Feature

Still Stoked

John Severson generated a wave that swept through American culture-and he's been riding it ever since
Story by Deborah Caulfield Rybak.

John Severson sits in a comfy wicker swivel chair in his living room just steps from the water in the West Maui neighborhood of Nāpili. He’s reminiscing about a distant time on a different island: O‘ahu, 1957, and Army Private John Severson had just arrived in Hawai‘i via Fort Gordon, Georgia. Overseas postings in the quiet days between the Korean and Vietnam wars meant an assignment to either Germany or Hawai‘i, and the latter, believe it or not, was considered the less desirable—though not by Severson, a Southern California surfer boy.

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“I was just ecstatic about the posting,” he recalls, “but the rest of the guys in Georgia were so sorry for me. It was considered the worst duty any soldier could have. They thought Hawai‘i was expensive and that there was nothing to do.”

Severson was in heaven from the moment he stepped off the plane. “The light was so pure and bright, the flowers smelled wonderful and the surf was so good,” he remembers. The first weekend he arrived, he surfed Waikīkī on a rented board; immediately after, he asked his mother to ship his board out from California so he could make his surf trips a regular habit. His extracurricular activity did not go unnoticed by his superiors at Schofield Barracks, and soon he was summoned to a meeting where a question was posed that was so preposterous Severson thought it was a joke.

“Do you want to be on the Army surf team?” the higher-ups asked the young private. Actually, it wasn’t really a question. “I was ordered to surf,” Severson marvels. “They told me it was necessary for morale.” Thereafter Severson was expected to spend every afternoon surfing O‘ahu’s North Shore, waves or no. “The Army guys hated it because noon would come and I’d say, ‘See you later. I’m going surfing.’”

Severson got his first taste of sizable surf during those daily practices and met up with men who would become big-wave legends, names like Buzzy Trent, Greg Noll and Fred Van Dyke. “I was in great shape and just riding bigger and bigger waves,” Severson says. But he was not, of course, invincible. One day their increasing size caught up with him. He wiped out on a big one at Mākaha and was held down until he passed out. He still calls it his “hairiest” experience ever. “Certainly not a week goes by that it doesn’t come up, and I thank my guardian angels for getting me through,” he says. Then he laughs and deadpans, “If I’d drowned surfing in the service of my country, would I have gotten the Medal of Honor?”

Over the years lofty titles have been bestowed upon Severson for a number of surfing-related “firsts.” Creator of the first magazine for surfers. Pioneering surf artist and photographer. Early auteur of surf films. He’s been called the godfather of the American surf movement and showered with honors, among them inclusion on the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1995, the Waterman Achievement Award in 1997 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from SURFER, the magazine he founded. Even the Library of Congress screened one of his films, Pacific Vibrations, during a 2008 series commemorating the surf genre.

No matter how hard he is pushed, though, Severson will not lay claim to any title. He’s modest, old-school, from a time before surfing became a multibillion-dollar industry. Severson is 81 now; his thick brown hair has turned silver-gray, and his long athletic legs show the wear and tear of a surfing life that began when he was 13 and rode his first wave in San Clemente, California. Although the daily surfing has ended (“leg problems”), the years drop away and his blue eyes sparkle as he recalls his first taste of the ocean—a place that came to epitomize freedom.

Before the move to San Clemente, Severson’s family had lived inland, in Altadena. Then his father had what Severson describes as a midlife crisis and moved everyone to the beach. A new world opened up for young John, most of it involving the water, art and surfing. Even then—although his father warned him of the dangers of becoming a “beach bum”—he began to dream of a life in a shack on the beach where he could surf and paint every day.

Those were the years of balsa wood boards, Woodie wagons and uncluttered waves. Beach Blanket Bingo, The Beach Boys and Gidget weren’t even hazy shadows on the cultural horizon. Surfing was Severson’s earliest “stoke,” a word that frequently pops up in his conversation to this day. “I was about 17 when a lifeguard from the South Bay [of Los Angeles] said he was stoked,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘What is that?’ and he explained that it was a new word that everyone was using. It meant revved up, ready to go.”

Severson recently revisited those days in John Severson’s Surf, a two hundred-plus-page compilation of stunning photography and eclectic art that spans Severson’s decades-long passion for waves, surfing and surfers. Praise from the oldest to the youngest ranks of surfers and other aficionados has reverberated since the book’s publication last year.

“It was really great to feel this heartfelt thanks from people,” Severson acknowledges but quickly adds, “I’m just not comfortable” with the superlatives (like “the founding father of surf culture”). He originally wanted a compilation of “little stories,” he says, but the project grew bigger with gentle prodding from Nathan Howe, who—with Severson’s granddaughter Alize de Rosnay—showcases Severson’s art at the Puka Puka gallery in Maui’s beachy North Shore town of Pā‘ia.

It was 1950 when Severson nabbed his mother’s cast-off Brownie camera and began shooting beaches and waves. A couple of years later, he traded in his trumpet for a Keystone 16mm camera. He combined his passions for photography and film, graduated from Chico State in 1955 as an art major and went on to get a master’s from Long Beach State the next year. “I was officially on my way to becoming a starving artist,” he laughs. He sold several surf paintings and accepted a teaching job at Laguna High School in 1956 when the Army intervened with a draft notice.

