John Severson at The Surf Gallery in Laguna Beach in September, during the launch of his new surf guitar line. Photo by Beiron Andersson.
From founding Surfer magazine to designing Fender’s new California guitar line, John Severson has embodied surf culture
By Stephen Metzger
John Severson’s longboard drops down the face of a perfect, glassy-green four-foot west-Maui curl, salt spray and white water rooster tailing up behind him. Over his shoulder, the deep blue Pacific and the cloudless sky are broken only by the cliffs of Molokai, in shadows across the channel.
Not so unusual, except for this: Severson’s also playing a guitar, “probably some Woody Guthrie song.” And this: Severson, his gray hair catching the silver sunlight dancing on the wave’s ragged apogee, will be 75 years old in December. Like every day when there’s a decent swell—or one “with some juice in it”—he’s on the water today, surfing, as he has all his life.
Oh, and the guitar? A Fender Surf Fever. He designed it.
John Severson graduated from Chico State in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in art education. Since then he has lived a life that many only dream of. He founded Surfer magazine. He made some of the first movies of the early days of the California surf culture. He traveled around the world, living on remote Polynesian islands. He is a highly regarded artist whose work is collectible and who also designs shirts for Kahala, a leading maker of Hawaiian shirts. In 1993, he was voted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, in 1995 into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, and in 1997 he was given a Waterman of the Year award by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.
Severson continues to work as a professional artist. This September, at the Laguna Surf Gallery in Laguna Beach, Severson, in partnership with Fender, released two special-issue guitars featuring his artwork. He lives with his artist wife, Louise, on Maui, in a house he built himself, where he paints, surfs, golfs, and plays guitar, and recently started learning slack-key, the softly lilting guitar style of the islands.
An artist from the start
Severson grew up on the beaches of Orange County—surfing, lifeguarding, singing, and playing beach football and volleyball. He also took photographs and, inspired by the early surf art in the 1943 book California Surfriding, drew pictures of waves and surfers. At San Juan Capistrano High School (class of 1951), he played baseball, football, and volleyball; played trumpet in the marching band; and created woodblock prints for the school newspaper.
In 1953, Severson earned his associate of arts degree from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. “I was crazy about surfing,” he says, “but I had to get away. I knew if I stayed near the beach I’d be too distracted to finish a bachelor’s degree.”
One of the things he was looking for was a more traditional campus environment. “I loved the brick buildings of the Ivy League colleges,” he adds. Unfortunately, the wages he earned pumping gas ruled out Yale and Harvard.
One day a friend told him that some of Chico State’s buildings “looked sort of Ivy Leaguey,” so in the late summer of 1953, Severson shoved a surfboard into the trunk of his lowered, shiny magenta 1940 Mercury coupe, set his ukulele and guitar on the back seat, and headed for Chico, where he moved into Shasta Hall.
Chico completely lived up to his expectations, Severson says. “I loved the ivy-covered buildings and the bridge across the stream to get to Bidwell Mansion,” where the art department was then located.
Since school didn’t start for a week, “it was party time every night, although I expected more people playing music, a bunch of uke-strumming cool cats, but it was just me, solo uke.” One night out on the lawn, “between the boys’ and girls’ dorms, I sing ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘In the Evening by the Moonlight,’ and some other barbershop favorites, and Jack Underwood joins in. He knows Bud Lafferty, who sings bass, and Bud knows Dallas Langlois, a high tenor, and before long, we’re a quartet.”
Music and baseball
Having pitched for his junior college baseball team, Severson found a home on Chico State’s squad. But, he says, “my stare down was weary for a 19-year-old, and my best pitches continued to hit the fence, the road, and nearby housing tracts. My ERA hovered around 27.”
Severson’s quartet, though, now known as the Riversiders, was faring far better. They performed at frat parties; school assemblies; Kiwanis, Elks, and Lions Club meetings; and even the Silver Dollar Fair. “We were living the dream there for a while,” he says.
