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April 1, 2008

{     Interview : Don Pendleton     }    

Don Pendleton

The name Don Pendleton will always be synonymous for me with an unabashed love for skateboarding. While he was the first sponsored skater I ever met (Steve Steadham represent!) and he also worked at the first real skateshop I ever went to that wasn’t a handful of decks in the back of a shoe store or t-shirt shop, it actually goes a little bit deeper than that. Truth be told, Don Pendleton was in the first skate mag I ever bought (Transworld, June ‘88). This stands out on a personal level for me because in a sea of strictly California coverage, Don had a letter he wrote to the magazine published and it happened to be addressed from a small town only about twenty minutes away from where I lived. Upon reading this, I immediately felt a sense of camaraderie and relief that both myself and my small posse of fellow 5th graders weren’t alone in our shared passion for what could only be seen as a social liability and instant misfit-status while growing up in rural West Virginia (it should be noted that this was to be the only mention of our home state in any skate publication for the next 5 years).

From my humble tic-tac and boneless one beginnings on, Don Pendleton would become a kind of a Where’s Waldo figure for me, popping up at various points throughout the years. While first on the come up as a sponsored amateur, a broken ankle forced Don to choose a different route and make lemonade with his equally-as-strong artistic talents. With fellow WV-skate legend John Drake joining Alien Workshop in the early 90s, Don also boarded the mothership and would go on to design the majority of AWS graphics for the better part of the next decade before continuing on to work with Element and his new t-shirt company Darkroom. While not in the role he initially set out for, that tweaked ankle has allowed Don Pendleton to become one of the most highly-regarded and sought-after artists in the skate world and beyond. Soon to be the first subject of 411 video magazine’s new skate artist documentary series, I caught up with Don to ask him about humpback whale tre flips, growing up in the middle of nowhere, and what motivates him in today’s upside-down world of skateboarding. Its good to see Don still involved with skateboarding and doing so quite well. I can’t imagine it any other way.

Eric: So Don, what’s the story with this Little Giants documentary series Bob K is putting out for 411 video magazine? You’re the first subject in the series. That’s gotta be pretty cool…

Don Pendleton: Yeah, I'm stoked. I'm not much for cameras or talking but I'm sure Bob will make it work somehow. He let people vote on who they wanted first on the Crownfarmer site and I guess I won back when it was supposed to be a book series. So that's amazing to me that people wanted to see me out there first. It's a little stressful but I would be lying if I said I wasn't stoked on it. Bob's actually here right now. There were a few delays on getting it together but he's got a plan for it all and I think with him at the helm, it'll be super interesting. I'm not a very interesting subject but I'm sure he'll wring something out of me.

Don Pendleton

So what all are you trying to cover in the doc? And what’s the release date so we can have something to look forward to?

The Little Giants project is a little of everything: background, history, AWS, skating all the way through to current projects and graphics. Bob is filming a lot of other people I guess with their impressions of my work or history in skating. The release date is still supposedly in April from what I can tell. I haven't heard anything to the contrary yet.

What can we expect from Darkroom, your clothing company? The designs out and everything looks great. How did this come about? What prompted this decision to go the solo route and how difficult has it been?

Right now, I'm on hiatus with Darkroom. I had the next season ready to go but I started to focus more on just doing artwork. I didn't really have the time to do both like I wanted. With Darkroom, I'm everything: account manager, salesman, designer, packer, shipper...the whole nine. So it was taking tons of my time when I really just wanted to be doing artwork. It was supposed to be more of a fun project and less of a business. So I haven't really held myself to a schedule or anything. If it were a legitimate business, it would suffer from situations like that but it's just really a side project. So it just is what it is. Hopefully, I'll take a break from the art in the next few months, get the line together and ready to be sold. Until then, I just have a limited amount of time to work with so unfortunately, I have to pick and choose my projects in such a way that I can stay creative and not get too bogged down with the business of sales and shipping and things like that. I'm not ready to hand it over to a distributor at this point so it falls on my shoulders to make it happen.

With so many companies doing that same ol thing of half-ass graffiti blingwear or wannabe-1977 punk rock dress-up, what made you decide to start a clothing company?

It was really just another outlet for me to do what I wanted without having to fit into a certain identity or something. I have a lot of artwork that doesn't really have a place with most companies so if I can use it on my t-shirts, then it's a good excuse to do so. I didn't really have a plan for Darkroom's identity. I just wanted to have some fun with it. I imagined switching up direction every season and it has somewhat...hopefully just a fun evolution of projects I'd like to work on. This gives me a reason to experiment.

The darkroom promo video that’s making the rounds showcases some solid skating with a nice clean style. And one can’t help but notice a definite “Memory Screen” influence throughout. With Mike Hill and Neil Blender having already set-up such a strong visual identity for Alien Workshop, how difficult was it in the early days of your tenure working there? Was there ever a time, before you established yourself in your own right within that framework then beyond, that this legacy was too much of a burden, like something wasn’t “Alien Workshoppy enough”?

It was definitely stressful once in a while because I could never look at something and say, 'this is good enough' or 'this looks like it belongs.' So it was a slow process but one that I enjoyed. With the darkroom video, my friend Dave Ackels put that together and he's a big fan of the older AWS style from Memory Screen and beyond and was definitely influenced by that whole DIY era of skateboarding. He definitely has his own style. He's great with editing and having a vision for video.

