Restoring a piece of surfing history

Newport Beach studio restores oil color of Hawaiian chieftain on a classic redwood and balsa board that belonged to surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku.

February 07, 2011|By Mike Reicher,
  • Ardenia Capannelli, a fine art conserver, shows before and after photos on the "chief" painting she restored on a wooden board once belonging to Duke Kahanamoku.
Ardenia Capannelli, a fine art conserver, shows before… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — From the street it looks like a gallery of European fine art, but for the last few months it has been the unlikely home to a piece of surfing history.

In this Cannery Village art conservation and restoration studio, Ardenia Capannelli has restored a painting on a board owned by Duke Kahanamoku, considered the father of modern surfing.

Wedged between a painting of French lovers from the 1800s and a Raphael-style 1600s portrait of a noble woman, the 11-foot, 6-inch redwood and balsa wood board has been revived by a woman far removed from the board's Hawaiian roots.

Capannelli honed her skills in Italy, where she studied and practiced conservation of Renaissance-era paintings. When the Surfing Heritage Foundation of San Clemente asked her to restore an oil painting of a Hawaiian chief atop a long wooden surfboard, she had no idea who Kahanamoku was.

But as soon as she propped up the board in her Ardenia Capannelli Conservation and Restoration Studio, her clients — doctors, lawyers, surfers and non-surfers — marveled at it and instantly recognized Kahanamoku's name. She then realized how much he meant to surfers and others influenced the sport.


"It had a fascination because I got to work on something that represented the culture here," said Capannelli, who's intimidated by the ocean — the Pacific is not quite the Adriatic Sea.

In Italy, she touched up paintings that represented changes of human society. This project let her work on one that represented the spread of surfing from the ancient Hawaiians to the American mainland and the rest of the world.

Kahanamoku traveled the world as an Olympic swimmer and became an "ambassador" of surfing. After winning a gold medal in the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, he performed for surfing exhibitions in Australia and the West Coast — places like Corona del Mar and others in the Los Angeles area.

In 1925, he paddled on a surfboard out where Corona del Mar State Beach is today and rescued eight people from a fishing boat that had capsized at the entrance to Newport Harbor.

Hollywood agents were taken by his striking profile and physique, and Kahanamoku soon became a supporting actor in Hollywood productions. He was typically cast as some kind of chief — Polynesian, Aztec, Indian.

Kahanamoku died in 1968.

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