The Art of Surfing


A semester in the sculpture studio unites one artist’s reverence for wood and water

"Those meditative moments where I was working really hard or had already been there for, whatever, five hours into the night were the times that I realized how special it was, that connection between like a person and a material that's natural and what it can be."
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Torsten Brinkema
July 6, 2021

By the time Torsten Brinkema ’22 pulled off the highway toward Old Orchard Beach, dusk had settled in. The rain had stopped; the surf was up. This was his one chance to ride before leaving Maine for winter break.

“I got up on my board, the sky cleared, and I saw the sunset,” said the native Minnesotan. “The waves were perfect.”

What made this late November moment so sweet was the surfboard Brinkema was riding. It wasn’t the foam board he bought on Craigslist his first year at Colby. This was a wooden board, handcrafted by Brinkema himself in Colby’s sculpture studio and finished just hours earlier.

“It was a crazy feeling, this thing I had spent so much time working on and thinking about was finally under my feet and in the water.”

Brinkema’s wooden surfboard is the product of a semester-long independent study with sculptor and Associate Professor of Art Bradley Borthwick. The making of the board is the subject of Tree to Board, Brinkema’s recently released short film. In June the Maine Outdoor Film Festival officially selected the film for its 2021 festival.

Crafted from northern white cedar sustainably harvested in Maine, the channeled, twin-fin board measures six feet 10 inches long. Brinkema, a studio art major and Nordic ski team member, used a pattern to create the blank. He cut and joined 14 staves into the board’s basic form, hollowing out each stave to reduce its weight. Once epoxied together, he relied solely on his intuition and trained-at-Colby eye to sand and shape the blank into a symmetrical board.

“He’s fashioned one profile running side to side and another running end to end,” Borthwick said. “It’s a compound curve, wood ‘bending’ in both directions, all shaped by hand.”

In a word? “Incredible.”

Student building surfboard
Torsten Brinkema’s first connection with Maine was through the water, he said. As he developed a passion for sculpture and working with his hands, he undertook an independent study to craft his own surfboard.

Brinkema started surfing as a child during visits with an aunt in California. His father, a Nordic ski racer as well, was director of the Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes responsible forestry worldwide. It’s not surprising, then, that Brinkema opens his film saying, “The connection between trees and waves is something I’ve been fascinated by my whole life.” His fascination with sculpture came into play his first year at Colby. The melding of his three interests followed soon thereafter.

The surfboard project included a serious amount of research by Brinkema. From the history of Australian aboriginal and native Hawaiian surfboards to Maine’s Wabanaki people’s dugout canoes, he “wanted to explore ideas of indigenous crafts and take them to the roots of surfboard shaping,” he said. “And for Maine, that means a surfboard from northern white cedar.”

Borthwick believes Brinkema’s artistic practice will deepen as a result of the independent study. “Engaging with the broader context of a ‘surfboard’ allows him to pursue and question sculpture in terms of how his ideas and interests can be communicated through meaningful design, material, and built form.”

There’s no doubt that Brinkema wants his art to communicate two things: a reverence for the natural world and the importance of protecting its resources.

Student working on a surfboard
“Those meditative moments where I was working really hard or had already been there for, whatever, five hours into the night were the times that I realized how special it was—that connection between a person and a material that’s natural, and what it can be.”

He plans to broadcast that message through wooden surfboards—he has a second one underway and hopes to eventually sell them; through his senior capstone project, which may involve carving artificial driftwood—think lumber and beams washed ashore—and exploring questions of human-nature interaction; and through film and photography via his newly established venture, Brinkema Brothers Productions.

As a sculptor, photographer, and filmmaker, Brinkema has the ability to move away from what Borthwick sees as a singular notion of art into something more expansive.

“Torsten is an example of a student willing to jump boundaries,” Borthwick said. “Not that it’s conscientiously interdisciplinary—simply, there’s a plurality to one’s artistic practice and the means to therefore identify deeply with and find expression for one’s process of making.”