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Surf Art Catches a Break

After decades of being seen as a throwaway genre, it shakes off the sand, comes inside and wins favor with collectors.

January 31, 2006|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

When surfer and starving artist John Severson showed his work at a Laguna Beach gallery in 1955, his boldly colored abstract paintings of longboarders and the California coast didn't exactly set the art world on fire.

Severson left as hungry as when he arrived, selling exactly one piece for a measly $35.

Half a century later, he returned to Laguna for two shows at the Surf Gallery on Coast Highway. This time, hundreds turned out for the opening receptions. Sushi and wine were served. Eager buyers snapped up scores of Severson's oils and watercolors, some costing thousands of dollars.

Severson's art had clearly arrived. So had the genre he pioneered.

During the last decade, a growing number of artists with roots in Southern California have found that surfing is their muse. What was once a hobby for surfers with a knack for painting has been building in popularity, fueled by affluent aficionados of the sport and an industry grown rich on the fat of the sand.

Collections of surf art have been making the rounds of museums across the country. Galleries dedicated to the genre are opening, and original paintings that were once ignored by collectors now command as much as $75,000.

"Surf art in the 1970s and 1980s was really slow business," said Gordon T. McClelland, a Santa Ana art dealer, collector and historian. "In 1990, things started to take off. It's gone from six or seven people painting with any consistency to more than 60 people today, probably more."

Surf artists run the gamut of styles. They work in oils, watercolor and ink. Some print images using hand-carved wood blocks. Others create mixed-media works.

At its best, surf art conveys the "stoke" of the sport, the physical and mental euphoria that comes from a well-ridden wave.

Its practitioners connect with nature, capture coastal landmarks threatened by development and reflect romanticized rituals such as waxing boards or walking on endless, remote beaches.

"Every surf artist is trying to express ineffable qualities," said Scott Hulet, an editor at the Surfer's Journal who regularly writes reviews about the genre. "There's van art, Woody art and perfectly airbrushed waves. Then you can go up the sophistication ladder as far as you want to climb."

Although European and American artists have been capturing surf scenes for more than a century, it was Severson, the founder of Surfer Magazine in San Juan Capistrano, who popularized the genre.

He began painting surfers and beach scenes in the mid-1950s as an art student at Cal State Chico and Cal State Long Beach. Without a market for his art, Severson occasionally used his magazine as a showcase.

In 1963, he placed "Surf Bebop," a bold abstract painting, on the cover. Lighted with bright shades of red, orange and yellow, the work depicts two surfers lounging on a beach with their boards on a hot summer day. It won national recognition and demonstrated that surf art could be fine art.

After 10 years as owner-publisher, Severson sold the magazine in 1970 and used the proceeds to paint full time.

"No one was banging down the doors back then," said Severson, 72, who now lives on Maui. "The painting really started to kick in about 15 to 20 years ago. It has created a whole field of painters. Of course, we have now flooded the market."

Like Severson, Wolfgang Bloch, 42, of Laguna Beach is an abstract artist. But his highly textured work often blends paint with scrap metal, matchboxes, wood, posters and photographs.

For a national Surfrider Foundation fundraiser last year in New York City, Bloch sawed a surfboard into pieces and assembled them like a mosaic inside a rectangular frame filled with translucent resin. The work is bisected by two thin, breaking waves in gleaming white.

Bloch, who headed art departments for surf-wear manufacturers and the Indian Motorcycle Co. before going out on his own, has been surfing since he was 12. His inspiration comes from the ocean and life along the California coast.

"It's not typical surf art. I don't do pictures of palms and perfect waves peeling," Bloch said. "My work is more abstract, simplified. It's more about imaginary landscapes created by color and texture. It's something that just happens. I have an image in mind, but there is no conscious thinking or planning."

Colleen Hanley of San Clemente, a former competitive surfer, is one of the few women in the field. Two months ago, she became the official artist for Surfing America, the sport's national governing body. Her work will be used for promotions and sold to raise money.

"I was always drawing waves in class in high school. I'd envision the dream wave to get me through the day," said Hanley, 28, whose bold abstracts of beaches and surfers fill the organization's headquarters in San Juan Capistrano.

In contrast, the posters and paintings of Michael Cassidy of northern San Diego County are marked by a realistic style that faithfully depicts wahines, surfers riding massive waves and the tropical landscapes of Tahiti and Hawaii.

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