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Muralist, Teacher, Icon

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

ESHS Hall of Famer and world-renowned artist John van Hamersveld on his influences and creative process. By Maureen Kingsley

(This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue.)

El Segundo High School (ESHS) graduate and internationally known cultural icon John van Hamersveld wears many hats: artist, designer, photographer, teacher, father, former surfer…and an actual black fedora that is part of his signature sartorial style, along with black-rimmed round eyeglasses. While talking with me in his home studio in Palos Verdes, van Hamersveld moved nimbly among these various roles of his, describing his eventful childhood, his reverence for the ocean, his design career, his place within the digital revolution, and his grown children.

He also spoke about his most recent and physically largest commissioned artwork to date: the mural encircling the rusted-out water tank on the south side of Grand Avenue in El Segundo.

Inducted in September 2017 into the ESHS Hall of Fame, van Hamersveld, a 1959 graduate, went on to create such culturally important works as the poster for The Endless Summer surf film, the American version of the “Magical Mystery Tour” Beatles’ album cover, and the “Exile on Main Street” album cover for the Rolling Stones. He served as Capitol Records’ art director from 1965 to 1968, and taught at CalArts in the 1980s. He also designed the Fatburger logo, signage, and architecture.

John Van Hamersveld's artwork on an old water tank of Grand Avenue in El Segundo
John Van Hamersveld's artwork on an old water tank on west Grand Avenue in El Segundo

For his El Segundo water-tank project, van Hamersveld drew from what he calls his “lexicon” of graphic iconography and symbolism, created over decades, to produce the colorful, detailed, slightly psychedelic mural that now greets everyone traveling up and down Grand Avenue. Van Hamersveld himself did this drive every school day as a teenager, commuting from his home in Lunada Bay to El Segundo. Visible from the port-side windows of airplanes taking off from LAX, his 32-foot-tall water-tank mural measures 510 feet in circumference and features 15 ocean waves and 34 symbols that fans of van Hamersveld will recognize from his other murals around Southern California and elsewhere, including one in Hermosa Beach. He described his latest artwork as “universes of things all collected up and layered, floating.” He pointed out how these compositions, which deliberately lack perspective, are reflective of the massive switch from analog to digital that occurred during the 1990s and early 2000s in design, driven by the advent of personal computing. “The whole world in 2000 started becoming miniaturized into icons,” van Hamersveld said, “and the design business really changed tremendously.” If you were in design then, “you had to evolve,” he said, “or quit.” Van Hamersveld, who had worked with Apple founder Steve Jobs in the early 1980s, evolved.

Asked about his creative process for his murals, van Hamersveld explained that he builds them on his iMac, piecing the components together as he goes. “It’s all spontaneous,” he said. “I have all the elements on a laptop, and then I transport those over onto a larger computer with six screens. And then I build the layers, and sandwich them together” using Adobe software, he added. The final product contains layers of color, shapes, and symbolism. “Your eye goes back and forth among the layers,” he explained, and I found that to be true the morning I stood on the sidewalk on Grand, studying his water-tank mural through an opening in the fence.

Van Hamersveld, who was born in 1941, came of age in Southern California at the height of surf culture. He spoke of the “mystical” Pacific Ocean, and how he learned its geography and behavior experientially through surfing its swells. That reverence for the ocean, combined with the counter-culture of the 1950s and 1960s, the influences of his mother, grandfather, and ESHS art teacher Al Tahti, plus his formal art education from ArtCenter design school in Pasadena, inform van Hamersveld’s creative work today. It’s all evident in his water-tank mural, which is—in addition to being culturally and historically significant—just plain fun to see.

Photo credits: John Van Hamersveld

This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue.

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