The Original Surf Artist: JOHN SEVERSON – 1933 to 2017 – Tags: , , , , ,

A surf artist, filmmaker and founder of SURFER Magazine.

Born and raised in San Clemente, California, it was enevitable that John Severson would become a surfer, whether it be a hobby or profession the ocean was in his blood.

Growing up he soon found a passion for art and photography, graduating from Long Beach State College with a degree in art education.

Long Beach State College was perhaps where is life as a painter begun. His professor at the time could see tremendous talent, but felt he lacked something still. He asked John “Why don’t you paint what you’re interested in?” and so John began to paint the waves and ocean which he so loved. One of those early paintings, “Surf BeBop”, made the cover of SURFER magazine in Feb/Mar 1963.

Straight from college, John found a teaching job back in his home town, but not long after he was drafted into the U.S. Army and in 1957 was bound for Germany.

Draftees were added to a long list, and were assigned to either Germany or Hawaii depending on their position in that list. However, as fate would have it, somebody up the list died or disappeared, and everybody moved up one place and so John was switched to Oahu, Hawaii – the birth place of surfing.

His Hawaiian assignment led to his first films; “Surf,” “Surf Fever,” “Surf Safari”, and then SURFER magazine, originally a booklet, title The Surfer, with large still frames from his films used to promote his shows, but soon became The Surfer Quarterly and then SURFER known as “the Bible of the Sport.” SURFER magazine transformed surf culture while turning John into a genuine cultural icon.


SURFER Magazine

By the mid-1960’s John was at the peak of his career, running a very successful magazine business, living with his family in a beautiful beachside home within a gated community in Orange County, California. However, the arrival of a new neighbour, Richard Nixon, president of the United States at the time, turned Johns interests to political events and back to Hawaii, where at the time North Shore surfers were very much part of a growing rebellion against conventional living and societal norms. John returned to his cameras and pulled together a team of polite revolutionaries to create the first environmental surf film, Pacific Vibrations, which soon made its way to the big screen as a Warner Bros. release.

In everything he did, John was essentially an artist and it was this point in time that probably lead John back to his artist routes and in 1969, he published a two-page spread of his paintings “Surf Art” perhaps coining the term.

Eventually he sold SURFER magazine and returned to Hawaii, moving his family to a plantation in Maui to focus on surfing, his family and art.

“Surfing has already begun. You have the mind of a Robbe-Grillet novel character; you’ve already ridden that wave, and now you’ve approached it again, riding it, paddling out from the beach, and then you’re back there behind the wheel pulling up to the beach. It’s an attainable treasure hunt, an adventure full of pleasures and successes. You’re going to get it a lot of times. And what you get is so great, it’s almost beyond words … this experience with moving water, sliding under a lip, carving across moving mountains; wipe out and come up laughing.”

Quote from an interview with John Severson
by Nathan Howe in their 2014 book, “John Severson’s SURF”

Surf Artist Style

Johns artist style is very distinctive, vibrant watercolour paintings in which he noticeably used lots of the same blues and greens across all his paintings. Depicting the ocean with the bold lines of waves and breaking up the landscape with structural features or surf figures captured at that moment in time. His art pieces always seem full of energy, and really capture the spirit and movement of the ocean, drawing you into that moment, that experience, that passion John had for the sport.

In Memory

John Severson died in May earlier this year after battling a rare form of Leukaemia. Louise, his wife and lifelong companion, wrote: “John died here in Napili, in the house he loved, at the surf spot he loved. It was a beautiful sunny morning and four of his girls were around him.”