by Corky Carroll
Today I would like to carry on with my “surfings most interesting people” series. These are profiles on people whom I have met over the zillion years that I have been involved in surfing that I have found to be more interesting than most for one reason or another. These are people that were great to sit down and have a conversation with that didn’t center around current surfing events. The late Dr Timmothy Leary once told me, “We are all surfers riding different waves. Ocean waves, cosmic waves, radio waves….(and he went on to name a whole bunch more, ending with ‘permanent waves.’). People that I have found the most interesting always had a lot more to talk about than “I got a big one yesterday,” kinda stuff.
John Severson was one of those dudes. For those of you who don’t know or are too young to remember, this is the guy who first published SURFER magazine back in 1960. He was a leading surf movie producer and incredible artist. He was a guy who had all the creds to talk surf all day long if that was what you were looking for. But the dude was a lot deeper than that.
I first met John at one of his movie showings at Laguna Beach High School in the early 1960’s. I had sent in a photo for the “Photos from the Readers” section in SURFER that he had run. That night I won the door prize, a poster I think, and when I went up to get it he remembered my name and we talked for a while after the movie. He was urging me on to continue my photography as there was a great need for surf photos. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t really a photographer, that I had just happened to snap the photo with my mom’s old “box” camera one day from the Huntington Beach Pier. But he was being so supportive and encouraging that I just went with it.
John was a decent surfer in his own right and had won the Peru International in 1961. And he was an excellent photographer and journalist. But his real love, and probably his strongest talent, was as an artist. His paintings go for pretty big bucks, in the five-figure range. He also was an excellent golfer, but we won’t hold that part against him.
I got to be good pals with John in the early sixties when he built his home at Cotton’s Point. That was the spot I surfed at most of the time. We would see each other in the water all the time and always were able to strike up a conversation while waiting for waves. Naturally, through surfing, we started having a lot of interaction to do with the magazine. He was the one who recommended me for the “Jantzen International Sports Club.”
Many times I would be invited to John and his wife Louise’s home for dinner, and that led to our infamous afternoon Scrabble matches on the beach. The guy was almost impossible to beat at Scrabble, plus he had the worlds most expensive and comprehensive dictionary known to man or beast. I only got to see it if I was foolish enough to challenge a word. We would set up a board on the beach at Cottons Point, in front of his house, on many afternoons when we thought the wind was going to go down and the surf was gonna get good. Normally he would beat my brains out, gleefully at that, and then we would go surfing.
When I was first getting interested in painting I asked John for his thoughts on what I was doing. His words always stuck with me and to this day I have followed his advice. He said, “Keep doing exactly what you are doing because you have your very own style and it’s not a copy of anybody else. If you stick with that it will work out fine.” My wife, the pretty Raquel, says the same thing when she see’s me looking at the work of my fav artists online. I will say, “I wanna do THAT.” She will say that’s not me and to stick with what I do because that’s how I can put the right “feeling” into the art. It was John Severson who opened my eyes to that. He did what he did and it was amazing and his words had a huge influence on me. These days where I have become serious about doing art I have thought about him a lot.
In his later years John lived on Maui and had a small art gallery in Lahaina. He surfed and painted until his passing in2017 at the age of 84. Definitely one of the most interesting people I know in surfing.