“I moved into surf movies as entertainment in 1959 with Surf Safari,” says Severson, “and my next film was Surf Fever, which was more artful. At the same time I started a little booklet called Surfer. Ultimately it took over, and I wasn’t able to pursue art films again until Pacific Vibrations in 1970.”

During his days on O‘ahu, when Severson wasn’t catching waves for the Army’s surf team, he was painting and selling his pictures in Waikīkī by displaying them on the hedges at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Prices ranged from a low of $3 to a high of $15, and Severson poured his profits into film stock to shoot more surf footage. It was also by those hedges that he first met Louise Stier, a fellow Southern Californian who was attending the University of Hawai‘i. “I tried to sell her a painting, but she wasn’t buying,” he recalls. No matter. He couldn’t get her out of his mind, which was fortunate because their next encounter would be a life-changer.

Severson’s first movie, Surf, premiered in Honolulu in 1958 to an enthusiastic audience. Friends took the print to California and began to screen it up and down the coast. With the profits the budding filmmaker started on his next film. When he got out of the Army, he returned to Southern California and ran into Louise in Laguna Beach. “We dated thirty days in a row, then eloped to Hawai‘i in 1959,” Severson grins, noting that her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the match. “They considered surfers to be unreliable, a combination of Hells Angels and beatniks.” The parents had nothing to worry about, though; the marriage has lasted fifty-six years so far and produced two children and five grandchildren.

Severson continued to make surf movies, adding live narration and music to screenings. As he describes it, “You could make sound effects in the microphone, turn it up, talk low, raise the music and BOOM … the film was alive.” From a modest start in his brother’s garage where a movie cost $.25 and included a free beer, Severson’s films began to sell out high school auditoriums and civic centers. In the audience at a screening of his 1959 film Surf Safari were some brothers named Wilson. They went on to form a little band called The Beach Boys and had an early hit with Surfin’ Safari. Though he felt a bit ripped off at the time, Severson now sees it, he says, as “a fair exchange.”

Greg MacGillivray was also among those enthusiastic attendees. “John Severson was my hero when I was 13 because he was creating the most artful surfing films of anyone,” says MacGillivray, now a noted IMAX filmmaker, in an interview. “I was just starting my first film, so I copied everything he did. It was art theft, no doubt. From 1958 to 1963, his films were my guide. Everyone loved his films, and then he produced the first and best surfing magazine. What a genius!”

SURFER sprang from those early screenings, where Severson always pulled in a few extra bucks by selling black-and-white 8x10 photographs. It occurred to him that he could make more by publishing an annual magazine. “I thought it might work,” he says modestly. His instincts were good. After Severson’s brother took the first batch of a thirty-six-page issue called The Surfer down to Hap Jacob’s surf shop in Hermosa Beach, he called home in a panic. “They’re rioting!” he told Severson. For a split second Severson imagined his investment turning into another epic Mākaha-style wipeout; then his brother explained that they were rioting to buy copies of the annual. With the next issue the publication became a quarterly, then a bimonthly and in 1963 its name changed to simply SURFER. From the initial print run of ten thousand copies, sales skyrocketed. “We went from eight thousand to fifteen thousand, then fifty-five thousand to eighty-five thousand,” Severson recalls. “We were selling 100 percent of our issues. Nobody had seen anything like that before.”

The printer warned Severson to keep a close eye on things. “He said, ‘Sell it as soon as you can; this won’t last.’ Surfing was a fad to him, like the hula hoop.” But Severson, in addition to his artistic pursuits, proved a most capable entrepreneur. He credits his father with that aspect of his career: “My dad was a businessman, and somehow it just stuck with me. I was real good at math and could always figure out which way I should be moving.”

Although he had created SURFER to be a beautiful art magazine reflecting the sport as well as to stoke people, his wife’s parents weren’t the only ones down on surfers in the early ’60s. As Severson remembers, “A few people had given the sport a pretty bad name. There was a lot of thievery and vandalism and just guys trying to do something more outrageous than the other.” The growing backlash against surfers sent the fledgling magazine editor/publisher in an unplanned direction. “Letters were coming in, and city officials were threatening to ban surfing at Southern California beaches,” he explains. “SURFER became the center of that controversy.” He smiles slyly. “Maybe I wasn’t the best one to put in the middle of all that—but it turned out that I was.” Through editorials and the work of cartoonist Rick Griffin, who created a naīve but wholesome surfer named Murphy, the tide turned, surfing’s reputation improved and city officials settled down.

The industry began to flourish. Surf movies abounded. Surf music shot to the top of the charts. Hang Ten surfwear popped up in department stores, and with every issue, SURFER revealed new and exotic surfing spots, from the Isle of Man to Bali. Just as Rolling Stone defined rock music for a new generation, SURFER became the bible of the surfing life and lifestyle, even tackling environmental and social issues. One of the magazine’s most iconic photographs, published in 1966, shows a black, fully dressed teenager poking the sand while white surfers stroll by on a segregated beach in Durban, South Africa.

