To watch Brian Bent speed trim across a sparkling San O wall on his kook box, a chambered wooden surfboard popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, is to watch a 49-year-old man at play in the big blue sea. To watch him build a hot rod in his garage, or better yet, drive it down the San Juan Capistrano street where he lives, is, again, to witness a singular, inspired joy.
Brian Bent is a painter, sculptor, musician, clothing designer, surfer, skateboarder, rollerskater, and surfboard and hot rod builder. A strongly individualistic and distinctly anachronistic elan permeates all of his work. “One of the most freeing things is to find who you are and be good with it,” he told me. Bent takes his cues from bygone decades, primarily the ‘50s. He started drawing cartoons when he was a kid. In 1985, at age 19, he got a job at Becker surf shop assembling skateboards, though Bent couldn’t help himself, he drew on them. His Becker higher-ups liked what he did and gave him a position designing the look/feel of the shop, which eventually led to all Becker shops in Southern California. That led to a solo painting show in Los Angeles. “I realized through that show that I didn’t have to be anything that I wasn’t, and that’s when my stuff started really taking off.”
Bent’s lifestyle is playful, DIY, and profoundly SoCal. He is Christian, and gushes lovingly about his family. He’s real good in the water.
What draws you to the kook box over the traditional longboard?
The trim. You can’t get that from other boards. They’re the fastest boards for trim. I’ve been into vintage longboards since high school. I’ve always ridden old Bings and Oles and stuff like that. When I got into these kook boxes I could see why the guys that rode them back in the day had big smiles on their faces, they just went out and had fun. But they’re also hard work. It’s kind of like toting lumber around. But when you get them on the wave they really just trim out. It’s super elegant.
Where does your artistic practice come from?
I had 20 years at Becker to completely do whatever I wanted. I had carte blanche to explore. I dug the Beatnik thing, I got into Neal Cassady and all this poetry that had to do with Zen Buddhism, and I had a huge fear factor, my dad died when I was 18, so I dug the jazz and the simplicity and the simple lines that had to do with sculpture from the Abstract Expressionists. But being a Christian, I couldn’t get into their philosophies. I dug the freedom but I only went so far, my mind would create its own nightmares anyway. But I always kept that simplicity. My grandfather built hot rods, his brother Joe used to race quarter midgets with [Dale] Velzy at Carrell Speedway in the South Bay. My uncle is Rocky Sabo—he was a pro surfer in the ‘70s. So I was always around all those stories. They were into hot rods and listened to surf music and so I got into that vintage stuff pretty early on. I got into the kook boxes, I started wearing the wool sweaters and Birdwells, and just posing on the wave, keeping them high in the trim. I just immersed myself. Then I started building old racers and driving them down to San O; it just turned into a lifestyle that I really dug and that I’m still digging.
What are you working on right now?
We’re getting ready to go to France. This will be my fifth year in France. We’re going to build a couple kook boxes over there, JJ Wessels and I. We’re going to try to get in that Spanish wave pool, the Wave Garden, and we’re going to drive this ’57 Peugeot up to the Eiffel Tower. So I’m digging that. I’ve also been doing my art, painting a lot of covers of old Surfer magazines. I’m doing all kinds of stuff. I don’t know, I just dig driving the old racers and surfing and painting and hanging out with my wife and my daughter.