THE INCREDIBLE MAT ART OF JOHN SEVERSON
Words by Ken McKnight
To many of us, Surf Art, is a myriad of images conjured. Some are dreamy, some are colorful, and others are gently textured. Serious art aficionados find Surf Art exciting and inviting all at the same time. Few will disagree that this medium is extremely creative and no one personifies the surf world thru their body of work quite like the legendary Artiste’, John Severson.
Severson has always portrayed, filmed and painted the rich surfing lifestyle the way many of us see it in our imagination, on our notebooks in school, or thru the film and print media. His inspiration and thought process thru the years has tickled the fancy of many a surfer that continue to search for that fabled perfect wave or the ultimate session. His dream fulfilled became our lifestyle quest.
In 2007 Pacific Northwest mat rider, Pete “Chiledub” D’Ewart, and his lovely wife Diane were on a surf trip to Maui. Being avid art collectors in their own right, they made a conscious effort to see if there was something of John Severson’s that they could find for their own collection. John’s oils, acrylics and watercolors are as compelling and original as any and highly sought after. Knowing that, Pete and Diane were interested in procuring a piece of John’s legendary artwork, whether it was something already completed, or to maybe commission an original piece if that should become the case. With that in mind the D’Ewart’s set out on a mission.
“We were in Lahaina,” Pete remembered, “actually looking for some of Severson's artwork and couldn’t find any. So we sent him an e-mail that he quickly responded to saying he sometimes showed his work at his home studio. We responded to see if there would be anytime while we were on Maui that he would be available. John responded "this afternoon." Off we went!”
To make a long story short, Pete and Diane lobbed into John’s studio for a look-see. They found a cornucopia of varied images and color at his studio. Here was a stunning array of a working surf art world and the ocean lifestyle surrounding it. And there big as life, was John, talking story and playing his Hawaiian guitar. The conversation in typical Pete fashion quickly turned to the Mat side with Pete explaining to Severson why he came to Maui: To Mat Surf!
“The first thing I talk to any surfer about is the mat.” said D’Ewart with a smile.
Most in the surf world know John Severson as the founder and brainchild of the original surfers bible, Surfer Magazine, a publication he started in 1960. What most of us don’t know is that he started his surf career on a Surf Mat in Southern California!
The D’Ewart’s were impressed and left with John promising to paint something with a mat theme. Game on!
What showed up on Pete and Diane’s doorstep soon afterwards stunned them completely! Here were three paintings of extraordinary composition, rife with the images of mat surfing that are as contemporary in the mat world today as they would have been in the late 40’s. Those paintings were labeled, “Mat Kids,” “The Right Mat Stuff” and “Mat Man.”
Pete sent word thru the “coconut wireless” about the amazing paintings John had completed. Then, slowly, a few photos of the paintings emerged via email that blew us all away. From there the mat world began to realize what had happened and it was all good.
Each of the three paintings would eventually show up in the Dale Solomonson tribute book, “Spirit Matters,” that was produced by the D’Ewarts in 2012. John was quoted in the book, just under his painting,The Right Mat Stuff: “I hope that Dale improves, and that Spirit will matter. All the best, and Aloha to Dale.” John Severson.
In Volume 20 No. 7, July 1979 Surfer Magazine, I wrote an article called “The Shapers Perspective.” It was a long piece and I was lucky to talk to many of the top shapers in California during that era. Also in that issue, and featured on the cover was a painting of a dream wave for a cover story called “Surfer Art – A One Man Show by John Severson. He had long retired from the magazine by then and had left the mainland to raise a family in even more beauty, inspiration and idyllic surf conditions then could be found elsewhere, Hawaii.
I was honored to have words in an issue of Surfer that featured John Severson on the cover. He was always an inspiration to me as a writer, photographer, filmmaker and of course, as an artist.
His history is our history. It had become my history as well.
Did I know John Severson personally? No, but I knew thru the grapevine that he had pretty much retired to the West end of Maui where he was surfing, painting and enjoying his life with his lovely wife, Louise. As I had lived in that particular area in the early 70’s as a surf bum, his legend was already larger than life to me.
