Surf Shacks 027 – Lester DaGradi

I had the pleasure of meeting Lester a number of years ago during adventures on the north coast. He has the status of a local celebrity, leaning towards notorious rather than famous. Raised in Seal Beach, California, he’s taken a lifetime working his way up the California coast surfing, painting, living. Lester is a true surf vagabond in the most flattering sense there could be. He is old school all the way – no cell phone, email, or social media. Currently in his early 70’s, the line-up parts for him when he’s ready to drop in on a NorCal monster… 

I had the pleasure of meeting Lester a number of years ago during adventures on the north coast. He has the status of a local celebrity, leaning towards notorious rather than famous. Raised in Seal Beach, California, he’s taken a lifetime working his way up the California coast surfing, painting, living. Lester is a true surf vagabond in the most flattering sense there could be. He is old school all the way – no cell phone, email, or social media. Currently in his early 70’s, the line-up parts for him when he’s ready to drop in on a NorCal monster… 

Who are you? Tell a bit about yourself?

My name is Lester Stewart DaGradi…Taurus… 4th generation Cali boy.

Where are you from originally?

Born May 2, 1942 in Bakersfield, Ca. We moved to Seal Beach in 1948 when I was 6 years old. My pop worked over 30 years for Disney as a production designer. From storyboards to screenwriting, his credits include: Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Flubber, Herbie The Love Bug, Parent Trap…

What do you do for a living?

I get by fixing dinged boards, snapped fins, broken boxes… I sell paintings I paint. And a little help from SSI every month.

When did you start surfing? Where did you first learn?

In April 1958. A month before my birthday, my parents bought me a Balsa 9’6′ Hobie for $18 new. I learned at Ray Bay – power plant in Seal Beach. Dow, Edison, and Tidelands Oil Refineries all dumped into the San Gabriel River… hot stinky water. We tried to keep out faces out of it but it still made me cough.

You spent time surfing San Onofre growing up. Describe to us what it was like back in the day before it was a state park.

San Onofre was a private club. My neighbor’s dad’s friends were members. We surfed there with Marge & Candy Calhoun (sic) one time. Then we found Trestles… to get to the better surf we’d have to dodge the Marines. One time we shot 8mm movies of them trying to find us. Another time we had have to paddle up the Trestles creek and hide in the cattails. They eventually found us and called our parents. They’d bounce us around in their truck and threaten us until our parents came to get us. One time at Uppers, when I was 15 or 16, soldiers fired rifles over our heads as we rode waves. We escaped by paddling up to Cotton Point. I think it was in 1959, the Marines ran over our boards that were on the beach with their trucks. But Trestles was THE good wave.

You’ve lived all over the California coast, where have your favorite places been to live?

Seal Beach. Santa Cruz. Point Arena.

What’s your favorite part about the area that you live in now in Point Arena?

The lack of car or people noise. I don’t want to listen to late night sub-woofers and goofballs!

What’s the best time of the year there? (and why?)

Spring and Fall are great but I love Winter because the slacks and druggies leave and the weather is exhilarating! The surf gets BIG. I watch erosion happen, it’s one of the things I like to paint!

What’s your favorite part about your home?

My studio and my kitchen.

Who’s that following you everywhere you go? 

Blue Ribbon Newman! He’s a great painter’s dog. He gets it, likes to stick around… High energy and low strung and good to look upon. He is always interested in things and loves people. He’s an animated inventive dude.

How would you describe your style?

Strokes – most miss, some right on. All mistakes come to be, with perseverance. 

Do you have any style icons? Artistic heroes?

Goya. Rembrandt. Soutine. Nolde. Manet. Corot. and numerous 12th-14th century northern european artists.

When did you get into painting?

In the 1960’s.

How often do you paint?

All the time and anytime. One stroke can make you euphoric, another turn you into Mr. Anger.

It’s an inspiration to see you out there shredding in your 70’s… what’s the secret to staying in shape- mind body and soul?

Quit drinking and smoking. Grow real food. Take time to cookI make addictive habits into productive ones. Get busy and stay on it.

What’s your favorite board to surf?

8’4″ quad fun shape by McPhee.

Where’s your favorite place in the world to surf?

Home break.

Any parting words of wisdom?

Dylan wuz right, Otis too…-

                  “I threw it all away… I realized later… steer clear of addictions to alcohol and tobacco. Weed, it’s BS for the artist who has so much drive. 

Greed brings unhappiness. Say no to being a soldier.” 

                      -Bob Dylan “Soldiers Strength is Not To Fight” and ‘Chimes of Freedom’

/ Photography and interview by Paul Collins

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Paul Collins

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