By Billy Fried
One of the people who has marked our place in history has left us. He’s up there in the pantheon of legendary surf artists. But more than that, the work of Bill Ogden helped define a place, a period of history, and a generation, encapsulating on canvas the holy hippy trinity of peace, love and happiness – in Laguna Beach.
Bill was one of the early progenitors of the movement known as Visionary Art. Practiced today by the likes of Alex Grey, “Visionary art purports to transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness, including spiritual and mystical themes,” according to Wikipedia. Historians claim that Visionary Art began in Vienna with the 1946 founding of the “Vienna School of Fantastic Realism,” but was later appropriated by the San Francisco art critic Thomas Albright. In 1971, Albright wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about an emerging group of psychedelic artists called “Visuals.” While most mere mortals were manifesting hallucinations they could barely recollect later, artists like Bill Ogden and Rick Griffith were transposing those visions to canvas, creating gorgeous, mind-melting, mythical landscapes of perfect barrels and beautiful wahines in Edenic tropical settings. With a heavy dollop of Art Nouveau. A distinctly utopian (and Southern California) take on the psychedelic experience.
Nathan William Ogden was born in 1943 in Los Angeles and died last month in Pinyon Pines. He was the son of Homer and Marie Ogden. Homer was an electrician whose family moved from Oklahoma to Southern California during the Dust Bowl.
Bill started drawing at a young age, mostly cartoons in the style of Mad Magazine. He moved to Laguna in the 60’s and began doing commercial work and advertising illustrations. He was so naturally talented his work quickly adorned the pages of Surfer magazine, the gallery at Mystic Arts World, the calendars of Sound Spectrum, and the walls in every surfer’s bedroom.
And then he shifted to more cosmic paintings of nature, in no small part because of lysergic acid diethylamide – better known as LSD. It all converged in Laguna – acid, surf, and Bill’s prodigious talent unleashed. Gone were the black-and-white two-dimensional drawings. The world was technicolor and 3D, and no one could visually idealize the magic luminescence of waves until Bill put his transcendental brush to canvas.
His work could also be overtly counter-cultural – like when Bill produced posters to raise money to free LSD guru Timothy Leary from prison or advertise the free Great Christmas Happening in Laguna Canyon. His poster proclaimed, “All wise beings who perceive the inner light shining brightly on this village are requested to bring their presence to Laguna Beach, California, spiritual center of the world.” Hmm. Was Bill privy to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s plan to drop thousands of tabs of acid on the crowd? You certainly wouldn’t see these proclamations from Ticketmaster. Or by Visit Laguna, for that matter.
After the Happening, Bill moved on to fine art, less political, and more a landscape painter interpreting the world around him, like one of his heroes, the 19th-century artist John Singer Sargent. And when he moved to the high desert in the 80’s – first to Idyllwild and later to Pinyon Pines – he painted desert flora, every bit the desert Cezanne or Van Gogh. He used the same vivid colors and thick brushstrokes he applied to waves, with an uncanny ability to capture and convey the mystical elements of light.
Fellow visionary artist Terry Lamb wrote, “I can’t think of anyone who epitomizes the beach more than Bill Ogden. He’s the quintessential Laguna Beach artist. A very beautiful light, a very beautiful place – artsy, intellectual. He had his own unique vision, it’s his alone. Nobody will probably ever be like him. And he has this magical way of painting. It’s just got that signature brushstroke. He’s right up there. Right near the top of the pyramid.”
Like too many artists, Bill died poor and in seclusion. Besides his natural talent, his greatest gift was discovering he had a daughter named Brittony. United just four years ago, they spent endless hours getting to know each other and sharing their mutual love of art, film, and costume. Bill was always the dandy who dressed like the cultured man he was. Brittony told me she was blessed to have gotten to know the man who spawned her, if ever so briefly, and realizing the impact he had on making the world – and especially Laguna – a more beautiful place.
As Neight Anderson of Find Art Magazine wrote in the Afterword of Craig Lockwood’s beautiful book Ogden, “Every time he sets to work, he reminds us of why we turned to art in the first place; to create for the betterment of the race we were born into, with all the power of the hearts we were lucky enough to be given.”
There is a GoFundMe Campaign to help Brittony with Bill’s affairs, including returning him to ocean he so loved. If you’d like to help, please go to: gofundme.com/f/bill-ogdens-daughter-brittony-with-funeral-costs. Thank you.
Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected].