last night at 9 o’clock,” Gurganus says, tossing the shark on a leather couch beside two yellow pillows and a guidebook for fish. Above the couch is an aquarium-like wall full of other sea creatures: the snobby triggerfish, the prickly blowfish, the astonished flounder.
The shark will be joining this menagerie that Gurganus, 63, has named “Fish Bouffant,” in which the artist takes old, broken surfboards and – with a little carving, some fiberglass cloth, some resin, spray paint and a few coats of lacquer – transforms them into these playful, gill-bearing sculptures. They are all colorful and kooky, and they all aim to please.
“Bouffant is a happy word in French,” he explains on a July morning from the living room of his house. He’s sitting on his couch and his blue eyes cut through the white of his hair and beard. At his feet is a pair of nondescript fish that, with the addition of some barbecue skewers and a few days at his workshop down Highway 70 just outside of town, will soon become lionfish. The walls are covered in art from friends and family and the wood floors show dribbles of dry paint.
“It’s like the frilly cuffs,” he says, thinking of the shirts worn by Renaissance poets or pirates. “It’s an attitude. It’s supposed to make you happy, big time. It’s very cartoonish.”
The “happy” aspect is certainly important, but so is the recycling element. While he has stacks of boards, he only cuts into the ones that can no longer be used. He can tell you the story behind each board; perhaps it snapped on a wave in Nicaragua; maybe a dog in Hawaii chewed it up; maybe it was in a fire. He has the remnants of all these boards in his workshop. But if the board is in good shape, or if the art on it is already too good to touch, he hangs on to it, storing it alongside scores of bowling balls, a Christmas tree made of resin-filled paint brushes, boats, a camper, and an old school bus.
“I’m a bit of a hoarder,” he says. Still, recycling is a theme in his life; when he can, he uses what he has, and he turns it into something new.
Gurganus grew up in Chapel Hill, the son of a preschool teacher mother and a grocer father. While his mother pushed art on the family a little, perhaps there was more a practical application in his father’s line of work. “Believe it or not, in a grocery store there’s art, in color, in how to display stuff,” he said.
Whatever the influence, art took a hold on three of the four Gurganus brothers. Gurganus’s younger brother is a carver, and his oldest brother, Allan, a novelist whose books include the bestseller Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, began as a painter. Gurganus said Allan always had art books lying around the house and had his first show when he was still a teenager.
“Being around someone like Allan – my younger brother too – it does wear off on you,” he said.
Gurganus worked as a produce manager for a while, but by the age of 32 he had moved to Thousand Oaks, Calif. He surfed, he painted houses, he fished, and he worked and stayed with a family. “I was kind of like an au pair,” he says. “I lived with a family and took care of their kids. I’d paint on the side.”
According to the “Fish Bouffant” legend, one day, while surfing in San Diego, he snapped his one and only board. However, on the drive home he had somewhat of an epiphany. He would reuse that broken surfboard; he would make it useful again. He would turn it into a fish.
It wasn’t quite that straightforward. The broken surfboard, and the resulting epiphany, was really just another piece of the puzzle that became Fish Bouffant. In fact, he’d already made one fish, a yellow thing with thick red, white, and blue paint drooled across it. It was made of plywood, chicken wire and fiberglass cloth and he still owns it. “I call it a Pollock,” he says, referring not to the species of fish, but to the drip-paint style of the artist he copied: Jackson Pollock.
“This piece, this is before I even knew how to do fins,” he says, looking at that prototype. “Once I learned to do the fins it jumped into another level.”
The project gave Gurganus the chance to roll his experience and his passions into one: his passion for surfing and fishing, his knowledge of color and organization from working in the grocery store, his understanding of paint. And, reusing surfboards tied in with his political worldview. “If you take them to the dump, they don’t break down in nature,” he said. “If you burn them, they’re toxic. People have tons of old boards they just keep, and then they have to clean their garage out and they take them all to the dump.
“I could buy surfboard blanks, I could buy the foam that’s never been used and it would be twice as easy. But it is a service.” Still, he admits some of the other material he uses isn’t doing the planet any favors, and he does have a pretty big “footprint,” though he tries to use every piece of what he has.
