The artist's way

Ed Templeton

"Everyday Desires": This is what's possible when Templeton's bum leg doesn't keep him out of the studio.

In the early 1990s, Ed Templeton put the skateboarding world on notice by taking difficult tricks, including the ollie impossible and noseblunt slide, to new heights and obstacles. His near four-minute part in New Deal's "Useless Wooden Toys" video in 1990 wasn't only important for its level of skating, the entire video filled a void in skateboarding. New Deal's creative identity fit nicely between the edginess of World Industries and the raw gnarliness of H-Street.

Though many of the iconic New Deal graphics were created by co-founder Andy Howell, who himself has pursued a successful art career, Templeton's first board graphic was a standout. Templeton didn't view himself as an artist at the time (his first ad jokingly said, "Buy Ed Templeton's board -- it's the one with the crappy graphics"), but the Keith Haring-esque image of a cat with a speech bubble exclaiming "Woof!" became an instant classic.

Templeton continued to create his own graphics, paint and take photographs; after a few attempts at starting a brand, he created Toy Machine in 1993. Toy Machine's ads took on a surreal tone, blending Templeton's satirical sketches with photography of the highest level of skateboarding at the time. During this period, Templeton and a handful of skaters began showing their work outside the context of skateboarding. New York City's Alleged Gallery, founded by Aaron Rose, started showing Templeton's work, which eventually enabled many artists to transcend the tag of "skate artist."

Templeton has released several art books and has been shown in prestigious galleries and museums all over the globe. He recently celebrated the opening of a photography show, titled "Memory Foam," that documents his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. XGames.com caught up with Templeton via e-mail to discuss art, skating and how his career has changed over time.

XGames.com: You recently suffered a serious injury. Could you tell us about that, your recovery time and how it's impacted your art? Do you see yourself making a full recovery and continuing on with skateboarding?
Ed Templeton:
I broke my leg on Nov. 3, 2012, at an Emerica demo in East L.A. I was simply doing a nosegrind across a flat bar on top of a pyramid; when I bailed out, I must have put my foot down in a strange way because I heard a horrific POP, and before my body had even hit the ground I knew I broke my leg. What a strange feeling. It didn't hurt. I was more angry than in pain.

When the paramedics came and cut my pants open, they could see the bone sticking out of the skin and the blood pouring out. At the hospital I found out that both my tibia and fibula bones were "shattered" and would need surgery. I spent five days in the hospital. Two plates and 21 screws later, I was at home and prescribed 10 weeks of putting absolutely no pressure on the leg.

In March 2013, I should be able to put 100 percent pressure on it, but that will be just the tip of the rehab iceberg. It will be a while before I can walk normal again, and who knows when I can try to skate. My doctor said a year at least, and even then he said my mobility will be limited because of the length of the plates; they go over those round ankle bones and will limit my range of motion, I'm told.

I'm 40, so it's not like I have a big skate career to return to, and I have lots of other things to do. So I don't know yet what my future as a pro skateboarder will be. Maybe it's time to retire. I don't think I will ever not be a skateboarder. Even if I'm only able to roll around, I will be doing it as long as I can. It has stopped me from getting into the studio to paint so far, but I think I'll get back in there pretty soon. I did some drawing while on the couch.

What is it that makes something you've created "work" to you personally?
I believe in the school of looking and learning from books, museums and galleries. In photography, I feel like I have trained my eye to know what a good photograph is through looking at so many photo books and seeing so many exhibitions. It builds over time. Each absorption of a great photograph seeps into your own brain and helps you shoot better, or helps you know what you don't want to do.

And then, when you are looking at your work ... I can know if something works for me by comparing or building on what I have seen. As long as it resonates on some level. And there are many levels on which a photo or painting can work. It's really good when you make a painting or photo that works on many levels. That means it's good for more than one reason.

It's no secret that the art world likes to read into things and sometimes over-intellectualize them. Have you ever read commentary or heard something about your work that was completely ridiculous/pretentious?
I feel like writing about my work has been pretty straightforward. In my book "Cemetery Of Reason" there are three essays, and a famous French art historian named Jean-François Chevrier was kind enough to write one. It gets pretty artsy. I try to control the press releases and statements about my work so they don't sound ridiculous. So much of those texts say absolutely nothing. I never want to make art that has to hide behind a sea of words to understand it or make it more exciting.

