Photos by April Strunk

At John. H Baker Gallery Until December 13.

Stepping into the “Skate Show” at the John H. Baker Art Gallery in the E.O. Bull Center for the Arts is a transformative adventure into a collaborative expression of do-it-yourself culture in the alternative world of urban skateboarding.

Enticing skateboarders and spectators alike with a functioning half-pipe set in front of a backdrop of Southern Californian graffiti and an indie rock stage, the “Skate Show” is open to the public, and participation is encouraged. Along with your identification, signing a liability waiver gives you full access to “drop in” the exhibit’s half-pipe. The interactive focus of the “Skate Show” lets the audience become a part of the synergistic display of inclusive DIY culture as defined by the artisanal skateboards and computer-generated hardware lining the walls.

Oct. 24 was when the artist’s reception occurred. At 4 p.m., the Gracenotes, a WCU acapella singing group, kicked off the event with an eight-piece harmony of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by a ceremonious “caution tape” cutting with Arts & Humanities Dean Jen Bacon performing the honors and officially opening the ramp to skaters.

The reception featured live bands playing classic punk rock covers to a spirited crowd. Local indie bands The Manhattan Distance, Plum, Downdresser and We’re From Antarctica kept the skaters and spectators energized from the DIY sound stage built to accompany the exhibit. At some point pizzas appeared just in time, reviving spent energies and enriching the authenticity of the show. Originally scheduled until 7 p.m., the event kept crowds engaged until well past 9 p.m. Several in the gallery speculated that the “Skate Show” may have had the biggest reception turnout ever.

Inspired by a line of skateboards resting in his ceramics classroom among the students’ bags and coats last fall, Professor Andrew Snyder got the idea to have a skateboard exhibition. Originally, his thoughts gravitated toward a community outreach exhibit, but after more consideration, Snyder chose an inclusive cross-disciplined collaborative with painting and drawing professors, Kate Stewart and Chris Benedict. Together, the gallery committee bounced ideas off each other until the project outgrew the smaller Knauer Gallery. The “fun little project” of painting a few skateboards had gone from “what if we do a half-pipe?” to a summer long research project with Snyder and his two daughters, Nora and Dorothy, as “guinea pigs.”

In the early days, back in the 60’s, skateboards had yet to be mass produced. Determined “sidewalk surfers” constructed their own designs with small wooden boards sitting atop steel roller-skate wheels. Today skateboarding remains a DIY expression in innovation with new boards, new materials and new shapes emerging to tackle the challenges of urban infrastructure every day. Custom made skateboards are the root of skateboarding authenticity.

Snyder also teaches Object Design. When making the skateboards, he employed CNC, or Computer Numerical Control technology, to create the board templates for each student. CNC technology converted the boards he designed from software into numbers. The numbers, similar to coordinates on a graph, control the movement of the cutting tool used to shape the boards. Computer technology was also used in designing the trucks that bear the wheels. The plastic skate truck models on display in the exhibit were made using a 3D printer and are exact representations of authentic skateboard trucks. Snyder added that all skate trucks these days are made with 3D printers. DIY skate culture remains innovative.

Over the summer, in his woodshop at home, Snyder carved out batches of prototype skateboards he and his daughter Dorothy would try out and critique. For two months, he said he “spent a lot of time making really lousy boards.” But he kept at it. A big part of the project, he said, is teaching his students about practicality. “I think it’s very important for young people to be aware of functionality if you’re a maker.” By August, he had finally got the process down and had a functional prototype ready for production mode. He made all of the boards for the exhibit in those final days before school started last year.

Once the boards were carved out, Snyder says the project became organic and the collaboration expanded. All I knew was “we’re going to have skateboards, we’re going to have a half-pipe, we’re going to have a graffiti wall, we’re going to have a stage, then we’re going to figure it out…and that’s what we did.” And he’s not wrong. The exhibit is the combined efforts of over one hundred WCU students, alumni, faculty and local craftsman. 

Professor Stewart and Professor Benedict’s painting and drawing students customized the boards and designed the graffiti wall, while professional skateboarders from Fairman’s skate shop in town consulted on the construction of the ramp. WCU alum and skater, Brent Millichap, helped Snyder put it together.

Vert skaters like Millichap prefer the smooth cement bowls and rolling waves of skateparks and half pipes. At nine inches wide with an upturned nose, and a big concave and tail, vert skateboards allow the rider to drop in and “go vertical” off the lip of the bowl (or pipe) to catch some serious air. “It’s unforgiving,” Millichap said. He broke his ankle last year while catching air in Tampa and has only recently started feeling strong enough to try again. The resilience and determination in these athletes are universal.

Street skaters are more rebellious. For them, the whole world is a skate park. Street boards vary widely and reflect the style of the rider. Designed to overcome urban obstacles, street skaters’ interpretation of the sport is raw expression. A direct response of cultural censorship, street skating resists authority with independence and defiance. Grinding on handrails or boardsliding on benches, they are unafraid and eager to explore.

Longboards are built for speed. Initially used in downhill slalom racing back in the 60s, they are meant to go fast. They also happen to be the first boards Snyder experimented with. Carving out a 42-inch pintail board for Dorothy and a 48-inch flat tail for himself, Snyder had to figure out the right proportions of the boards and navigate the labyrinth of truck types as he went along. Within weeks, the first prototypes were finished, and he and Dorothy were ready for their trials. They chose a smooth paved loop on a slight incline to test their products.

Snyder’s board performed well; “it went really fast,” he said.  Perhaps too fast. From the top of the incline, Dorothy watched as Professor Snyder sped down the hill on his new board and couldn’t stop. Dragging his foot on the hard concrete in his worn canvas sneakers, Snyder said as the board stopped, he felt his foot pop. He tried to play it off but by the time he got back to Dorothy, “it was swollen and gross.” Two weeks into the project and Snyder had broken his foot.

Skateboarding is an enterprise in risk where people can freely participate and challenge each other without judgement. In this project, Snyder explored the technical aspects of skateboarding. He became a part of a group of athletes with no boundaries who improvise and adapt their play to an ever-changing game of risk taking with raw expression amid urban infrastructure. The Skate Show is an “organic social practice” within the DIY world of skateboard culture. Thinking back to the beginning of the project, Snyder says, “I wasn’t a skater. But I consider myself a skater now.”

“In this project, Snyder explored the technical aspects of skateboarding… The Skate Show is an “organic social practice” within the DIY world of skateboard culture.”

The John H. Baker Gallery, featuring The Skate Show exhibition is located at the E.O. Bull Center for the Arts next to the Swope building on the corner of Rosedale and High Street. The gallery is open to “drop-ins” Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Dec. 13.

April Strunk is a third-year student majoring in political science and media and culture.

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