Despite the good times, Severson knew he had to declare a major. “I needed to get a degree and get a job,” he says. Having taken classes from “wise old Art Acker,” after whom Acker Gym is named, as well as having played sports all his life, Severson made “a pragmatic decision—a major in art education with a minor in PE. I’d be a teacher and coach.”
Except there was one hurdle: Despite Severson’s poise and comfort on stage as part of a barbershop quartet, he was terrified of public speaking, a fear that faced him down in the form of a graduation requirement: He had to either take a semester-long course in public speaking or make a short speech demonstrating he didn’t need the course.
“I weighed five minutes of terror vs. a semester of the same and signed up to give a speech,” he says. The night before the speech, “I was ready to shoot myself in the foot just to be released from the pending failure and hell, when I stumble on a subject: surfing. It’s something I know and they don’t, so I figured if I get stuck I could just BS my way through it.”
Although “terror stricken,” Severson described “what surfing feels like, flying along on the wave and seeing the watery colors and the spray. Then I throw in a little history and the fundamentals—push up, stand, balance, walk the nose. … I even get a little laugh at one point. Then they interrupt me: ‘Thank you, Mr. Severson. That’ll do. Next.’ ”
To his surprise, he passed. “I was now on my way to mold the minds of America’s youth. God help us!”
A new passion
Severson had drawn all his life but had arrived in Chico with very little formal art experience. Still, as a Chico State student, he drew a cartoon series for a local television station’s kids’ program and contributed a regular comic strip to the Wildcat student newspaper. He also took his first real oil painting class, from John Ayres, after whom Ayres Hall is named.
“He was like a guru,” Severson says, “and I hung on every word. He was a strong painter and a strong man, and I learned a lot from him.” Some of the paintings Severson made for Ayres’ class were shown at local shows, as well as at the Silver Dollar Fair, where he “scored ribbons in painting, woodcarving, photography, and just about everything but quilting.” Severson also studied photography at Chico State, including darkroom technique and audiovisual.
Although Severson sold a piece of art here and there, and had a job pumping gas at the local Standard Station, he still found himself constantly broke. To help make ends meet, he bought a toaster from a thrift store and made grilled-cheese sandwiches to sell to hungry fellow students.
In the spring of 1955, Severson finished his last class at Chico State and roared out of town—heading for graduate school at Long Beach State and the beach. After receiving his master’s degree in art education the following spring, Severson was hired to teach art at Laguna High School. “I was loving life,” he says, “surfing on weekends, having a great teaching experience, painting and getting into galleries.”
But in November of his first year teaching, 1957, Severson was drafted. His students wrote letters to Eisenhower trying to get him an extension, but as Severson says, “There is a certain inflexibility to the military. I was gone.”
He was stationed in Honolulu, where he worked as a draftsman for the general’s staff, hand tinting topographical maps of Oahu from an open-air office, and also found time to make an occasional ink drawing of the surf and surfers, which he sold for $3 to $5 at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Of course, he also continued to surf—and to film his friends surfing. Soon, combined with the footage from California, he had enough to edit into a real movie. He’d seen the primitive surf films of the early 1950s but didn’t like how they lacked story lines. Severson wanted to make one with a sense of drama.
It was called Surf, and he premiered it at a high school on Oahu. Several months later—his tour of duty over—he took it with him to California, where his friend Fred Van Dyke showed it all summer long at high schools throughout the area, Van Dyke doing the live narration because Severson was still uncomfortable with his public-speaking skills.
That fall, while teaching art at his alma mater, San Juan Capistrano High, Severson began work on another film, with better equipment purchased with earnings from showings of Surf. Meanwhile, Van Dyke had returned to the islands, so Severson had to take over its narration. Terrified, he rehearsed night and day and, at his first showing, faced the crowd of 125—and panicked.
But as the film started to roll, Severson began describing the action on the screen, later recalling the evening as a “breakthrough experience.” With each showing, Severson got more comfortable with his audience, “throwing in lines here and there, just made up on the spot,” and before long he was making more money showing his film on weekends than in two months teaching.