But there was still something missing, and that was the location. That piece fell into place when he moved to Beaufort around 1990. He came here to paint houses, ran into a girl from his hometown, and that was it. “It was just like, this is the place. I don’t know, I felt very comfortable here.”
And the town has embraced him. “People are good to me,” he said. “People around here look out for local artists.”
The restaurants, both in the town and around the county, have embraced him particularly tight. Wendy Park, owner of Beaufort Grocery Co. on Queen Street, said her restaurant sells five or six of Gurganus’s sculptures each week. Park understands that, for whatever reason, artists are attracted to the area. “We’re the artist’s hideaway,” she said, standing in the restaurant’s bar, underneath one of Gurganus’s blue and gray sailfish. “It’s where the crazies come.”
The restaurant has had Gurganus’s work on display almost since it opened 24 years ago, but Park first heard of Gurganus as a house painter. “He was supposed to paint our house,” she said. “He was the man to get.” Unfortunately for her, Fish Bouffant took off, and Gurganus set house painting aside.
Elements of the town also get recycled and turned into something new with Fish Bouffant. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Gurganus’s success without the town, particularly the influence of the marine biologists who work and study at the county’s marine facilities, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office and the Duke University Marine Lab, both on Pivers Island. Gurganus even has a wall, 36-feet long, in Duke’s Pilkey Research Lab, filled with nothing but his fish.
Gurganus said that often, when a student at one of the labs graduates, their friends and classmates will chip in and custom order a piece of whatever aquatic life they studied. Barnacles? With their cute little feathery feeding appendages? Sure thing. Lemon drop sea slugs? With mushroomy antennas on their head? Done. Pompano? Deep-water snails that die from fright as soon as a research vessel gets close to them? Snails that are so difficult to capture, even on film, that there aren’t that many photos of them? You got it. How about lobster larvae?
“I did a lobster larvae. It’s a microscopic shot,” Gurganus says, one leg crossed over the other. “When I finished, it was this big” – he stretches his arms wide across his body. “People freaked out because they thought it was going to be …” – well, microscopic.
Those marine experts are often the ones who keep him motivated. They keep pushing him to try something different. “Every once in a while you get bored, but then you start meeting people and everybody’s happy. Then you start making a piece you haven’t made before,” he said. And each piece has its own personality.
Today it is hot. The air is so thick and heavy you can almost scoop it up in your hands. Adorned on the wall beside Gurganus’s house, which is painted cooked-salmon pink, is a self-made historic plaque, gently mocking the town’s historic houses on the south side of Cedar Street. The plaque announces the hoity name of the house as “Chateau Bouffant,” and where the historic markers typically state the year the house was built, Gurganus’s simply says, “old.” Accompanying it is a flounder Gurganus has dubbed “Yikes,” which has become a mascot for the business.
About a block from Gurganus’s house is Town Creek, and a clanging rings out as construction workers continue to build the new high-rise bridge that will eventually connect Beaufort to all points west. Pedro, the U.S. Marines double rotor helicopter, orange and black, cuts through the rhythmic pounding and arcs over the water.
Gurganus is busy, and that’s the way he likes it. He’s shuttling sculptures back and forth between his home and a friend’s restaurant in Chapel Hill, where he’s showing work. In a few weeks he’s hosting an event at the Duke Marine Lab, where he’ll be the featured artist, and sooner or later he’ll head down to Florida to drum up some more business. When it’s hot, like today, he’s even busier, because the heat affects the materials he uses, forcing him to work quicker. Later, he’ll be heading to his shop to do the dirtiest work.
This – the house, the water, the heat, the mess of paint, the town and its people and that slimmest of threads connecting it to a wider world – all intersects somewhere inside Gurganus, and it mingles with his love of fishing and surfing and knowledge of colors and his desire to learn something new, and when it comes out, he’s recycled it all into what we know as Fish Bouffant.
“If I was a millionaire I’d still be doing it, you know what I mean? If I won the lottery I wouldn’t stop,” he says. “Today I’m making sailfish” – he pauses, and maybe he thinks about those seven-foot sculptures with the long pointed bills and deep blue dorsal fins that looks like stained glass.
“And they’re so beautiful.”