I don't know yet what my future as a pro skateboarder will be. Maybe it's time to retire.
Ed Templeton

When did you first become represented by a gallery and what was the transition like becoming a part of the contemporary art world?
I guess in 2003 was the first official representation by a gallery. The Alleged Gallery was sort of an informal representation. I really felt connected to [owner] Aaron [Rose] and the gallery, but he didn't have a website that stated what artists he repped. So Roberts and Tilton was the first to give me a show and then to add me to their list. I had a show called "The Prevailing Nothing" and, shortly after, I was added to the roster.

Before that I had been showing also informally with New Image Art in L.A. and every once in a while I would mount a show with them. The transition was amazing. I had been funding all of my own shows and managing every aspect of them from the ground up. Making the work, framing it, documenting it, shipping it, sending out flyers, etc. Working with a legit gallery takes some of that off your hands. They ship work, they help promote you and manage a mailing list. They have a space where you can show and they take your work to art fairs. I still do a lot, but when I need help I have a support group now.

It's well documented that Donald Trump and Puffy collect the Gonz's artwork. Any interesting people that have a Templeton in their collection?
Ha! Neil Patrick Harris has a bunch of work. I think Demi Moore does. I had heard that John Waters has a photo -- not sure about that one. I was supposed to paint a portrait of Judd Apatow and his family, but our schedules have made that impossible so far. D.V. DeVincentis, the guy who wrote the adapted screenplay for "High Fidelity," has some work.

Every time I read an interview with an ex or current Toy Machine rider, they ask if there are any crazy stories about you photographing them. Was there anyone who just freaked out and didn't see the playfulness or artistic side behind being photographed, or did everyone take it in stride?
I think that stemmed from Mike Burnett always asking riders in interviews about being shot naked by me. It has become such a powerful meme that I think most kids believe that I shoot nude photos of Toy Machine riders like they have no control over the situation! But in fact I have never shot a nude photo of a Toy Machine rider.

But at the same time, everyone knows I'm a photographer, and I'm always shooting photos, and nowadays EVERYONE is shooting photos of everything and Instagramming it right away, so I don't think anyone trips on me shooting them. Certain people are more photogenic than others and more comfortable being in front of a camera. Elissa Steamer and Erik Ellington were always so comfortable in front of the camera.

It's hard to find a skateboarder who has dabbled in art who doesn't cite Mark Gonzales and or Neil Blender as influences; what is it about those two artists that really resonate with skaters, and who are some artists/what are some graphics that are a bit more obscure or forgotten that inspired you?
Well, Mark is a touchstone because not only is he the grandfather of street skating and responsible for most of the tricks and approach that we are still doing today, he is also a great stream-of-consciousness artist. Head-to-hand direct. Even with words. He did his own graphics, like Neil. For many kids who were into skating first, Mark G. is the intro into art. For me, like millions of others, I just loved his style, his skating, his art, whatever it was. It was playful and creative.

Same with Blender. Just funny and artsy and a good mixture of that with skating so that one didn't take over the other. I grew up and found skating in Southern California, the home of Vision, Schmitt Stix, Sims and Madrid. So those graphics were in my face all the time. The art department of Vision was filled with really creative guys. The ads, the total '80s-ness of them, were awesome. And the Schmitt Stix graphics were great too. Chris Miller was a huge influence for both skating and art and did his own graphics. The Madrid graphics were epic too.

Courtesy Ed Templeton

Two plates, 21 screws, 10 weeks of couchin' it -- and one unanswered question about the future of his pro career.

It seemed like yourself, Natas Kaupus and Andy Jenkins were some of the first to really embrace computer-aided design for graphics. What was it like getting the first Power Macs with scanners, and what doors did it open up for your artwork? In retrospect, did those early machines that took what felt like hours to scan a photo actually make design easier?
I learned all my computer skills originally from Ron Cameron. He was behind Channel One, Acme, Blockhead and early RVCA, among other things. I learned through watching him and listening to him. He sat with me during the first-ever Toy Machine ads and helped me do them correctly while learning the layout programs. He taught me about using the computer as a tool, not a toy. And to do everything by hand.

