Almost as soon as the ancient Polynesian sport of surfing invaded California’s shores in the 20th century, an entire socioeconomic subculture began to spring up around it. The beaches of Southern California became the center of a “surf culture” that hit its high point from the late 1950s through the ‘60s and is still active today. From developing its own music, fashion and jargon to creating its own films, publications and art, surf culture became a signature aspect of American popular culture and a world-recognized element of the California lifestyle.
The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University is currently paying tribute to two of the foundational artists of the surf culture movement, John Severson (1933-2017) and Rick Griffin (1944-1991) with the exhibition “Making Waves,” curated by Gordon McClelland, on view through March 31.
Both men were multi-talented fine artists as well as writers and surfers, and they worked together on surf culture’s foundational publication, Surfer magazine, which Severson created and edited. In so doing, they inadvertently established what has become known as Surf Culture Art.
John Severson is widely acknowledged as the first person to produce a series of paintings devoted to surf culture imagery. Those works were exhibited in the mid-1950s at Long Beach State College to complete his MFA degree. Severson remained a dedicated surfer and continued to produce surf-related art throughout his life. He was also an avid and gifted filmmaker whose thrilling, psychedelic yet naturalistic surfing documentaries–including his most famous movie, 1969’s “Pacific Vibrations”–served as a counterpoint to the highly Hollywood-ized “Gidget” and Frankie Avalon beach-party movies.
Severson’s art is imaginative and colorful, incorporating ideas of abstraction while remaining firmly representational. His 1963 painting “Surf Be-Bop,” on view at the Hilbert Museum, shows two surfers lounging near their boards on a bright orange beach; the work ran as cover art for Surfer magazine and was cited by Communication Arts magazine as the most outstanding cover illustration of the year.
Other Severson works on display at the Hilbert include imaginative watercolors of surf spots from California to Hawaii, and even a painting of a movie theater, open to the ocean and packed with people, showing his films in Laguna Beach. There is also a selection of historical photographs, posters and early volumes of Surfer magazine on display. Severson passed away in May 2017 at the age of 83, after battling leukemia.
Rick Griffin was a high school student in 1960 when he began drawing surf-related works for Greg Noll Surfboards and Surfer Magazine. Indeed, it was Surfer’s founder-editor, Severson, who launched Griffin’s professional art career by reproducing his art in the magazine; thus providing Griffin with international exposure.
Griffin went on to produce art for the San Francisco rock music hippie culture, some of which included surf images. He contributed to the underground “comix” scene and designed some of the Grateful Dead’s best-known posters and album.
He then returned to living in Southern California, where he rode the waves regularly and produced a number of surf-related art works well into the late 1980s. Griffin became a born-again Christian in 1970, which highly influenced his art from that point on, as he added deeply felt religious imagery to his creative palette.
Sadly, Griffin died in a motorcycle accident in 1991 at the age of 47, but his influence on poster and album-cover art, comics and surfing art remains as strong as it ever was. His art has skyrocketed in value as new generations have discovered him.
Works by Griffin on display at the Hilbert Museum include the original and rarely exhibited painting for the John Severson film “Pacific Vibrations,” now owned by a private collector; and examples of some of his intricately hand-drawn surfer “comix.”
Says exhibition curator McClelland, who was a close friend of both men, “This show celebrates the lives and art of John and Rick, who were not only great artists but were truly fine human beings, with boundless creative energy and a love for surfing and living life.”
“MAKING WAVES: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN SEVERSON AND RICK GRIFFIN” is on exhibit now through March 31, 2018 at the Hilbert Museum of California Art, 167 N. Atchison St., in Orange. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, and there is free parking in front of the museum (with permit obtained at front desk). Information: 714.516.5880 or HilbertMuseum.org