Don Pendleton Interview

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Skateboarding has always been a passion for Don Pendleton, informing his inimitable style which feels so familiar. We have been fans of his work here at Slam City Skates for a long time so it was an honour to catch up with him about his early days, what he is up to now and everything in between…

Hello Don how are things?

Things are good..I’ve been staying busy and time has been tight recently but I’m cool with that these days.

What’s new in your world, have you been getting the skates in?

Not as much as I would like simply because I’m juggling projects and going between the studio and office to try to keep things moving but I was out the other day.

So it still goes on, just not as often as I’d like.

Explain how and when skateboarding happened to you…

There were a few introductions…my brother had a plastic Makaha skateboard when I was about 11 back in 1980. I used to ride it some and would try 360s…easy little early tricks.

Later on in 1985, I went to Virginia Beach and saw my first modern skateboard on the boardwalk. The wider, wooden boards changed what was possible so in 1985 was when I started doing it daily and became obsessed with everything about skating: the graphics, the music associated with it, the culture, history, etc.

How did you enjoy the lifestyle of being a sponsored skateboarder?

It was rad because I grew up in a very small town that was in the middle of nowhere. So for companies from CA to pay attention to a guy out in West Virginia who had very few spots was pretty inspiring and it encouraged me to try a little harder and an incentive to film and things like that. Skateboarding was really the only thing I was into at the time so to get the stamp of approval from someone like Steve Steadham was pretty mind boggling to look back on it.

Did skateboarding change your perspective in regards to drawing? Do you think if you hadn’t skated you would have gravitated towards making art anyway?

Yeah, I started drawing at a young age and my dad used to paint a lot so that was alway around me when I was growing up, way before skateboarding. I wasn’t very athletic so art seemed like the exact opposite of sports and I liked that. Skating did change the way I looked at art just being exposed to all of those early 80s graphics and this realization that art was an extension of skateboarding for me and vice-versa at some point pretty early on.

Was there a ‘Eureka!’ moment with drawing? Something which tied everything together and made you feel it was really working?

Not really, simply because I did it for so long and it was such a natural part of my environment. Between seeing my dad do it and having a really good high school art teacher, I didn’t particularly think I was good at art but I won several awards and was pretty convinced even when I was about 14 that I was going to be an artist whether I wanted to or not.
Back then, nobody really wanted to be an artist. It wasn’t celebrated the way it is now…certainly wasn’t anything cool about it because most artists weren’t making any money.

Having grown up skateboarding in the 80’s are there any specific images burnt into your subconscious from graphics of days gone by which were an influence?

Definitely all of the early Blender graphics and that first Vision Mark Gonzales graphic. All of the Natas graphics…SMA was one of the first companies I really liked. I know a lot of people were into Powell VCJ graphics and Jim Phillips (Santa Cruz) and Pushead (Zorlac) but for some reason I was drawn to Vision and SMA and the less popular stuff. And those guys are amazing artists but I probably looked at their work and realized I couldn’t do stuff that good but I looked at Blender’s work and realized that not only did it seem more “artistic” but that it was something I could relate to because of the accessibility of it.

First seeing your work on boards must have felt like dream come true. Do you remember getting the first ones back?

Yeah, it was in 1998, so I was kind of late getting into it as a profession. Maybe 6 months after working at Alien Workshop, I was out in CA and saw a kid carrying a Josh Kalis board that I had designed and that was a super happy moment. And then slowly but surely I would see all the other stuff…boards and tees and stickers on cars. I kind of got numb to it because I was so focused on working and producing that I never took too much time to enjoy it. But I did realize how fortunate I was to have the opportunity and it was definitely a dream come true to be in that position.

Could you give us five graphics you have designed that are your favourites and the reason why?

I’ve gotten that question a lot over the years and to be honest, my favourite AWS graphics were done by Neil Blender and Mike Hill. The few that stand out in my head of my own work are usually because of what was going on in my life at the time, which is how I can put the timeline of work into context for myself. There was a limited edition Jason Dill deck that was so ridiculous and personal that I had it hanging on my wall and it’s the only board I’ve ever done that I hung up. The Steve Berra Berratrooper board was a favourite because Steve was always so cool to me. My favourite graphics went to Dill, Berra and Pappalardo. But for the last three, I’d have to say the Daydream series, which was a series of 3 boards: Heath, Pappalardo and Danny Way. It was kind of different than my normal work and it was at a point when I was just trying to mix things up a bit for myself in approaching layout and colours.

Alien Workshop-Daydream series

Have you dealt with anyone who really enjoyed being involved with their own graphics?

Most of the guys didn’t really care so I had a lot more in common with the guys who did. Berra was always super cool about letting me know that he liked something. I think Dill was stoked on his graphics. And Pappalardo. I did his first graphic and he was grateful and you could tell he was just stoked to be involved and a part of the company at that time.

Jason Dill-LTD edition 99. Steve Berra-Berratrooper. Anthony Pappalardo-Daydream series.

What company running today do you find exciting visually?

It’s an interesting time in skateboarding again so I’m just enjoying watching all the smaller companies start to embrace the idea of doing something differently with some substance and ideas behind it. For so long, skateboarding was all business and nobody wanted to risk doing anything creative because that leaves a lot of room for people not connecting to something, which affects sales. The smaller companies don’t seem to give a fuck and that’s really the attitude it takes to do something a little bit differently. I really like Welcome‘s whole approach to what they do. And Polar. And the Isle stuff is pretty refreshing. So many of those smaller companies are doing interesting things again and that’s really what skateboarding needed.

