History of the Art of Surfing by Butch Cornelius | artistic rhythm
You may never have heard his name, but if you’re a surfer – especially a surfer of a certain age – you’ve surely seen the work of Butch Cornelius. Raised alongside elite surfers and surf artists of his day, he came close to fame but never quite had it. Yet the aesthetic of the former graphic designer, who lives and makes art in Eureka, resonates in the surf world today.
Clifford “Butch” Cornelius grew up in the community of Pacific Beach in San Diego. A classic SoCal surf and skate district, it’s famous for producing both the popular early polyurethane surfboards of Gordon and Smith Surfboards (or G&S as the company is widely known), as well as many talented surfers .
Cornelius spent his formative years playing in Mission Bay, concentrating on standup surfing in 1958. His social circle included the likes of Butch Van Artsdalen – called “Mr. Pipeline” for his prowess surfing big waves at Pipeline in Hawaii – and Mike Hynson, renowned surfboard shaper and star of the cult classic documentary endless summer. Along with surfing, Cornelius honed his artistic skills early on. He rubs shoulders with slightly older surfers, caricaturists and design professionals, such as Mike Dormer who created the iconic Hot loop surf cartoon.
By the time he entered high school, Cornelius was an avid draughtsman, selling his work to children on the playground. During his sophomore year at Mission Bay High School, he got his first big artistic breaks. “When I was in 10th grade, Hobie opened his shop in Pacific Beach,” he said. “When the shop opened, Butch Van Artsdalen asked me if I could sell my drawings there.” With this, a career was born.
Cornelius made a name for himself around Mission Bay with his one-sheet comics. He also started screen printing T-shirts for Hobie and Surfer magazine in the store’s back room. In 1962, as the SoCal surf scene grew, Pacific Beach Surf Shop hired him to design their logo. Used until 2016, its iconic design of a rubbery, big-footed surfer with a mop of blonde hair and holding a surfboard next to hand-drawn lettering is arguably one of the oldest logos around. of surfing history. Over the years, the company has sported it on everything from surfboards to stickers and hats. While the Pacific Beach Surf Shop logo is well known throughout the surfing world, perhaps even more iconic is what came next: art for the legendary Windansea Surf Club.
According to Cornelius, in 1963 it was rumored that Surfrider Beach in Malibu (now Malibu Lagoon State Beach) was closing to develop a marina. Several members of his cohort gathered at the Hobie store to discuss their participation in the “final” Malibu Invitational surf contest. The problem was that they had to be a formal surf club to get in. So they created one.
The motley group of surfers founded the Windansea Surf Club, an organization that has since made a prestigious name for itself around the world. Cornelius’ original design for the club remains its identifying mark. It’s a throwback to those early days of surfing, a time before big corporate sponsors and big money for surfing events. “We chose a name [at the meeting], and boom! I went to the back, grabbed a blank T-shirt and a red fedora and that was it,” Cornelius recalled. “The club went to Malibu and won just about every trophy. I thought about cleaning it up, but we liked it. They still use my design to this day – it’s been in movies, Vans shoe commercials, it’s everywhere.”
Cornelius went on to a long career, drawing comics, cartoons for the Windansea newsletter, logos for surfing and skateboarding magazines and organizations, and murals in San Diego. He also worked as a US Army illustrator after being drafted into the Vietnam War in 1967. Eventually, after what he considered years of too much surfing and partying, he wanted a change of scenery.
“Surfing was my heroine,” thought Cornelius. “I dropped everything for a wave – I skipped work, whatever. I was just doing enough to get by and at the same time I hung out with famous cartoonists like Scott Shaw. These guys were doing their work and not me. I couldn’t get into art the way I wanted.”
In addition to his desire to focus on his artwork, Cornelius also suffered from PTSD and had developed skin cancer linked to his exposure to Agent Orange used by the US government in Vietnam. It was time to get out of the sun. He found his way to Humboldt County in 1991 to really focus on his art.
Moving to southern Humboldt for nearly three decades before settling in Eureka a few years ago, Cornelius primarily designed screen-printed t-shirts and logos, including for Reggae on the River in 2000 and 2001, before to delve deeper into Buddhist-inspired murals and artwork. He’s spent years creating graphics and illustrations that many Humboldt folks know, like logo graphics and lettering for Dazey’s Supply, title letters and 10 years of cartoons for The merchant magazine, and even hand-drawn movie posters for the old theater in Garberville.
While the San Diego team is still requesting artwork, Cornelius has stepped back from design work. These days, you’re more likely to find him alone, meditating or working on his surf-inspired paintings and spiritually-infused dragon pieces in his home studio. Sadly, over 30 years of his portfolio, including much of his original surf and skate work, burned in a fire several years ago. Still, Cornelius says he’s happy with his mark on the world, representing some 50 years of surfing and skateboarding history and the design landscape that stretches from Southern California beaches to Humboldt.
Tamar Burris (her) is a freelance education writer and relationship coach. Her divorce children’s book A New Special Friend is available on her website www.tamarburris.com.