John Severson, who led the world the joys of playing on waves as the founder of Surfer Magazine, died Friday at his home on Maui, from leukemia. He was 83.
By any measure, Severson was one of the sport’s giants, known not just for launching the pre-eminent surf publication in the sport’s history, but also for his career as a filmmaker, surf competitor, and multimedia artist.
“Before John Severson,” surf journalist Sam George wrote in 1999, “there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’—at least not in the way we understand it today.”
Severson grew up in Southern California and was drafted by the Army in 1956. “In a major Army SNAFU,” Severson said in an interview for his book, Surf, “I got sent to Hawaii for my tour of duty. I was assigned to the general’s staff as draftsman and illustrator, and then placed on the Army surf team. This was beyond my wildest dreams. I lived off-post, rode great waves on the North Shore and at Makaha, and began planning my first film, SURF. I didn’t know how to make a film, but I started arranging my growing collection.”
SURF was completed in 1958, followed by several more films after returning to California.
Surfer began as a 32-page promo for the film Surf Fever. Originally called The Surfer, it soon became a quarterly and attracted writers, photographers, and artists who also would become legends, including Rick Griffin, Art Brewer, Jeff Divine, and John Van Hamersveld (who designed the iconic Endless Summer poster).
At surfing’s best, Severson considered it to be like entering another dimension, and through his life he tried to convey the beauty and stoke of it through art. He received a masters in fine art from Long Beach State three years before entering the Army, and a strong sense of design was woven through even the earliest issues of Surfer. His art often featured bold geometries and bright colors; the work from the 1950s has a strong Beat influence.
Severson continued to make art through his long life, gaining wide renown for a career that stretched far beyond Surfer, and only stopped surfing at age 80.
To learn more about Severson and see additional art, like Surf BeBop, above, and photography, check out his 2014 book, Surf.
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