Drawing Waves

One of the most prolific graphic artists of ‘60s counterculture, Rick Griffin created iconic posters for musicians like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Janis Joplin. His life tragically cut short at age 47, Griffin’s design adventures charted a wild ride from the surf of Palos Verdes to San Francisco’s Summer of Love to a late-life spiritual awakening. Seventy years after his birth, friends, family and fans remember the man behind “Murphy.”

In the fall of 2012, Joseph Knoernschild walked into a partly demolished, mid-century tract home in Palos Verdes and began a last-ditch effort to save a piece of South Bay history.

“The roof was torn off, and the windows were already torn off too,” says Joseph. The home, he adds, was basically a skeleton. “The bulldozers were in the driveway, ready to lock and load.”

Joseph, who’s also one of the original founders of Hurley International, is an avid surfer and devoted surf art collector. A friend of his, Mac McKnight, was in charge of demolishing the Palos Verdes home, but the contractor had come across two surf murals painted on the walls inside the building. They both depicted a cartoonish surfer—disproportional gremmie limbs and long, sun-bleached blond hair trailing behind him—riding waves.

Both murals were signed “Rick Griffin, 1960.” Mac called Joseph, thinking that he might know who Rick was. 

“Rick Griffin in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s really represented the pure stoke of it all—really fun and playful,” says Joseph. He’d been a fan of Rick’s artwork, in particular his “Murphy” cartoon art for Surfer, for years. For Joseph and countless surfers from around the world during the ‘60s, Rick Griffin captured the heart and soul of that era with his surf art. 

The paintings, which were early “Murphy” cartoons that Rick had done as a 15-year-old for his friend Rob Quigley who’d grown up in the home, had been done on plaster walls and were extremely difficult to remove. 

However, with much effort, some wallet padding and many beers, the crew found a way to cut the paintings right off the walls with only hours to spare before final demolition. Joseph was able to convince the owner of the property to donate them to the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente. 

Because the murals had been done on fragile plaster, the crew had simply cut away the walls that they’d been painted on—which meant that each piece consisted of several hundred pounds of plaster, studs, lattice-work and even heating ducts. “It took four of us to wrangle them up and into a U-Haul truck,” says Barry Haun, director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation.

Despite their awkwardly cumbersome nature, Barry was more than pleased to acquire the paintings—both on a professional and personal level. Barry discovered the South Bay native’s art when he started surfing in the ‘70s, and Rick by that point had become an icon of the surf world. “Growing up surfing in the early ‘70s,” says Barry, “ was akin to Eric Clapton playing the guitar.” 

Rick Griffin’s artistic career and life was tragically cut short following a motorcycle accident in August 1991. He was 47. As an artist, Rick defined surfing for generations of watermen. 

But the quiet comic book fanatic from Palos Verdes not only affected the surf world with his work. He had a profound visual impact on both California counterculture and the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the ‘70s, which—coupled with his surf art—helped define the South Bay’s collective artistic identity.  

PV Beginnings 

Richard Alden Griffin was born in Palos Verdes on June 18, 1944. His childhood in PV was marked by his introduction to surfing—Rick learned to surf in 1958 at Torrance Beach, just south of Redondo—and by frequent family trips to the American Southwest. These trips, mostly done with his father, exposed him to Native American art and culture, which deeply influenced his art later in life.  

Away from the waves and the desert, Rick admired the graphic art and style of artists like Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and Will Elder—who worked and drew for Mad Magazine. The walls of his bedroom were covered with his drawings and illustrations.

“He was a natural born doodler; he loved Mad Magazine,” says Steve Barilotti, a documentary filmmaker, writer and mainstay Surfer contributing editor.

Rick went on to attend Palos Verdes High. Surfer’s founder, John Severson, hired Rick in 1960 after meeting him at a screening of his film Surf Fever at Torrance High. Impressed by the artwork Rick had done for local surfboard manufacturer Greg Noll, John brought Rick onboard as a staff cartoonist. It was at Surfer that Rick further developed the “Murphy” character and the subsequent comic strip that ran in the publication for several years. 

“He was a fairly clean-cut kid—just like one of the little drawings in his cartoons,” says Gordon McClelland, Rick’s former art manager. Both surfing and Surfer were struggling through an ungainly adolescence during that era—the fledgling magazine was in the process of establishing itself financially, and surf culture in general was trying to identify itself. 

Surfing was relatively new to California, and a prevailing postwar demeanor of responsible efficiency made a sport like surfing—where one became a “beach bum” and rode waves for no other purpose other than sheer enjoyment—somewhat odd. 

“At the time, surfers were looking for an identity,” says Steve, who is working on a film entitled Griffin (slated for a late 2014 to early 2015 release) about Rick and his art. He adds that surfers at the time weren’t exactly sure how to be surfers.

"I think Rick, being of the age, he was not only an artist representing the culture—he was the culture. He was the audience he was drawing for.”

“People didn’t really know what it meant to be a surfer—how you acted, how you dressed, how you thought. The magazine was a kind of codebook in a way. I think Rick, being of the age (15-16 when he started drawing “Murphy”), he was not only an artist representing the culture—he was the culture. He was the audience he was drawing for.” 

Rick was good-looking, blond and clean-cut—he was the epitome of the teenage, male, California surfer. He fit John’s business mindset of what he wanted Surfer’s audience to be, and Rick’s youthful and good-natured “Murphy” fit the exuberant surfing stoke of the early ‘60s. 

“He became the spokesperson for our time of youth culture and surfing,” says Gordon. 

