We surfers owe a lot to John Severson. The founder of Surfer magazine in 1962, he did more than just pioneer surf media, he elevated surfing to fine art. “A beautiful sensation of dance with the added dimension of being in nature,” was how he described it.
Born December 12, 1933 in Los Angeles, Severson picked up surfing in his teens. He was drafted into the Army in 1956 and sent to a base in Hawaii where he was assigned to create maps (he’d majored in Art Education at Long Beach State). While on active duty he surfed and shot material for his first surf film, “Surf.”
He went on to make more surf films, including “Surf Safari,” “Surf Fever,” and “Pacific Vibrations” (you might remember the epic poster—Severson made that too).
In the summer of 1960, as a way to promote “Surf Fever,” Severson put together a 36-page surf magazine comprised of photos, cartoon sketches, and stories. He called it The Surfer. It sold 5,000 copies. The Surfer evolved into the Surfer Quarterly and then Surfer. He assembled an all-star team: cartoonist Rick Griffin; photographers Ron Stoner, Jeff Divine, and Art Brewer; writer-editors Drew Kampion and Steve Pezman; and graphic designers John Van Hamersveld and Mike Salisbury. Surfer would go on to become “the bible of the sport.”
I came to the magazine in the late ‘70s. It presented a world that felt subversive, countercultural, surreptitious. Hair was long. Sunglasses were mirrored. Boards were pinny single fins. Fantasy waves were airbrushed on the sides of vans.
Those fantasy wave airbrushes—they too owe a lot to Severson. There was a July 1979 cover of Surfer he’d painted—a coiling empty left barrel with a fiery, explosive orange and purple and psychedelic sunset looming behind it. Done in a pointillist style, it was a model for the waves ‘80s high school kids would draw on their Pee-Chee folders. It was also a kind of spur. Hard to say where the wave was, but likely somewhere far-flung. And if you wanted to pit yourself in that beautiful tube, you’d have to jump on a plane. It’s impressions as seemingly minor as this that can ignite a life of surf travel.
Severson sold Surfer in the early ‘70s and returned to Hawaii to pursue his artwork, surf, and relax with his family. He took up windsurfing and edited the magazine Wind Surf. He sold his paintings and designed prints for Hawaiian shirts. He was still riding waves at age 80.
Severson died on May 26, 2017 at his home on Maui. He was 83. In an interview published in The Surfer’s Journal a couple of years back, writer-editor Scott Hulet mentioned riding prone as a solution for the older, rickety surfer.
“We go out the way we came in,” said Severson. “Sucking our thumbs and on our tummies.”