The first time I stepped into a surf shop at age 15, I felt a connection, though to what I wasn’t sure. A decade later in a surf shop on the opposite side of the country I saw a painting of a surfer on a wave, and thought, “someday I will paint waves.” Years later, I stumbled upon a photograph of the most beautiful wave, and developed a bit of an addiction to studying photos of waves, and eventually drawing and painting them. One night, searching for more surf related art, I typed in ‘surf art’, and the magical Google machine opened my eyes to a vast world of art depicted from a surf perspective.
Though explanations vary, Surf Art can be broadly described as a discipline of art that seeks to share the experience, feelings, energy and vibrations of the world of surfing. For many, there is a certain allure that is born from riding a wave. It has been said that surfing offers a chance to commune with nature in a rare way, where the force of nature moves you, or rather, you are moving with the force of nature, sharing a moment of synchronicity with the Earth herself. Perhaps that is why the world of surfing has become its own entity, where worldwide competitions, communities, and a competitive market of consumer goods accompany the sport as well as its way of life.
“Surf Art is Live Art. Defined as the expression of Surf Life Style through mediums, Surf Art reveals the universality of open-minded and forever young spirit of surfer’s community. This universality of values has the ability to talk to people. Surf Art shows the essence of life”. ~Bruno Turpin
While it may be difficult to pinpoint the true beginnings of Surf Art, there are certainly milestones that flag the road of this ever-increasing genre. Early Hawaiians painted pictures on cave walls depicting riding on waves, and while it holds that these people were some of the first to document the communion between man and wave, it is questionable as to whether they were communicating mere events or going for an artful representation of the activity.
The early 1900’s brought with it a newfound obsession with beach life, travel to exotic beaches like Hawaii, and eventually surfing. A notable artist of this era, Charles W. Bartlett painted scenes from Hawaiian beaches including what he referred to as ‘surf riders’ and included his notable work, The Duke, Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku Surfing C.1918
The romantic allure of the ocean is depicted in vintage beach art of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and it is here where waves were first utilized as a form of marketing media. By the 1950’s, advertising grew into an industry of travel-related art as cruise liners such as Matson and airlines like Pan Am utilized idyllic scenes to draw travelers towards their services.
As the art was evolving, so was the world of surfing. One of the great contributors to the world of surfing was John Severson. Born in 1933, he began surfing at age 13 and later attended Chico State and Long Beach State where he earned his BA and MA in Art Education. While stationed in Hawaii serving for the US Army, Severson began documenting surfing, and producing movies, which included dramatic pen and ink handbills and posters. His artwork from this time is considered by many to be the first Surf Art. In the summer of 1960, Severson created a 36-page promotional piece to accompany his movie, Surf Fever. Dubbed The Surfer, the magazine included sketches, a couple of articles, a map of Southern California surf spots and some black and white photos.
The little magazine grew with each edition, eventually becoming Surfer Magazine, which Severson ran until 1971. It has been said that before Severson, there was no surf media. With Surfer came many of today’s surf media icons including photographers like Ron Stoner and Art Brewer, cartoonist Rick Griffin, and graphic designers such as John Van Hamersveld.
The artists of that era set an exciting and free-ranging realm for subsequent artists to create and capture their representation of surfing. Stroll into any surf shop today and one can find a wide range of art. Beach towns are adorned with galleries filled with exquisite works showcasing surfing and its expression. And while it has yet to be determined within the art community as to whether Surf Art is actually a fine art, in the eyes of the beholder who shares the connection to surfing, the waves and the ocean, there really is no question.
A little help and inspiration from the following:
Club of the Waves http://www.clubofthewaves.com/
Surfer Art http://surferart.com/
Encyclopedia of Surfing http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/
Liquid Salt Magazine http://www.liquidsaltmag.com/