Bondo Wyszpolski

Bent for surf at an early age

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Brian Bent, at home in San Juan Capistrano. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Brian Bent traces his surf art and hotrods to growing up behind the Greg Noll surf shop in Hermosa Beach

by Bondo Wyszpolski

When I arrived at Brian Bent’s home in San Juan Capistrano, he was putting the finishing touches to his painting of the old Jacobs Surfboards shop in Hermosa Beach, one of several “portraits” of classic South Bay surfboard shops from back in the 1960s, which include Dewey Weber, Bing, and Greg Noll. These bright, bold pictures, along with other scenes depicting local beach and surf culture sites from that era (the iconic Lighthouse included), will be on view at Cypress Surf Shop (and Mangiagli Surfboards showroom) on Saturday, Oct. 5, while the 4th Annual Subaru Pacific Hermosa Beach Hotdogger Championship takes place on the south side of the Hermosa Beach Pier.

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This annual event was initiated by Eddie Solt, who also takes the occasion to highlight a distinguished visual artist whose work complements the spirit of the occasion. The first year, that artist was John Van Hamersveld, widely known for his album cover designs, his murals (such as the one at 13th St. and Hermosa Ave.), and his renowned poster for Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer.”

Solt originally planned to focus on a new artist every year. But after giving the nod to Brian Bent in 2018, Solt couldn’t resist inviting him back for a second time. “We are truly blessed to have Brian as our featured artist,” he says. But what makes Bent such a coveted choice?

You’re about to find out why.

Sand and surf in his DNA

Brian Bent might as well have been born on a surfboard, because his mother and his uncle were heavily invested in the early ‘60s Hermosa and Redondo beach scene. His mother was still in her teens when he was born and his uncle was acclaimed surfer Rocky Sabo.

“He’s kind of like an older brother to me,” Bent says of his uncle, who is just 10 years his senior.

His mother, Bent continues, was friends with another notable surfer, Dru Harrison. “She lived with Dru and me in this little house behind Greg Noll’s shop.” His grandmother lived on Avenue C, in Redondo Beach.

After several years of this idyllic life, he accompanied both mother and grandmother when they departed one beach town for another, settling in the Dana Point-San Juan Capistrano area. Uncle Rocky was living on The Strand at 22nd Street, and working for Becker Surf, which opened in 1980. In 1985, Becker opened two shops in South Orange County, where Rocky got his nephew a job. When Bent’s grandfather died, he moved in with his granny, where he discovered the old records (including surf music) that had belonged to his mother.

Left to right, “Bing Surfboards,” “Greg Noll Surfboards,” and “The Lighthouse.” All paintings by Brian Bent

“I took one year off to go into another surf shop in San Clemente,” Bent says. “I started doing interiors,” which meant decorating and creating atmospheres.

“Then I went back to Becker because I figured I needed a full-time job to get married and all that, and I worked my way into displays around 1990.” Dave Hollander, Steve Mangiagli, and Phil Becker, the founders of the company, were impressed by what Bent was adding to the two Orange County shops, so they told him they wanted his talents put to use in Hermosa and Malibu as well.

“So that,” Bent says, “brought me back to the South Bay.” In the Hermosa shop, John Leinenger and Bobby Rich were always encouraging him and his endeavors.

“The rest is history. I was with Becker for a 25 years.”

Brian Bent at home. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Brian’s life is art… Brian is art”

A chance encounter with a TV program devoted to the Abstract Expressionists introduced Bent to the ‘50s and ‘60s artwork of Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and sculptor David Smith. Right away, their influence was channeled into the work that Bent did for the surf shops.

He briefly hit a rough patch in his life with fears and anxieties, went to church, saw the light, became an integral part of the Hot Rod Church of Sinners, “and then I started building hot rods” (about which one could write a whole new article).

“So, hot rods, early ‘60s surfboards that I got turned on to at an early age, painting, and after I left Becker, when the Recession went down, I started freelancing.” He figures that Eddie Solt must have come across his work at this time.

Actually, Solt had noticed Bent’s work much earlier; he just didn’t know who the artist was.

Brian Bent aims his kook box at the Hermosa Beach pier during the 2018 Hotdogger Championship Expression Session. Photo by Kevin Cody

“Growing up in the South Bay,” he says, “I’d notice crazy pieces of art at the Becker shop. On closer inspection, the distinct imagery, techniques, and paint strokes from this artist created its own universe. It was impressionist, with a mid-century vibe, a dash of surfy ala John Severson (especially in the earlier years of Surfer Magazine), yet with a style totally its own.”

About 10 years ago, during one of the many times Solt drove Mike Purpus down south to surf at San Onofre, in contests hosted by Rocky Sabo (who’d since relocated in San Clemente), Solt not only learned that Rocky was Bent’s uncle, he also learned a great deal more about Bent and his art.

“After that surf session,” Solt says, “Purpus couldn’t stop talking about Bent killing it on his kookbox while my rusty 1965 Fairlane took the long way home on PCH.”

For his part, growing up, Bent was well acquainted with the name Mike Purpus. “Rocky, the first time he went to South Africa was with Mike Purpus. It was always Mike Purpus this and Rocky that.”

We’re not kidding about the hot rods. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

The more Bent reveals of himself, his exposure to and taste in music (punk on the one hand and early ‘60s surf and jazz on the other), plus his continual enjoyment of surfing, skateboarding, and hot rodding, the more one realizes that if anyone embodies the ideal of a homegrown, coastal Southern Californian, it would have to be Brian Bent.

In Solt’s words, “Brian’s life is art, his surfing is art, his cars are art, Brian is art.”

The 4th Annual Subaru Pacific Hermosa Beach Hotdogger Championship is Saturday, Oct. 5, on the south side of the Hermosa Beach Pier. Organized by the Bay Cities Surf Club, there are seven divisions, divided by age and gender. The $3,500 cash purse offers equal payouts for men and women (and boys and girls). The awards ceremony is being hosted by Crafty Minds Brews + Bites, accompanied by a classic car show. The Bent Duo (Brian and his daughter) kick off the awards. The after-party is being hosted by Cypress Surf Shop, with performances by local groups Glue LA and The South Bay Brigade. It’s in this location that we will find Brian Bent’s paintings of classic South Bay surf shops and other depictions of early 1960s Culture. It’s a trip back in time we’ll all want to take.

To register for the big event go to hotdoggers.org. For other details, @hotdoggerchampionship.

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