Endless Talent

Fifty years ago John Van Hamersveld created iconic artwork that captured an era, including the famous poster for the film Endless Summer. As popular culture continues to celebrate his past, John hopes his current work will shift that focus toward the future.

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    Kelly Dawson

The winter light was soft against the street outside the darkened gallery. On the corner, the Warner Grand Theatre rose against a blue sky that appeared equally bleached by the sun, and a few paces away chatter rose from a café that emanated the scent of coffee and toast. Meanwhile people walked in and out of traditional storefronts, calmly zigzagging across the empty road.

“It’s like going back in time to 1965,” designer and artist John Van Hamersveld says. “I used to buy my bell-bottom jeans from the Army Surplus store down here.”

John and his wife, Alida Post, opened Post Future: The Art Company on Sixth Street in San Pedro two years ago. They chose the sleepy, almost small-town location for the sense of community they no longer felt was present in Santa Monica.

Alida uses the gallery to display John’s art and the works of like-minded peers. But when it is closed and the overhead lights that illuminate his famous works are dark, John can still be found behind the front door. His workspace is hidden by a neon canvas at the far end of the room, past the Endless Summer poster that launched his career and the various images that tie his name to icons of popular culture.

“I work 16 hours a day. It’s been going on for years,” he says.

In those large spans of time, when his oversized desk and bulletin board are covered with sketches and a high ceiling dulls the only daylight that shines into the space, John is deep in thought. He wakes up and falls asleep thinking, slowly meditating on the possibilities of his work until he has a breakthrough idea big enough to display. It’s a balance between design and art—a plan and the execution of that plan.

But as much as John is an artist of the present, he is also surrounded by the past. There’s the mid-century setting outside the gallery and his famous Day-Glo poster of three surfers at its entrance. There’s his creation of the album covers for The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., which he completed for Capitol Records.

At 74 John is still striving to produce resonating work. But he understands, all too well, the power of nostalgia. “We’re living in this referential world,” he says. “How do you create something new? How do you deal with the past?”

 Perhaps these are questions that stir in the minds of anyone after a major accomplishment. John, though, has the particular strain of finding success in the eyes of millions, and many can say they grew up with his art. 

It’s appeared as décor in dorm rooms and as a statement on T-shirts; it’s garnered attention for advertisements and focused crowds on public works. The Smithsonian has a collection of his prints, and the LACMA has exhibited his work as an example of California design.

The list of accolades credited to John’s name underscores the significance of a career that has lasted more than a half-century. But before all that, he was just a kid from the South Bay—a transplant who found friends in a couple of Palos Verdes surfers.

“The idea of ‘surfing’ started for me in Palos Verdes Estates, where the ocean comes up to the cliffs of the peninsula as the point extends out into the south end of the Santa Monica Bay,” John wrote in his 2010 book, My Art, My Life. He had moved with his parents and sister from Towson, Maryland, to Westchester in 1950 after his father took a job as an engineer, and then settled in Palos Verdes a year later.

In the book John recalls how his childhood friends, Phil Becker and Jared Eaton, took him surfing around age 12 on a board that belonged to Jared’s big brother. He thought of the ocean as an escape, but when he grew up he traded surfing for art and enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

“I had a reputation as a skier and a surfer when I left P.V. at 19,” he wrote. “All of the kids who I grew up with surfed, partied and went skiing. The South Bay was a very simple world.”

By the time John formed the Endless Summer image on a dining table, he was working for Northrop Grumman by day and Surfer magazine by night. His friend Paul Allen had introduced him to filmmaker Bruce Brown, and based on his strong reputation, John carried out a design that he started in night classes. He wanted something that caught the attention of high school students, so he used a bright pink, orange and yellow hue to make the shot of three men pop.

That’s the short story. He didn’t know that his poster was going to be reproduced in The New York Times, let alone become a lasting embodiment of surf culture. John didn’t even know that the $150 payment he received would also become a tidbit that raises eyebrows to this day. The poster was a job at the time, and it has since become a legacy.

“Everywhere I go, it’s been seen in some form or another. When people introduce me, they introduce me as the guy who did the Endless Summer poster,” he says. “You can’t get away from it. But again, that’s the past as the present.”

John admits that as grateful as he is for the recognition, the references to his youthful designs can be a challenge. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize their impact. In fact, he smiles and says that “behavior is behavior,” and history is comforting because it’s reliable. He knows that his early works have become symbols of a certain time.

But in the decades since he saw the Endless Summer poster become a phenomenon and then used it in his portfolio for a meeting at Capitol Records—again, unaware of what was to come—John has continued to create with an eye that looks slightly beyond pop culture’s gaze.

In the 1980s a chance meeting with Steve Jobs introduced him to graphic design by computers, which sparked the next phase of his career. He began to download his drawings onto a screen and later transferred all of his work online. It was a move into the future and a new way to view the past.

“When you learn art in school, there’s always the one-point perspective, the two-point perspective and three-point perspective,” he says. “The three-point perspective can take on four sides from different vanishing points. But computers took away the vanishing points, and became its own thing.”

In the last decade, John dreamed up the LED light canopy known as the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. He unveiled a “Waterworks” series that was digitally produced, and it inspired his most recent “Modi” collection.

But the recent project that he is most proud of, at least at the moment, is the one that connects so simply to his past. John took six months to finish the Great Wave mural on 14th Street in Hermosa Beach, which was unveiled last summer. The 75-foot design honors the city’s surf history with three surfers in a kaleidoscopic rush of bright color and movement. On a personal note, the mural is a reminder of John’s early connection to the waves.

“Everybody loves it, which is the fun part of it. Looking at those figures, this is actually my body, and I put another head on it,” he says, pointing at the middle figure. “And then there’s the kid who has the attitude, because that’s a part of the time.”

It would be easy to draw comparisons between John’s most famous work and his recent favorite. The trio of surfers, the vibrant shades and his connection to the subject are both present. But the greater amount of intricacies shown in the Hermosa mural—and the fact that it was digitally printed in 48-inch strips—exemplify an artist who has grown and adapted to an ever-more detailed world.

Regardless, John isn’t interested in repeating the past. It may be on his walls, outside his workspace and after his name is said aloud, but he keeps his craft focused on the horizon. John’s aesthetic is the message, he says, and there is always something else to create.

“It’s very hard to break out and do new things. But I do that all the time, because I know that I have to move ahead,” he says. “I’ll be 80 in five years. What else am I going to do?”