Skate culture and art collide in the work of Don Pendleton
By Tim Anderl
Active in skate art for over a decade, Dayton-based artist Don Pendleton creates cubist folk art that incorporates insects, animals and ambiguous characters to create a tense narrative about how creatures cohabitate in the same space. As a full-time, in-house artist at Alien Workshop (1998 to 2005) and Element Skateboards (2005 to 2009), Pendleton’s style became both widely recognized in and intrinsic to skateboarding culture. Pendleton is also known for compositions he has delivered to a wide array of clients, including Zero Skateboards, DC Shoes, Nike 6.0 and Mountain Dew. In recent years he has developed a body of work that includes gallery shows, installation pieces and murals, and his work has been exhibited all over the world from Belgium to Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and England.
I caught up with Pendleton recently to discuss his background, recent projects, and to solicit his advice for other local artists.
Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in painting or commercial art?
I got a BFA in graphic design from Marshall University. It wasn’t an art school, just a general university. So I studied writing, language, history and sociology almost as much I did art. I was too busy skating during my college years to focus too much on art.
Your work has run the gamut of digital and hand-painted art of skateboard graphics to large canvas pieces, murals and installation pieces. Do you have a preferred medium?
I like to switch it up so that none of it gets too boring or stale. I freehand the murals that I do so those are probably the toughest aspects of my job, but I still enjoy them. I’ve worked on murals all over the U.S. as well as Barcelona, Paris and some smaller cities through Italy, so it’s a good excuse to travel when the opportunity arises. Sketching is, and has always been, the center of everything else so that’s what I do most of the time. Those things become graphics, paintings, t-shirts or whatever. [dp]
You recently returned from an event at the South Bend Museum of Art in Indiana. How did that event come about and what did you display during that exhibit?
That was part of a traveling exhibit called, “Full Deck” that features a collection of skateboard graphics from the past 30 years. It’s kind of a historical retrospective so they contacted me to add a regional aspect to the whole thing. I had a sampling of board graphics from over the years and some recent paintings in there. [dp]
So, as a part of your trip to Indiana, there was also an event where 60 kids were able to design their own skateboard graphics. How important is participation in community outreach to you?
It was an amazing day. We’re at a point in time when the arts don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve in public schools so it does fall upon the community to reach out and organize events like this where kids are introduced to new things and pulled away from the computer or TV for a day or so. It was very successful in terms of participation and hopefully those kids will look at art in a different light … that it’s not all just something that hangs idly on a wall; that it’s a part of their everyday lives. Sometimes you just have to remind them of that in the midst of a culture of consumerism. So it’s a positive thing and the hope is that kids who are exposed to art at a young age will connect with it and continue to pursue it as they get older. [dp]
I recently saw some of your artwork featured on a Mountain Dew can and in the commercials. What was that experience like?
It was a lot of fun. I was hesitant about working with a company as large as Mountain Dew, but in the end, they gave me the freedom that I wanted to do something a little bit different and so it was rad. It was attached to a program that helped promote independent skate shops and that was one of the reasons I agreed to do it. The process of shooting the commercial was kind of alien to me and there were press days and promotional events which aren’t really my thing. But I survived and met a lot of people along the way. [dp]
Who has been your favorite commercial client to work with to date?
I guess they fall into two categories: Those who give me creative freedom to do what I need to do and those who want to direct all of the fun out of the process. I do my best to avoid the latter, but it happens once in a while where things can get a little too complicated. But any company that I agree to work with who gives me creative control, I have a good time with it. I’ve been lucky … let’s put it that way. I haven’t worked with too many companies that I didn’t enjoy dealing with. [dp]
Would you still be doing art if you hadn’t been recognized on a regional, national and international level?
I would definitely be doing art regardless. It’s something that I’ve done to balance my life and keep me sane. It’s the process that allows me to make sense of all the absurd things in the world. There was a time not too terribly long ago that if you mentioned that you were an artist, you would get these sympathetic looks from people. It went from that to where people started saying, “I want to be an artist” and some of that is the result of street art and that kind of thing. It’s not an easy career. It’s kind of chaotic and unnerving at times. You have to learn to appreciate the chaos and all of the things that come with it, I think. And if you don’t love it for all that it involves, you won’t last long. [dp]
Do you have any advice/words of encouragement for artists who haven’t yet received that level of feedback for their work?
My words of advice: Art should be an extension of your personality and your ideas. The composition should be secondary to the impulse. Just drawing in the current style of the day or creating images that look like other popular images will not do anything positive for you. Spend the time to create your own approach and develop your own unique style. [dp]
For more information about Don Pendleton and his art, visit his website at www.elephont.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaer.com.