John Severson, Surf Art Pioneer and Founder of Surfer Magazine, Dies At 83

The main reason most of us surf or even know about surfing is because of John Severson, the artist, filmmaker, and founder of Surfer Magazine. John died on Maui on Friday, May 26, succumbing to a rare form of leukemia.

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.”

John Severson’s life was full (and full-on) right from the start. As a Southern California kid who grew up at the beach and lived to surf, a conventional life was probably not in the cards. His academic career curved toward the arts and, finally, to Long Beach State, where he earned a Master’s degree in Art Education. It was there that, following the advice of an instructor, he began to paint the world he knew: the beach, the waves, and surfers. He found a voice in a bold, bright, modern style that somehow seemed all his own. 

He was set to embark on a career as an art teacher but, after a year of teaching in San Clemente, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. It was 1957, and he was bound for Germany. As he explained it: “There was this long list of draftees, and they were assigned randomly to either Germany or Hawaii. Man number 1: Germany, Man number 2: Hawaii, Man number 3: Germany, and so on. I was going to Germany… and then somebody up the list died or disappeared, and everybody moved up one. And so I went to Hawaii.”

That quirk shaped surf history. John went to Oahu, the birthplace of the sport, and there his mastery of pen and ink got him assigned to map-making. His skills in the ocean landed him a spot on the U.S. Army surfing team.

For years he had been taking pictures and movies of his friends at the beach and in the water, ever since his father moved the family to San Clemente in the late 1940s. Now in the right place and armed with a 16mm Keystone movie camera, he turned his attention to the exploits of the rag-tag crew of young men who were drawn to the North Shore of Oahu for its big surf. The footage from that winter became his first film, Surf! The film’s showings in Hawaii and back in California earned him enough to exchange his Keystone for a Bolex and buy film for another movie, Surf Safari, which led to another, Surf Fever. Using enlarged frames from his films, he created a 36-page booklet to promote the shows. He titled it The Surfer, which became The Surfer Quarterly, and then Surfer, a bi-monthly at first, then a monthly magazine. It was so superior to every other surfing publication out there that it became known as “the Bible of the Sport.”

By the mid-1960s, John was at the helm of a successful business, with a full magazine staff and dozens of advertisers. He had two daughters and lived at the beach in a gated community at the southern end of Orange County. He’d taken up golf, drove a Mercedes, was rumored to have a bit of an issue with Ritalin, and spent less and less time in the water. His magazine still reflected Orange County’s conservative values, at times editorializing with righteous alarm at the recent trend among surfers (and the culture at large) toward LSD, marijuana, and far-out hippie-like behavior. But then new talent at Surfer began to turn the mag in that countercultural direction, and John’s curiosity was piqued. Eventually he inhaled, and so did Louise. Soon John had joined in the celebration of the "psychedelic sacraments." And then Richard Nixon bought the house next door.

The stucco wall surrounding Nixon's California estate — a large mission-style home built in 1926 that was modeled after an estancia in San Sebastian, Spain — was about 40 feet away from one of the decks on the side of the Severson home. The two were separated by a narrow lane reserved for emergency access to the white sand beach below. When Dick and Pat Nixon showed up, John put in a call to Life magazine to see if they’d be interested in some casual shots of the president on the beach. They were.

One of Surfer Magazine’s valuable assets at the time was a 1,000mm Century lens. It was used to capture close-up photos of surfers at places like Sunset Beach, in Hawaii, where the waves broke far offshore. The sight of this yard-long lens, perched on a fluid-head mount, on a tripod, on a deck less than 100 feet from the Nixons' new home, which became known as the Winter White House, was rather formidable. It looked quite a bit like a light artillery piece.

By the time John’s photos appeared in Life, it was apparent that the president’s people were paying attention to him. John’s hair was growing longer, his attire was increasingly casual, he was surfing a lot, and there was a funny aroma wafting across the lane. It was not too long before word got to the guard at the gate into Severson’s beach community: Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Erlichman, two of Nixon's top aides, were concerned. Change course, they recommended to John, or your course will be changed for you.

It was the peak of the Vietnam war, as well as the countercultural movement that had been building since the ‘50s—back when early North Shore surfers were very much a part of a growing rebellion against conventional living. So it made sense that, amidst this generational shift in consciousness, John’s life had taken its own turn. He had returned to his cameras and pulled together a team of polite revolutionaries to create the first environmental (and anti-war) surf film, Pacific Vibrations, which was soon to make its way to the big screen as a Warner Bros. release.

But in the wake of the Nixon feud, the old home just wasn’t the same. Not that John was paranoid, but… he had reason to be. With motivated alacrity, he sold Surfer Magazine and the house in 1971 and bought land upcountry on Maui. He built a home, planted a garden, and set out with the family on a Swiss Family Robinson journey through the South Pacific before settling down, back on Maui, to build, garden on the property, trip on psychedelics in Haleakala crater, and paint. The word transformation could apply.

Ever the artist, in 1969 John gave himself a two-page spread in Surfer and ran three of his own paintings under the headline “Surf Art.” Perhaps he coined the term. Certainly he was defining his ongoing life path, which had always been about creating a unique and engaging beauty. On Maui, in the 1970s and 1980s, he built his own homes, and those creations were every bit as imaginative and beautiful as the artworks that he began to issue from his studio.

John’s paintings depicted the balance and drama of ocean waves and the thrill of surfing. They remain a powerful testimony to the artistic vision and joy that was fundamental to everything he created. His life as an artist grew and grew and grew, and the school of expression now popularly known as “surf art” proliferated in his wake. 

The home he built at Napili, looking westward toward the islands of Lanai and Molokai, and the setting sun — and the surf spot right there off the lava rock shore — all of it was somehow an extension of his artistic urge to manifest, to create something beautiful and exciting, to reach down and gather up the roots and fling them into the waves of the future.

Aloha!