I was lucky to be on Maui a week or so before the D’Ewarts in 2007 and rode my mat on a solo session in front of John’s house one particular day (see Photo). The waves were firing. There, sitting contemplatively on his favorite red wooden chair on a secluded point for the entire ocean to see, was John Severson himself. I couldn’t help but notice him inspecting me as I paddled out. I rode a couple dozen waves that afternoon and at one point I waved to him and he waved back before getting up and going back into his house. I was stoked! Once Pete received the paintings I was even more stoked.
John Severson started his incredible career as a painter, selling his first works, while finishing his Master’s Degree from Long Beach State College.
It was in 1958 that John used his art, photography, and surfing passion together to create a surf movie series that instantly became popular. His films included Surf Safari, Surf Fever, Going My Wave, Big Wednesday and years later the iconic Pacific Vibrations.
He originally started The Surfer, in 1960, as an annual magazine to backup his successful movies. He had been putting posters out with the movies but wanted something more substantial, like a program to go with each film. What morphed out in 1961 was a quarterly magazine that quickly became a Bimonthly in 1962. By 1964 he was on a roll and the last thing John imagined the magazine to be was “assembly line” or “Cookie Cutter-like.” It was a lifestyle like no other and it was John’s lifestyle as well as many others.
As one of Severson’s Editorial/Surf Bill’s from 1964 proclaimed,
“The Surfer is, and will remain, the quality publication in the surfing field. It’s the magazine for real surfers, and when the fad has died and the “hangeroners” are gone, the magazine will still be there, The Surfer.”
John was at the forefront of a media awakening that discovered a strange but fascinating lifestyle called, Surfing. Always an Icon, he was a renaissance surf pioneer in many genres far ahead of his time, and he excelled at them all. Surfer, filmmaker, publisher, photographer, writer, artist, businessman, father and husband of many years, Severson set the standard in many ways. Not to mention an all around waterman in the purest sense of the word.
As a surfer, John was known for riding big waves, and for his innovative performance style in big surf. He was a standout at huge Sunset Beach in the late 50’s. In 1961, he won the Peru International Surfing Championships and was a finalist in the U.S. and Hawaiian Championships.
It was Severson who had the forethought to bring the insulated and intriguing world of waves and beach culture to the world at large. He mentored, surfed with, and worked alongside some of the greatest names in surfing. To name but a few the list includes Leroy Grannis, Rick Griffin, Ron Stoner, Drew Kampion, John Van Hammersveld, Bruce Brown, Bev Morgan, Ron Perrott, Roy Porello and a young promising upstart named, Arthur Jennings Brewer.
He rubbed shoulders with and surfed alongside all the great surfers, from Hobie Alter to Dewey, Mickey Dora, Matt Kivlin, Tom Morey Yater, Con Colburn, Mike Doyle, the Hoffman’s, Nuuhiwa, Corky, Munoz, Billy Hamilton, Donald Takayama, Ralf Aurness and of course the Duke himself...
He knew them all.
To top it off before he made his infamous “Exile off the California Main Street” to Maui, John lived at San Clemente’s exclusive surf spot, Cottons Point. His house was right next door to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Millhouse Nixon. It was widely rumored that the Severson’s dogs joyfully tromped the Nixon’s Flower Garden, much to the chagrin and watchful eye of the Secret Service. It’s no wonder John moved to the Islands.
In 2011 John Severson was given the prestigious Lifetime Achievement award at the Surfer Poll Awards. Has he stopped yet? No! He still surfs, paints, plays guitar and enjoys life thoroughly.
Earlier this year I made a conscious effort to contact John to ask him a few questions about his mat artwork that Pete and Diane had commissioned. He was kind enough to accommodate me and allow me to share his words and images.
I explained that there was really not much historical perspective on mats from the 40’s and 50’s, when mats gained popularity on the busier summer beaches around the world. And, that there was almost zero first hand knowledge.