Though Rick’s comics for Surfer were still in demand by ‘62, the young artist grappled with a stifling home life—his authoritative parents approved of his magazine work but didn’t agree with his constant partying. Following high school graduation in 1962, he sought adventure, which included vague talks of heading to Australia on an extended “surfari.” 

While Rick was hitchhiking to San Francisco in the summer of 1963, he was involved in a terrible car accident. Details are sketchy, but the driver of a car that had picked him up lost control, and Rick was thrown. He skidded along the asphalt mostly on the left side of his face, which resulted in Rick temporarily damaging his left eye, as well as severe facial scarring and disfigurement.

“It took him almost a year to recover from that accident,” says Ida Griffin, Rick’s wife. “He was having a lot of plastic surgery, and his parents were trying to get his face back to normal. When he first applied to art schools he had a beard—he grew a beard to try and cover up the scars on his face—but the art schools down in LA wouldn’t allow him to attend because of the beard, and he couldn’t wear sandals.”

Rick met Ida Pfefferle at Chouinard Art Institute—which Ida says Rick attended because they let him keep his beard and huarache sandals—and both shared a passion for comic books. They later married in 1971. 

Before he attended Chouinard (now California Institute of the Arts, CalArts), Rick had gone through a complicated transition. His painful accident had forced him to literally alter his artistic perspective, as well as canceled his plans for further adventure. 

However, he channeled his frustrations and pain into his artwork, which—coupled with his brief time at Chouinard—helped him advance his technical skillset as well create a new series of surf cartoons for Surfer. “He created a whole alter ego for himself with the ‘Griffin-Stoner Adventures’—the character goes on wild adventures while Rick himself didn’t really go anywhere,” says Steve.

San Francisco Counterculture

During the '60s, Rick attended one of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. In 1966, both he and Ida moved to San Francisco, lived out of their van and began an association with the Jook Savages—a creative and freewheeling conglomeration of visual artists, filmmakers and musicians. Rick designed the poster for the Human Be-In, held in Golden Gate Park in January 1967 and heralding the “Summer of Love.” 

The music scene in San Francisco was another big attraction for Rick. Music, surf and art were Rick’s greatest loves, and he brought them together in a style all his own. His work for Surfer continued, and “Murphy” was turning some corners that John found inappropriate for the publication. More and more underground (mainly drug-related) imagery was being disguised in the fine details. 

When Rick noticed one of his strips had been ever so slightly censored, he lost his love for his creation and produced what John felt were mediocre strips. Their relationship, from that point on, was severely strained. 

It was at this time that Bill Graham and Chet Helms began courting Rick to design their Fillmore and Family Dog venue concert posters. Rick’s work soared here, producing hundreds of lasting images, creatively imagined and finely realized while utilizing a unique mandala treatment that would come to define art from that counterculture era. 

“As an individual, he had this innate art ability—a guy who was philosophically in tune with what he was doing,” says Jim Evans, a painter and digital artist who worked with Rick. “The hardest thing he ever had to do was to finish things. I don’t think he ever met a deadline.”

Having reached the pinnacle of his craft, Rick created concert posters for artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Grateful Dead, The Charlatans, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane. In November 1967, Jann Wenner commissioned Rick to design the initial masthead for his new publication, Rolling Stone. 

In 1969, Rick and Ida moved south and settled in San Clemente. John Severson reconnected with Rick, and he commissioned him to create the poster art for his Pacific Vibrations surf film. The result is one of his finest pieces, incorporating the use of airbrush, which would now be used more frequently on his canvases.  

(photo by John Van Hamersveld)

A Spiritual Change

Things changed dramatically in 1970. “He got into Christianity almost as deeply as he got into his acid,” says Jim. 

Though Rick had experimented with psychedelics during his time at Chouinard and in San Francisco, his drug usage was mainly part of a deep-seated need to explore his spirituality. He would soon become a born-again Christian. 

During the ‘70s Rick committed himself to an incredibly ambitious project: illustrating The Gospel of John. The book, which was produced for Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, contained hundreds of exclusive images by the artist. A labor of love and devotion, the book remains an exquisite and impressive work, one that helped to define the “Jesus Movement” in California when remnants of the ‘60s counterculture turned toward Christianity for guidance. 

“I think like a lot of people of that generation, they wanted peace, love and understanding,” says Steve. “But by the end of the ‘60s, you had both Kennedys assassinated, you had Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated, you had this war in Vietnam that was sucking up all the young men in America, and LSD was not the answer. It was a door opener, but once you opened the door you didn’t have to keep going through it. You had the Manson murders that really ended the hippie thing in many ways. Rick was always seeking a spiritual connection—whether it was through surfing or psychedelics. Christianity was the next step in the evolution.”

Sudden Departure 

Building on a love for Christian imagery, Rick continued to create more spiritual artwork. He also returned to surfing after spending a long stretch away from the waves and created additional artwork for other surf films, including Five Summer Stories (1972) and Blazing Boards (1983). But it all ended abruptly in 1991 when Rick tried to pass a van in Petaluma, California while riding his motorcycle. 

Rick was always in a state of artistic transition, one that was spurred by personal drive rather than external pressure, so it is difficult to say what his art would’ve evolved to if he hadn’t passed. But he left behind a legacy of surf art that helped define the golden age of surfing in not only the South Bay but abroad as well. His counterculture and religious art remain potent examples of two historically significant subcultural California groups.   

When asked for her opinion on what Rick’s art would’ve become had he not passed, Ida replies simply, “He’d still be drawing and painting and listening to music.” 

She also adds, with some laughter, “But I can tell you that he wouldn’t be on a computer.”

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