A kid starting skating today has a wealth of video footage on hand for free, boards delivered to the door, magazines available to view online and a handful of skate parks to choose from. There are obvious advantages to growing up in 2014 on paper but do you feel that a lot of the things we hold dear will become unimportant to future generations?

It seems like that all of this stuff has changed skateboarding in a positive way simply because there are niches now for everything: longboarding, cruisers, kids are doing bonelesses again and slappies and just having fun. Skateboarding got to the point where it was so anal about style and you had to do the right tricks at the right spots that everyone just seemed miserable. So the fact that the internet allows for quick information exchange opens up this new world where kids aren’t so influenced by JUST the magazines, which had this power of steering skateboarding to a degree. Or JUST the big company videos where everything became so predictable.

It’s easy to romanticise the pre-internet days and those were awesome…and those memories will always be around but it’s important that skateboarding keep moving forward based on what kids are doing. Even if it encourages consumption and maybe they take it less seriously, it’s still important for skateboarding to meander in these different directions because that’s what keeps it fun and makes sure that it progresses in some ways. The fact that young guys are doing No Complys again is encouraging to me.

Can you tell us more about Darkroom?

It was and will always be more of a project than a business. I just wanted the option of being able to do graphics for myself and have fun. Sometimes my job feels like a job and I hate that. I want it to be fun and the way I can guarantee that I’ll continue to love it is to keep doing things that are solely for myself that I can make available to others. So there’s no serious stakes to it, no pressure…I just get an idea and Darkroom gives me a venue to offer it or produce it.

A quiver of Darkroom boards.

What medium would you say gives you the most pleasure?

Honestly it changes all the time. I paint for weeks on end and then I get burned out so then I’ll set down at the computer. Then my back will hurt so I’ll just draw in a sketchbook for 2 weeks straight if I don’t have any deadlines, just coming up with ideas and shapes. And then it’s back to painting. I think they’re all fun, I’m just glad that I have the option to switch it up and stay productive. And I like experimenting with other mediums like clay and paper mache but the truth is that I’m not very comfortable with those things so I rarely ever document any of the experimental stuff. It’s just for fun and just to keep me thinking like a kid, which is kind of necessary…not to get too bogged down or too trapped or defined by just one particular medium or other.

Are there things left you would like to experiment with?

Definitely stained glass…I think it takes a lot of time to do correctly and I don’t have much patience but I’d like to experiment with it. I started playing music several years ago and, again, it was just a way to approach things differently mentally so I don’t feel like I get into a rut creatively. Even things like learning a new language I think is great for creativity and that kind of thing transfers over into the art you’re working on.

Do you have any memories involving Slam City Skates?

I remember seeing the logo a lot and coverage of contests and I knew it was around back in the 80s. I eventually went to the shop in London and I didn’t know a whole lot about it but I realized that it played a large role in the history of skating outside of America. Which is important to keep in mind. When growing up in America pre-internet, you would’ve thought that skateboarding was still a California thing. But TWS would cover contests over in the UK and in Europe so slowly but surely, you get exposed to those skaters and companies and realize that it’s just as important as what’s going on in California. And then later, you kind of prefer the things that are outside of CA because you realize it’s a little tougher for those skaters and companies.

Do you have any projects on the go that we can expect to see in the future?

I have a bunch of projects coming out later this year and already working on stuff for early 2015. I can’t really talk about that stuff until we start the promotional phase but it’s some fun stuff with companies that I respect. I’m still very careful about which companies I work with because I want to control the creative parts and not all companies are down for that so hopefully the projects that I commit to are done in a way that I’m proud to have my artwork and name attached to them.

Can you recommend a source of inspiration be it a film, book or piece of music? Something that will enrich our lives?

You can never go wrong with Albert Camus when it comes to putting life and death into perspective. Even something as common as The Stranger but also the more complex work like The Myth of Sisyphus. Also Dostoevsky…the early philosophers who actually dealt with serious strife and struggle. Too much newer literature is packed full of popular culture references and that’s tough to stomach for me so I like older literature. I watch a lot of old horror movies…you can never go wrong with something like Suspiria , directed by Dario Argento. I can’t speak too much for music…I listen to Elliott Smith every day and stuff like The Smiths and the Cure. It’s too tough to weed through newer music to find stuff I might dig. There are newer bands I listen to but I’m mostly just focused on the stuff that I really love that took me a lifetime to find, whether it’s art, music, literature or film.

It’s amazing that you have given us your time Don, thank you very much. Can you leave this interview with a piece of advice for someone producing work with aspirations of one day working in the skateboard industry?

You’re welcome…thanks for talking to me. As for artists, just find your own style. Art may be the only voice you really have so it’s important that it be your voice that you develop and hone over time that keeps evolving as you evolve as a person. The lines between “art” and “skateboard art” continue to be blurred and with all of the newer companies and shop decks, there is more opportunity than ever before to do a skateboard graphic that someone will see. The downside is that you probably won’t be able to make a living from it but you’ll have a bunch of fun. And always keep a sketchbook….write down all of your ideas, thoughts and random concepts. The problem is that people give that shit away on Facebook or Twitter when they should be saving it up for themselves so they can use those thoughts to siphon into artwork. Don’t cheapen your ideas by pissing them away…write them down for yourself and then unleash them on the world properly through visual art.

Interview by Jacob Sawyer.