You may never have heard his name but if you are a surfer — particularly a surfer of a certain age — you have surely seen Butch Cornelius' work. Raised alongside elite surfers and surf artists of his day, he brushed against fame yet never really had it. Still, the aesthetic of the former graphic artist, who now lives and makes art in Eureka, echoes in the surfing world today.
Clifford "Butch" Cornelius grew up in the Pacific Beach community of San Diego. A classic SoCal surf-and-skate neighborhood, it is famous for producing both the first popular polyurethane surfboards by 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, gravitating to stand-up 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 The Endless Summer. Along with surfing, Cornelius honed his artistic skills early on. He mingled with slightly older surfers who were cartoonists and design professionals, like Mike Dormer who created the iconic Hot Curl surf cartoon.
By the time he hit high school, Cornelius was an avid cartoonist, selling his work to kids on the playground. During his sophomore year at Mission Bay High School, he got his first big art breaks. "When I was in 10th grade, Hobie opened their shop in Pacific Beach," he said. "When the shop opened, Butch Van Artsdalen asked if I could sell my drawings there." With that, a career was born.
Cornelius made a name for himself around Mission Bay with his single-sheet comics. He also started silk-screening T-shirts for both Hobie and Surfer magazine out of the shop's back room. In 1962, as SoCal's surf scene grew, Pacific Beach Surf Shop hired him to create its logo. Used until 2016, his iconic drawing of a rubbery, big-footed surfer with a shock of blonde hair and clutching a surfboard next to hand-drawn lettering is arguably one of the longest-running logos in surf history. Over the years, the company has emblazoned it on everything from surfboards to stickers and hats. Although the Pacific Beach Surf Shop logo is well-recognized in the surf world, perhaps even more iconic is what came next: art for the legendary Windansea Surf Club.
According to Cornelius, in 1963 rumor had it Surfrider Beach in Malibu (now Malibu Lagoon State Beach) was closing to develop a boat harbor. Several of his cohort got together at the Hobie store to discuss participating in the "last-ever" Malibu Invitational surf contest. The hitch was they needed to be a formal surf club to enter. So, they created one.
The group of ragtag surfers founded the Windansea Surf Club, an organization that has since made a prestigious name for itself all over the world. Cornelius' original design for the club remains its identifying mark. It is a throwback reminder of those early surf days, a time before major corporate sponsorship and big money for surfing events. "We decided on a name [at the meeting], and boom! I went to the back, grabbed a blank T-shirt and a red felt pen and that was that," recalled Cornelius. "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, ads for Vans shoes, it's everywhere."
Cornelius went on to have a long career, drawing comics, cartoons for the Windansea newsletter, logos for magazines and surf and skateboard organizations, as well as mural work in San Diego. He also worked as an U.S. Army illustrator after originally being drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967. Eventually, after what he reflects upon as years of too much surf and partying, he wanted a change of scene.
"Surfing was my heroin," Cornelius mused. "I dropped everything for a wave — I skipped work, whatever. I was doing just enough to get by and at the same time, I hung out with famous cartoonists like Scott Shaw. These guys were doing their artwork and I wasn't. I couldn't get myself into art the way that I wanted to."
In addition to his desire to concentrate on his artwork, Cornelius also suffered from PTSD and had developed skin cancer related to his exposure to Agent Orange used by the U.S. government while in Vietnam. It was time to get out of the sun. He found his way to Humboldt County in 1991 to truly concentrate on his art.
Moving around Southern Humboldt for almost three decades before settling in Eureka a few years back, Cornelius mostly designed silkscreen T-shirts and logos, including for Reggae on the River in 2000 and 2001, before getting deeper into murals and Buddhist-inspired artwork. He spent years pumping out graphic design and artwork that many Humboldt folks are familiar with, like graphics and logo lettering for Dazey's Supply, title lettering and 10 years of cartoons for The Trader magazine, and even hand-drawn movie posters for the old theater in Garberville.
While the San Diego crew still requests artwork, Cornelius has retired from design work. These days you are more likely to find him hanging out on his own, meditating or working on his surfing-inspired paintings and spiritually infused dragon pieces in his home studio. Unfortunately, more than 30 years of his portfolio, including much of his original surf and skate work, burned in a fire several years back. Still, Cornelius says he is content with his mark on the world, representing as it does some 50 years of surf and skateboard history and the design landscape stretching from the beaches of Southern California to Humboldt.
Tamar Burris (she/her) is a freelance education writer and relationship coach. Her book for children of divorce A New Special Friend is available through her website www.tamarburris.com.