Despite the magazine’s accomplishments and reputation, Severson grew restless. He was troubled by surfing’s increasing commercialism and worried about SURFER’s contribution to that trend. Plus he was tiring of running the magazine. “I had just about worked my way out of every good job,” he explains. “I loved photography, graphic arts and designing. But now I was just Mr. Businessman conducting people who were having all the fun.” He began to plan his exit into his next life phase—the one he had dreamed of so many years before—“traveling, painting, surfing and enjoying life.”

That exit was hastened by the Seversons’ new next-door neighbor in San Clemente, then-President Richard Nixon. Nixon had purchased an estate near Cotton’s Point, one of the best surfing spots in Southern California. He had initially promised to keep Cotton’s open to surfers, but it was closed two days after he moved into his Western White House.

Severson was not amused. “I defied it the first day,” he recalls. “There was nice surf, and there was a Marine on the beach with an M1 rifle. I thought, ‘Well, he’s not going to shoot the neighbor—that would be terrible publicity.’” He grabbed his board and set off down the beach. The Marine told him, “You will not advance any farther. You cannot surf in this wave.” Severson responded, “I live here. I’m the neighbor. I’m going surfing.” He paddled out and surfed for two hours by himself.

It took an unpleasant negotiation with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman to keep Cotton’s accessible to surfers, but by then Severson’s stoke had ebbed. “I would look down and see my kids playing in the sand with a Secret Service guy standing over them,” he says, growing somber at the memory. “It became uncomfortable living next door to Nixon. Plus it was the late ’60s. Everyone was ready for a change.”

After completing his final film, the esoteric Pacific Vibrations, which was given limited distribution by Warner Bros. in 1970 but now is considered a classic, Severson sold SURFER in 1971 and moved with his family to Maui. The island had grown slightly since his first visit in the 1950s—then the airport had been just a Quonset hut with a table in front of it—but it was still far from the tourist mecca that it has become today. “Originally we planned to pass through and go on to have a look at New Zealand and other places to possibly settle,” Severson recalls. “But those places were too cold or too remote or we weren’t citizens, and Maui just grew so beautifully for us. We were fully committed to staying within six months.”

That commitment didn’t keep the family from traveling through New Zealand and other Polynesian island groups in 1975. The South Pacific had fascinated Severson since high school, where he’d devoured island-themed books by Jack London, Joseph Conrad and James Norman Hall. The Severson family spent seven months in the South Pacific, including two months on Huahine—though their start on that island was somewhat rocky. “We were staying at a really expensive hotel, but I guess we weren’t eating enough of their food because after one night they asked us to leave,” Severson recalls. Relocation help came from a Madame Martine. Severson suggested building a treehouse on her property in front of a coconut grove, and she thought it was a grand idea: The family would live in the treehouse during their sojourn and leave it behind when they departed. “It was a deal,” says Severson, adding dryly, “It’s not like we were going to take it home on the plane.”

On Huahine, Severson surfed and got reacquainted with his art, his daughters went diving in the lagoon and the family flourished, although there were drawbacks: “monstrous” bugs and people who would sit across the road and watch every move of the unusual clan. “We were their reality show,” Severson laughs.

Upon their return to Maui the family tried several years of farming Upcountry in Olinda. “It was a great satisfaction to plant something and see it grow and produce,” Severson recalls in his book, adding that he had special success with tamarillo tree tomatoes. Success with other produce, however, was mixed, and Severson now admits, “We just couldn’t figure it out. We weren’t very good farmers.”

In 1960, when this photograph was taken, Severson was getting ready to launch Surfer. He was also just married. “Louise and I would spend our afternoons at San Onofre, surfing and working,” he says. “Given the option of office or beach, it was no contest. Check the tan!”

Plus, the ocean was calling. So the family moved to Nāpili, and, still inspired by their South Seas adventure, Severson built a treehouse-style house on the point looking at Moloka‘i. They moved in in 1981 and have been there ever since. Today, Severson stands in that house at a large worktable in his airy, memorabilia-packed office, leafing through a series of cool, pastel-shaded watercolors of waves. The artworks are in various stages of completion, and a sketchbook filled with early iterations of the same pictures lies nearby. If Severson needs any inspiration, he has only to look out the enormous picture window that fills an entire wall. A surfboard he painted for Hobie hangs from the ceiling. The shelves are filled with binders of his slides and art books.

The man who’s been called our “premier surf culture artist” continues to push his art in new directions. A few years ago he designed two surf-themed guitar faces for Fender—one hangs on his wall, the other stands in a corner—and he still regularly contributes designs to Kahala for its eponymous line of aloha shirts. He says he constantly changes his artistic approach though not his subject matter. “I came to a point some years back when I thought, ‘Is this it? Is this what I’m going to paint—waves, surfers and cars—for the rest of my life?’” He pauses, then smiles. “Well, I’m okay with that. That subject is vast and deep.” HH