John Severson

John Severson, born December 12, 1933, is well known as the creator of Surfer Magazine. He grew up surfing off the beaches of Southern California. Born and raised in Pasadena and San Clemente, California, Severson was a creative type, an art major noted for having painted an abstract scene of the San Clemente Pier and beach with 'bebop' surfers and pointy little surfboards. He began his career as a painter when still a graduate student, selling his first works to support himself while finishing his Master's Degree at Long Beach State College. In the 1950s Severson became the first person to create a large body of art relating to the Hawaii-California surf culture. Since then he has provided a steady output of oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints. Often he uses soft watercolor stylings to capture images of woodies, surfboards, or perfect breaks. Before John Severson, it may be said that there was really no surf art, no surf magazines, no real surf films, no surfwear industry, no pro surfing as we know it. In a very large sense, he made it all happen by synthesizing the sport of surfing into various expressions of his art. One of his early works, 'Huntington Gothic', may be considered an autobiographical painting, going back to the days when he was introduced to the massive Huntington Beach pier cement structure of the '50s. Severson remembers at first being awed and fearing the pilings, which he soon learned were his friends because they were shapers of the pier surf, harboring holes where wave power would back off. Usually, because of a lucky bit of scheduling, his Long Beach State classes didn't start until afternoon, so John started many days of the '55-'56 school year greeting the morning surf at the pier. A later work, 'Paddling Out' is an acrylic, done in the early 1980s when Severson was moving from his pointillism phase, toward extreme looseness of brushstroke. Severson has always been a multifaceted artist. Over the years he has been a high school newspaper editor, hobby photographer, prolific painter, cartoonist, and high school art teacher. When he was drafted and found himself in the army, stationed in Hawaii, he made a surf movie. Between sessions with the army surf team, he filmed the North Shore and Makaha action of the winter of 1957-'58. This footage became his first film, "Surf", released in 1958. Severson advertised the movie with a poster of a surfer traversing a giant wave, printing it off on an Army printing press and hand-decorating it with red ink. John continued to use his art, photography, and surfing passion to create a series of popular surf movies, including the titles 'Surf Safari', 'Surf Fever', 'Big Wednesday', and 'Pacific Vibrations'. The posters he created were widely popular in the '50s and '60s, and remain collector favorites. While posted in Hawaii, he met his wife. "I was selling paintings on the hedge at the Royal Hawaiian. When I was in the Army I got on the General's staff as an illustrator. I was color-contouring maps, and on the side I'd paint little doodles. I have to take my eyes off the maps for a while of course, and during the break I'd paint little surf ditties. Four by six or six by eight inches, very small, and put them on the hedge with a little mat on them for $3 or $4 or $5, $8 for the big ones -- unfortunately in disappearing ink...Louise was from San Clemente, my home town, and I had known her sister. She came up to see, not the paintings I think, but the kooky surfer from San Clemente who was selling paintings in Waikiki. We talked a bit, but no sale. Then she came to an Art Show of mine in Laguna and a film and we started dating. And when we started dating we just kept dating, let's see...forty years this December. We had a daughter, Jenna in '63, and Anna in '65. Jenna was a World Champion Windsurfer, held the speed record and was a top model in Paris. Anna was art buyer for Yves St. Laurent, and is now freelancing in family...". When asked who were influences on his art, Severson has said: "As an art student I was getting new art images all the time. Including that of my classmates. I respected what they were doing, and my early art hero was George James. I loved what he did, and he was with me in a couple of art classes at Orange Coast College, and again at Long Beach State. I learned a lot about whimsy from him. Gauguin and Van Gogh always knocked me out. And most of the post-impressionists. I could never see enough of them. Then to get the chance to see real canvases, they blow you away. The Honolulu Academy of Arts has a great Gauguin and a Van Gogh within a few feet of each other. You can stand there within inches of them...I get close and try and see where and how he put the paint and why he put the paint over and then move a few feet to the left and practically stick my nose in Vincent's wheat fields...just feel Van Gogh...wanging that paint on and loving that field. That economy of line creating a whole village with just a few strokes in the background, just beautiful. Another influence was Honore' Daumier. He was so strong and free -- and this was 1850 or so -- fantastic paintings, but his characters got me. I loved the looseness of his style and I discovered him early on and would try and get as loose as he was. I had a painter nickname at times..."Too-Loose." When I go to Paris, I always visit his rooms at the Musee D'Orsay. That's one of the great art museums of the world...converted a grand old train station. With the founding of "Surfer Magazine", John's art focused on the magazine and graphics. "Surfer" gave him an outlet for not only his paintings, but also his prints, photographs, and designs. A 1963 cover, 'Surf Bebop', that he did for "Surfer" was named the most outstanding cover painting of the year by "Communication Arts" magazine. During the '60s, he authored two surf books for Doubleday. In 1968, "Life" magazine ran 10 pages on Severson's family and surf success. It is arguable that Surfer's success spawned the lifestyle and industry now known worldwide as surf culture. The magazine created a medium for advertising, which allowed surf-related businesses to talk to a specific audience. It also allowed editors to give shape to an expanding network of surfers. As a surfer, Severson was known for riding big waves, and for his innovative performance style in big surf. In 1961, he won the Peru International Surfing Championships and was a finalist in the U.S. and Hawaiian Championships. Editing didn't leave much time for surfing though, so eleven years after he began the magazine, Severson quit. President Richard Nixon and his entourage of bodyguards had moved in next door to his home at Cottons Point in 1969 and Severson opted for change. He sold "Surfer" in 1972 and moved with his wife and two daughters to Maui, where he resumed his passionate pursuit of photography and painting. He surfed and then started windsurfing. He designed and launched "Wind Surf" magazine and, for several years, contributed art and photos, making it the leader in its field, took his family to Hawaii, and devoted himself to surfing and painting. Over the years, John has continued a parallel career in photography. His work has appeared in "Life" magazine, "Sports Illustrated", "Paris Match", and several other publications. He was voted into the Surfing Hall of Fame in 1993, the Walk of Fame at Huntington Beach in 1995, and given a lifetime achievement award by the Surf Industry Manufacturers' Association as Waterman of the Year in 1997. The longboard renaissance of the '90s and the accompanying era of nostalgia brought renewed interest and appreciation to Severson's surf art. His oil and watercolor paintings, as well as his block prints, have grown in demand in recent years, and he has designed hundreds of prints for Hawaiian shirts made by Kahala. Now in his seventies and based on the island of Maui, Severson continues his painting and printmaking of surf themes, with aloha shirt textile designs the most recent passion for both John and his wife Louise. Source: Drew Kampion, from 'Surf-line', October 2000, and to Gordon T. McClelland, author and art historian based in Santa Ana, California; to Margaret Moore from 'Cover Artist Profile', United Airlines "Hemispheres" magazine, Nov. 2003; and to Surf-trader website's 1999 interview of John Severson by Tim DeLaVega. Reprinted with the kind permission of Vallejo Gallery, Newport Beach California
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