I quizzed John, “If you remember what type of mats that you rode? Did they have ropes around them? “Where did you get those mats? How old were you when you first rode a mat?
John recalled, “My family moved to San Clemente in December of 1945—I was just 12. “ John explained. “After school was over in June of ’46, a friend, Vince Nelson, encouraged my brother Jim and I to come to the San Clemente pier, where he introduced us to the beach boy life.”
“The first day, he taught us how to body surf. The local snack shop entrepreneur had a mat rental concession, and proposed a deal made in heaven. If we tended the mat rentals, we could ride them when business was down.”
I continued, “Did riding mats then influence the way you approached surfing on hardboards? Nowadays mats are ridden with very low inflations. Did you blow up your mats as much as possible? Did you ride them laying down or standing up?
In the style of the day,” he countered, “we pumped the mats up to near explosion. Within a few days, we were sliding on angles, going over the falls on our knees, and considered ourselves surfers. We stood on the mats occasionally, but mostly rode on our stomach and knees. After a few good swells, we were jumping off the pier to ride the “killer whompers.” With no lotion, we were fried, and adding mat rash to the mix.”
“Our mats had “Surf Tan” stenciled on them (some sort of oil to accelerate burning), so we called the mats, “Surf Tans.” They were magenta, with a rope on the front to hold and steer. Sometimes we broke a chamber pumping the mat, and gave those to the tourists.”
“After a season or two, we made some plywood belly boards, which were faster, but more underwater, and not as much fun. By this time, we were “shooting the pier.” We were quite aware of surfing, as a lifeguard had a board, and would ride at the pier, or off the overpass by Trafalgar Street. About once a week we could mooch a ride to Doheny or San Onofre, and we’d borrow a big board (11’ and 80-100 lbs.) and try to get in the way of waves. There weren’t many surfers, so we were on our own. Mat surfing had taught us about waves, and that helped us through a lot of the difficult gremmie struggles.”
Eager to know more I had to ask about any special surf sessions. “Did you go out on any big days and where?”
“About my second year,” said John, “I went to the beach one weekend after the season, and there was a huge swell. It was breaking outside of the pier, in the kelp beds. There was one lifeguard on the beach, but he was going home. He let me borrow a mat, sure I wasn’t going out. I didn’t have fins, but the beautiful glassy waves were irresistible. With no one on the beach, or on the pier, I hotfooted it to the end of the pier, and jumped in. It was then I could see how big it was, and that I couldn’t get back up the pier. I paddled out to what looked like the line-up, and paddled into a big one. I panicked and let the mat go to save myself, soon realizing that I had turned loose of my lifeline. I figured I could die, or stay calm and swim my way out of this. I spent about an hour swimming south to the point, and then body surfing in, not without some epic wipeouts. Glad to be alive, I chalked it up to a learning experience, valuable in future big surf adventures on the North Shore.”
Of course what started all this were the paintings John produced for Pete and Diane. I had to ask about these three amazing images.
“Each of your three paintings has two mat riders.” I asked. “Are they actual people from your mat experience from years ago? There is also a pier in two of the paintings, was that San Clemente maybe?”
“How did you come up with each of the three themes? “I painted the mat pieces partly from some old photos, but mostly from memory, and feel—personal experience. The characters are my beach boy buddies. The pier in Mat Kids is San Clemente. The painting of Mat Man is a combination of pier vistas, and a high-tide curl-to-shore phenomenon that sometimes happens. I took a few liberties, and that’s part of the fun of painting. Our glorious mat days evolved to surfing, and I left the mat world behind. “
From the films he has produced to his incredible posters and artwork, the countless waves ridden, all the surf sessions, Ranch Trips, Hawaii, and his Surfer Magazine years right up to the three mat paintings, John Severson has had quite a surf life! His art is original, creative and thought provoking all at the same time. There is no doubt that this incredible body of work will stand the test of time.
Thanks John for all the images and as you always say... “Stay Wet!”
For more of John’s fantastic work visit www.surferart.com