It's too easy to use the computer to make a font, or to render the layout. I still believe in those ideals today, and you can see it in the Toy Machine ads. I still write out everything and spend more time than needed to "mess up" all the "perfectness" that using a computer allows you without trying. I go in and make fake scissor cuts and tweak the edges of the picture boxes so they are not straight.

Same for graphics. I learned the old-fashioned way, before heat transfers. I had to cut ruby [lithos] and limit myself to eight colors to keeps costs down. So even though it's easier to make graphics, I still draw everything by hand and use the computer just for coloring and shading. Technology just enabled us to do the things we wanted to do easier. Cutting ruby sucked, and there is no limit to colors now. You want a photo as your graphic? No problem!

What would your advice be to an aspiring artist -- not necessarily a kid who wants to do board graphics, but a kid who loves skateboarding but wants to eventually have his work hang in a gallery?
You have to trust yourself. Take a look at everything, even worlds that [you] don't understand or are attracted to. That way you know what's happening. But the trust comes in liking what you like, regardless of what your teachers and peers are telling you, and finding your own influences, and then taking the next logical step and making those influences your own.

Hard work is no guarantee of success, but there is no success without hard work. Unpack that sentence. Hard work is the key. Anyone who is successful has put in the time and effort to be truly good. (For the most part, and it's frustrating when you see people getting opportunities that don't deserve it.) You may never get noticed, but at least you worked hard and hopefully were fulfilled doing what you do.

Making art that fits into what is hot and selling is a recipe for disaster. It's tough sometimes to follow your heart. Nobody is shooting B&W documentary-style photos in the art world -- it's seen as passé and outdated -- and yet I'm doing a show of B&W images of people from around my hometown. Nobody in the real art world will take it seriously. The photography world now is leaning toward Ryan McGinley-style work. (And I love Ryan and his work.) Huge prints, color, landscapes or nudes, or something created for the shot. What I'm doing is so 1970s, but it's what I like.

In the 1990s, skateboarders started to transition into the actual art world. Board graphics and photography started to become part of an actual movement, or at least a new wave of art. Since you were a huge part of this shift, please explain what it was like going from doing your own board graphics to being a part of the greater art world.
I guess since day one I was interested in art. For instance, the same year I turned pro for skating, 1990, I started painting. I was familiar with artists like David Hockney and Egon Schiele already. In fact, my first-ever New Deal graphic was almost a direct rip-off of an Egon Schiele painting of a baby, and only at the last minute I changed it to the cat graphic.

Tenacity and passion will outlast anything.
Ed Templeton

So I was aware of the world of galleries and museums and secretly wished to move in that direction. As early as 1993 I was taking part in exhibitions. The first-ever "skateboarders who make art" group show was organized by a guy named Dan Field in Chicago at a gallery called World Tattoo Gallery. It was called "The Degenerates," and pretty much every skater that made art was in that show: Chris Miller, Lance Mountain, Thomas Campbell, Gonz, Neil Blender, Natas Kaupas, Matt Hensley, Dave Carnie -- so many people. Skateboarding was my main thing; I was doing all the contests, and getting coverage, etc. -- those were my glory years -- but in all my free time I was painting and starting to shoot photographs.

I was in some sort of group show or coffee-shop show every year since that first show in 1993. But the real start was in 1994 when Aaron Rose offered me a solo show at his gallery, Alleged Gallery in NYC. That was my first solo show, and I packed up a rented minivan with paintings and drove them across country. There was something like 67 paintings in that show. A lot of the opportunities I got in the art world stem from Aaron Rose. He was instrumental at many points along the way for me, and we are still good friends.

So I suppose there was no real transition from one to the other, but rather I was working on two fronts since the beginning. The skateboard world was a transition from starting in 1985 and being pro by 1990, and in the art world I started painting in 1990 and had a solo show by 1994, the same year I started Toy Machine. The art world was a much slower growth, because it was 15 years from starting painting until I had a real gallery representation.

As far as skating as a whole making its mark on the art world, it started with "The Degenerates" show, and then the Alleged Gallery did most of the work. It was Aaron Rose who was showing Mark Gonzales, Thomas Campbell, me, Chris Johanson, Phil Frost, Dave Aron, Tino Razo, Mike Mills and all of these skateboarders who made art.

