Wax the Coping: Nathaniel Russell Interview

Nathaniel Russell is one of my favorite contemporary artists and when I recently read that he was making a body of work solely about skateboarding, I was intrigued. Making skate art is easy; you just draw some old quarter pipes and skulls. But making art about skateboarding is way harder. I think Nathaniel does an excellent job of relaying the stoke of 'boarding without making something trite or contrived. I hit him up to get his take on sport-specific art, skateboarding and some other awesome crud. –Michael Sieben

What motivated you to make an entire body of work about skateboarding?
Really, it was being asked to do a show at 35th North, a skateshop in Seattle. My friend Sasha Barr (Sub Pop art director and co-owner of Amigos skateboards) has been curating a wall in the shop and he asked me if I wanted to do something. I was into it and I saw it as a good excuse to try and make some drawings about skateboarding. Skating is as much about the feelings of comradery and weirdness and the specific culture of skating as it is about jumping down things, so there's a ton of material to work with. I mean, I'm 39 years old, so I have a lot of memories and imagery hardwired into my brain to think about and draw ideas from. the trick is how to walk that narrow line of not making it corny or nostalgic—trying not to totally pander to other skaters my age but to somehow tap into those common feelings and memories while simultaneously making a good drawing. It was nice that it was at a skateshop because that was kind of the target audience, though a lot of non-skater types showed up and seemed into it as well.

Why do you think making art about skateboarding or surfing somehow seems less lame than, say, making art about football? They're both sports, right?
I guess making art about skateboarding isn't any less lame than making art about anything else. You can make the most vivid and amazing picture of a house plant or the most boring painting ever of an orgy. The thing about skating and surfing is that there's a tradition of outcasts, kooks and art types that populate the culture and provide a precedent and outlet for some kind of creativity. Skateboarding requires you to look at the world in a new way, noticing cracks, curbs, roll ups, ledges etc., and maybe that helps your mind take on new perspectives of looking or thinking—or maybe it's the other way around. When I think about art celebrating other sports, I think about grand portraits of Jordan slam dunking or somebody sliding into home. It's more of a heroic vision. But for me, I don't think the best parts of skateboarding are heroic. It's more about a feeling of freedom and being fully present and dorking around with your friends. I like thinking about the awkward, strange and funny parts of life and skateboarding has a lot of that.

When I was researching your work I realized that you live in Indiana. I always thought you were from the Bay Area. Did you used to live there?
Yeah, I live in Indiana. I grew up and went to school here. I moved to the SF/Oakland/Berkeley area after college and lived there for about nine years. I moved back to Indiana about five years ago for family stuff. Sometimes people think I still live out there because I get back a lot for projects and to see friends. I miss California and my friends, but Indiana is mellow. I have a wife and a kid now and we can afford to have a house here. I really appreciate being able to take trips and travel for art stuff and then come home to a quiet, peaceful environment.

Do you think you'd be able to live and work as an artist in Indiana if the Internet hadn't been invented?
Doing it the way i do it, maybe, but it would just be different. Hopefully I'd still be able to hustle work and show art, but I doubt I'd be able to travel so much and get to do such a a wide variety of stuff.  The Internet has been pretty crucial for my artwork, way before I moved back to Indiana. I send prints and drawings all over the world every month to people who found me through blogs or Pinterest or Instagram. It's amazing. Maybe only 20 people really care about or are connected with what I'm making and maybe they all live in different parts of the world, but they can find me and I can find them.

Have you ever done any skateboard graphics?
Here and there. A few one-off things. Some came out great, some not so great. I'm in the middle of working on my first series of decks right now with Element, actually. It's been my dream since I was 12 to do board graphics and it's only taken 25 years or so to make it happen. I actually sent in photos of drawings to that contest Powell had in the mid-'90s. Never got my 4x6 prints back!

What's your favorite board graphic of all time?
That's hard. The big ones for me are the heavy hitters: Blender's coffee break and Gonz' rose guy. I really love a lot of those early H-Street graphics, especially the first Ron Allen board. Ron Cameron's Blockhead stuff is amazing and maybe doesn't get it's due. But as far as my all-time favorite, I always go back to the Swank teapot and moon boards. they are just so simple and bold and brutal and perfect. I don't really hang boards on the wall in my house, but I'd build a frame for one of those if I ever found one.

