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John Severson Catches a Wave

A new book by Nathan Howe documents the surfer-artist's expansive career

Imagine being 23, headed to Germany for your military service, and ending up in Oahu on the army surf team, assigned to ride Hawaii’s biggest waves. Such was the turn of events that helped inspire photographer, filmmaker, publisher, and painter John Severson. Battling those 30-foot monsters didn’t just improve Severson’s surfing prowess. It also led him to become the surf world’s primary advocate and chronicler.

During his army stint, Severson produced numerous small surf paintings, which he sold in Honolulu to help fund his entrée into film. Only a few of those early images remain, such as The Future of Surfing (1958), which is featured in Nathan Howe’s John Severson’s SURF, published September 30 by Damiani/PUKA PUKA.

John Severson in Napili, Maui, 1979. ©JIM LOOMIS

John Severson in Napili, Maui, 1979.

©JIM LOOMIS

Not that Severson was a “grommet” or surfer newbie. He’d been enamored with the sport since the summer of ’46, when his father had a mid-life crisis and moved the family from Pasadena to the beach in San Clemente.

“When I paddled out in the ocean, it stoked me so much I wanted to share the experience,” Severson explains to Howe, a surfer, artist, and curator at Puka Puka Gallery in Hawaii.

The February/March 1963 cover of Surfer Magazine featured Severson's Surf BeBop (1963). ©JOHN SEVERSON/GRINDMEDIA, LLC

The February/March 1963 cover of Surfer Magazine featured Severson’s Surf BeBop (1963).

©JOHN SEVERSON/GRINDMEDIA, LLC

The book’s 212 pages include an expansive Q&A, reproductions of the various movie posters Severson designed for his seven films, and covers of Surfer Magazine, which he founded in 1960. There are also photos and movie stills of surfing legends like Fred Van Dyke and Paul McKinney. Paintings include Seal Beach Locals (1956), an Abstract Expressionistic work influenced by Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso, which Howe describes as “the beginning of surf art.” Today, the artist once known to smash out his car’s windows if it couldn’t accommodate his board is working on a 4-by-16-foot quadtych called Great Wave, which will document surfing’s global appeal.

Says Howe, “Watching Severson paint it’s obvious that he’s surfing in those moments of firing strokes onto the canvas straight from his imagination. The subtle details could only come from years of floating in the open ocean, watching the shapes, the geometries, the spray, and the sculptural position of bodies.”

Severson has not only continued painting, he also still surfs. He rode his final wave last year at age 80.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Catch a Wave.”

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