Another guy most people don't recognize is Stijn Huijts. He is a Dutchman who was the director of the Museum Het Domien in the Netherlands. He started seeing what Aaron was doing and offered shows to Gonz, Campbell, me and many others. That was important because having the legitimacy of a museum show in Europe went a long way. It acted as a serious widening of our world -- out of the U.S. and into Europe. It's easy to preach to the converted and stay inside the skateboard world. But people like Aaron Rose and Stijn Huijts helped me and many others get exposure outside of skateboarding into new arenas.

How much about the greater "art world" did you know prior to your first shows?
Since childhood I had the fortune of having grandparents that were champions of the arts. I was taken to museums and watched people considering paintings. That has a big effect on a kid, I believe -- to see adults spending so much time looking at pictures, discussing them, etc. Monkey see, monkey do. And like I mentioned before, I was already a fan of artists like Schiele, Hockney, Modigliani, Dali -- the usual suspects for a teenager from the suburbs. I would read the stories of their lives as well as looking at the artwork. Those books introduced me, in theory, to the world of galleries and dealers.

Ed Templeton

Templeton's New Deal sticker graphic.

Did skaters taking control of their art mediums and producing their own shows and galleries represent a huge shift to you -- that being an artist was attainable?
Yes. The Alleged Gallery was that in a nutshell. It was not part of the "legit" art world for many years; it was just a guy showing his friends. But he did it consistently, and each time he did a show it got better, and more people started coming. Tenacity and passion will outlast anything. Pretty soon the people from the art world started coming, and Aaron moved the gallery to bigger and better places, started publishing books, etc.

For me, the whole do-it-yourself idea was most used in the world of 'zines. Nobody was going to give you a book deal, so just make your own book at Kinkos. People like Tod Swank and Gary Davis were already doing that since way before my time in skateboarding. As far as attainability, I never worried about if becoming an artist was attainable. You either make art or you don't. The only question is can you make a living doing it like the people you read about in art books?

At some point I did realize that something like that may be possible, but it's a hard path not coming from the school/college system. I funded ALL of my shows from my skateboard money for 15 years. All that shipping, framing, canvasses and prints cost a lot of money. Not many people are fortunate enough to have free time and money like a pro skateboarder does.

Skateboarding is viewed as a creative breeding ground for artists, but it's also true that Kelly Slater, Michael Jordan and other athletes have taken creative approaches to sport. Why do you think it's skaters who have made the biggest impact?
I believe it's because at the very core of it, skateboarding is a creative and individual pursuit. The people who are drawn to it, by nature, [are] prone to be more creative and artistic. It's less now than it was when I was younger, because skateboarding is more mainstream now. It's not alienated kids from broken homes who find skateboarding. It can easily be found on TV and in video games now. But regardless of that, it's not a team sport, and it takes a bit of creativity. That is why many skaters are also painters, photographers and musicians.

What connections do you see between your photography and painting/drawing? What makes you choose each medium to relay a feeling?
I'm just always working on multiple fronts. If I'm at home, I'm painting. But as soon as I leave the house, or am traveling, the camera is on. So I'm always dealing with both painting and photography. I really don't make a choice to switch from one to the other. The only choices are when someone offers me a show. The space and the time I have are what determine what I will show. Sometimes a photo can spawn a painting, and the missing of a photo makes me want to paint what I missed too. For me, the connection between the two is people. People, how we act and what we do is the constant fascination for me and that thread goes through both mediums.

There's always a feeling of accomplishment when you land a trick or create a painting that works. Was it ever hard to sell something you loved creating, or did this become easier over time? Is there art for commerce and art for personal expression in your world, or are they always connected?
There was a period early on when the idea of parting with a painting was very hard. But as you start to wrap your head around making a life doing this, it becomes easier. I realize it's another way of sharing. If you document the work, then you at least have a photo you can keep.

I feel way stranger about marketing skateboarding than I do selling paintings. There is no personal art and commercial art. Every once in a while I take one of my own paintings. I either list as "not for sale" or just take it home after the show is done. So I have my own secret stash of work that I like.

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