What do you think about the current condition of skateboard graphics?
Seems good to me. People get all upset about logo boards and stuff like that. And yeah, there's a ton out there that doesn't do much for me, but there seems to be no shortage of cool things to look at. For every boilerplate logo colorway there's a new Evan Hecox series, a guest-artist Krooked board or a small company getting their buddy to draw some stuff up. I really like the companies that create micro-universes with a consistent look and feel. When I was a kid, I loved that company Small Room. They always had quarter-page or half-page black-and-white ads that looked like blown out xeroxes and weird skaters and put out this aura of mystery but didn't seem too serious about it. I like when that happens. There's too much skateboard media for me to keep up with, but I think the DIY stuff and the small brands that are happy being small brands will keep it visually interesting for everybody for a long time.

Do you have a favorite artist? What about a favorite skate-graphic designer?
Such a hard question. I think the artist who I've looked at the longest and still look at frequently is Antonio Frasconi. He's a woodcut artist from Uruguay, really active from the '50s up through the '80s and '90s. He did all kinds of posters, books, prints—all his stuff is really rich and humble and gorgeous. He's been one of my main inspirations for a really long time. And Margaret Kilgallen. Oh, man, she's the best of all time. The heart and soul in her work is just devastatingly beautiful and real. And she did those Toy Machine boards! If I ever got my hands on those I would lose my mind. Skate-graphic designer—another hard one because i don't know who did everything that was really formative to me as a kid. But I I'd say Ed Templeton. Especially the New Deal into early Toy Machine stuff. A lot of those graphics were weird and funny and kind of a beacon of arty absurdity in the '90s. It's so rad that it was his company and vision. He could really make anything he wanted. All those ads are great, too. Very inspirational.

Do you have a favorite skateboarder?
That's almost as hard as the favorite-artist question. There have been so many over the years that have struck a chord in me. I guess it's predictable, but for all time, how could I pick anybody but the Gonz? The thing I love about him, besides the art stuff and the being a total weirdo, is that he always looks like he's on the verge of eating shit, but then he somehow lands whatever he's trying and cruises on. Everything he's ever done is so great looking because he's just hanging on and trying hard and may or may not maim himself at any time. He also has the best kickflip in the world. And that commercial a few months ago where he does that handrail around the corner in New York? That made the whole world happy. He just emits joy on wheels. As far as a current, contemporary skater, I love watching Cory Kennedy's parts. Dude looks like he's having a great time and can make the hardest, weirdest tricks ever look super fun.

Are you able to make a living strictly off of your art or do you have a day job?
I do a variety of things: the spectrum goes from computer-based layouts for records, illustration gigs, all the way up to freeform murals and commissions. I don't have a nine-five, but I am working on things for people everyday—different projects and design gigs. I really want a balance of doing whatever I want and doing things for other people and projects. I like assignments but sometimes I need to just make something and put it out into the world for myself.

What advice would you give to the young kid reading this that wants to pursue a career in the arts?
Oh, you should really do it, kid. Make stuff with your friends, put on art shows, start a band, try new things, travel. The best things about making art are the friendships and the adventures. Money may come, it may not. If you're super lucky you can pay some bills and buy the pizza. But you'll always have something you're working on or wanting to make and you can do it until you're dead. Just keep making stuff, make more stuff, you'll get better at it and then still keep making stuff and you'll hopefully figure some things out that help you live life and make sense of the important things. Don't get caught up in the bad vibes. And watch that Minutemen documentary every year or so to get restocked on stoke.

Do you still skate?
Yeah. Not as much as I used to or as much as I'd like, but I think that comes with the whole work and family world. It still has that pull for me and that same feeling comes back every time. It's just a different thing now, but it will always be fun and the best way to get out of my head and into the moment. Seems like skateboarding is the best it's ever been these days: lots of skateparks, lots of new kids feeling it and I don't get yelled at for skating down the street anymore.

Skate photo by Andrew Huthison

To see more of Nathaniel's work, visit: http://nathanielrussell.com
Skate deck images courtesy of Sean Cliver: http://www.disposablethebook.com
Small Room ad scans courtesy of Eric Swisher: http://chromeballincident.blogspot.com