Surf Safari came out the following spring (1959) and featured what he calls a “quantum leap in production”—with better picture quality, sound effects, and music, including an opening sequence synchronized with Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.”
Severson would go on to make eight surf movies, shooting in Peru, New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii in addition to Southern California. In his last film, 1971’s Pacific Vibrations, Severson attempted to capture not only the changing surf culture but the larger changes occurring during those tumultuous times.
“I wanted to make a statement,” he says. “I wanted to make a film that would wake a lot of people up to the ocean and the environment, the pollution, the lack of care.” The result, billed as “Woodstock on a Wave,” featured music by Cream; Ry Cooder; the Steve Miller Band; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and others. (Although none of Severson’s films survive, the trailer for Pacific Vibrations can be seen at www.pacificvibrations.com.)
Surf fever and family
Severson had met Louise Stier in Waikiki in 1958. Originally from Arizona, Stier returned to the mainland in the fall of 1959 to attend UC Berkeley—which occasioned her showing up for a screening of Surf Safari in San Francisco. They were married in December.
For his third film, Surf Fever, which he considers his best, Severson published a magazine-like program to distribute at screenings. It included stills from his films and his own hand-lettering. He called it The Surfer, and ordered 10,000 copies. Wondering whether he’d overextended, Severson was delighted at the little publication’s success and began producing The Surfer Bi-Monthly from his Dana Point garage. Soon called simply Surfer, the magazine became the bible for every bushy-bushy blonde hairdoed beach boy from Waikiki to San Onofre to Pensacola and provided Severson, who originally did almost all the writing, shooting, editing, and layout, with a forum for his art, photography, and philosophy.
John and Louise’s first daughter, Jenna, was born in March 1963. She was on a surfboard the following February. Anna was born in March 1965. In September 1966, Life magazine featured the Severson family in a photo essay titled “Riding the Crest of Surfing’s Wave, Editor John Severson Gets Rich Getting Wet.”
In the late 1960s, Surfer was getting more and more political. In addition to the surf photos, the magazine published investigative pieces, social commentary, and fiction—as well as art by Rick Griffin, who had done psychedelic posters for Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead concerts, as well as for Pacific Vibrations. When Richard Nixon bought the property next door to the Seversons, John hauled out his camera and, with a zoom lens, took photos of the president walking on the beach. To the chagrin of the FBI, the photos were published in Life magazine. The president ignored Severson’s invitation to the annual beach barbecue.
Changes in latitudes
In 1971, Severson sold Surfer, packed up the family, and sailed for Maui, where he bought 19 acres at 2,500 feet on the side of Haleakala and began building a house of old lumber and native eucalyptus. In 1975, he took the family on an extended tour of the South Pacific, stopping in New Zealand, Fiji, and the Cook Islands. On Tahiti, he built a tree house in which they lived for two months.
When they returned to Maui, in 1976, Severson began work on a beach house—between Kapalua and Lahaina—patterned on the tree house. At the same time, he became interested in a wider range of painting, including pointillism and abstract and plein air. He also took up windsurfing and in the early 1980s was editor-at-large for Windsurf Magazine. In 1982, their daughters grown and gone, John and Louise moved off the mountain and into the beach house overlooking the Molokai Channel. Examples of Severson’s paintings, photographs, surf guitars, and other surfing collectables can be found at www.surferart.com.
Before John Severson moved off the Chico State campus, “into a $15-a-month musty relic of old Chico, full of misfits,” he did one last painting—on the wall of his dorm room—of a surfer on a very, very big wave. Not surprisingly, the powers that be did not approve, and he was told to paint over it. But as the Greeks knew, ars longa, and even though the dorm was razed long ago, listen closely as you walk through campus. You just might hear the sound of a wave crashing on the beach.
About the author
Stephen Metzger has surfed in Santa Cruz and Maui, actually standing up on his board on several occasions. He teaches English and journalism at CSU, Chico.