Don Pendleton

You now seem like you’re on the flip side of this, as far as having a relatively new company with no established look but having your style so commonly identified with a different brand. Since you designed a huge chunk of Alien Workshop product in the last decade and really hammered out the visual identity for such a large brand, are you dealing with things in darkroom that seem “too Alien Workshoppy”? How are you proceeding with this? Is there a conscious move here to try and differentiate the Darkroom look from the Alien Workshop look or are you just saying “Fuck it, Don P is Don P and this is my style.”

I don't feel that with Darkroom in the least because all I can do is what I do, you know? I feel it if I'm working on something for another company, I have to respect the opinions of those that I work for on various projects. But I only work with companies who know what kind of work I produce. It is like being typecast in a way but I don't mind. I do what I've always done. In my mind, changing it up would be selling myself out. And I'm not really into that idea. My art has always been a product of just having fun and doing what comes naturally. I'm not a big fan of my own style but I have a way that I work...couldn't change it if I tried. When I can't do that anymore for another company, I'll do it for myself I suppose. I did it simply for fun for the better part of my life...I don't see that changing.

I've had several projects fall through where an art director wants something specific and it's just not up my alley. I've had people try to get me to change things and I have a hard time with that. If someone wants to hire me, they know what they're in for as far as my style. It never made sense to me that a company would ask me to do something for them and then want it to look like I didn't even do it. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that whole concept. So it can be difficult at times.

I grew up in a small town and started skating during the late 80s when there was no internet and Powell came out with a video once a year, meaning that the magazines were literally your only window into the skate world. I also know that Ravenswood, WV is not known for its bustling art scene. Which do you enjoy more: seeing a pro riding one of your graphics in Transworld and an artist’s portfolio in Slap or having a large gallery opening, like the one you had with fellow darkroom cahoots guy David Ackels in Louisville this past spring?

Oh, I'm not a big fan of art shows at all. And I specifically don't like openings. As far as graphics go, you tend to get numb to seeing them in shops and in magazines but I'm grateful more than anything else. It's a good reminder that I'm lucky to be doing something that I still care about and something that I like so much. Ravenswood wasn't an easy town to grow up in but I had great parents and some friends who skated so you just kind of let the time pass and have fun doing it. I know some people who grew up in towns where there was no asphalt or paved roads. So we at least had concrete and some steps and ledges. In comparison, I considered myself lucky to have that. So if anything, growing up in a small town kept me normal I suppose and allowed me to be thankful for the smaller things. And we were used to doing it ourselves. We built ramps, obstacles, whatever we needed. We had to and I think it's good to get used to making things happen like that rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Speaking of shows, aren’t you heading over to Barcelona soon for some sort of Untitled event?

I'm just going to go over for like 5 days. There's a tradeshow over there (Bread and Butter) and Untitled is sponsoring the art show there. I'm going over to do a live art show...paint in front of people and then they're going to give it away by raffle or something. I was convinced I didn't have time to make it over there but I shifted a bunch of stuff around.

Don Pendleton

Which would you prefer: today’s limited run graphics that are produced for 3 months tops before on to the next one or a return to the ol’ boneite days where graphics were really tied into that pro’s identity and would be marketed for years? Ever do a graphic you were so proud that you wish it could stick around a little longer?

As a skater, I liked that the graphics were around for a year or so. I'd get bummed when they'd finally switch them up. But yeah, they went from being around for a year to six months, to three months...sometimes even less now. As far as I'm concerned, it may be too quick of a turnaround but it also keeps things interesting. It's taken away the strength and power that deck graphics once had. There used to be this legitimate emotional response to things like the Gator graphic or that first Gonz graphic or any of the early Powell Peralta graphics that isn't possible today. Because they're in and out so fast that people barely see them, let alone are able to connect with them. So using one image over and over and running it for long periods really tied the skater to the graphic and vice-versa. And that was one of the things I loved about skating as a kid. It's not possible now but I'm not sure if kids are open to that kind of thing today. Things have changed so skateboarding has to change as well.
What are some of your favorite graphics that you’ve done and also what are those that you wish you did?

I get this question a lot but I don't have favorites. I did one Jason Dill board that I liked back in 2000 or something and I had it hung on my wall. And it was probably more from the fact that I was a fan of Dill and finally was able to meet him and we became friends. So there's a lot involved when it comes to how I feel about graphics I've done. I can't just sit back and look at it subjectively. It usually reminds me of the time I was working on it or the other things going on in my life during that time period. As far as boards that I wish I could have done, there are a lot out there but most of them were from the mid 80s. Back before skateboarding turned into The Great Race for Cash and Domination when something original still had merit just because it was rad and different. Now days, everyone pushes the logo deck because that's what kids can understand and relate to, sadly. There are companies out there that ALL they do is logo decks. And what a slap in the face to the early days of skateboarding where creativity was such a huge role in creating new tricks and breaking new ground and how it was all tied together through originality. Now skateboarding sometimes comes across as more like football with wheels instead of a ball. Sadly, it's gone from an expression of creativity to a sport where mainstream success means dumbing down your product and image so that the masses can relate and will buy into it. Fortunately, not all companies are taking that route. But I think it'll come around to where creativity has a solid place in it again. It always seems cyclical so when it's down for a while, usually it comes back stronger than ever.

Don Pendleton

Influences? Who/what made you want to do art? Who are your favorite artists?

My dad made me want to do art because he would paint a lot when I was young. So I would sit and watch and you end up doing what your dad does because you look up to him. And that's how it came around for me. My influences for what I create are probably more like insects, bugs, creatures, monsters...all the things that kind of creep you out as a kid. Just to look at them up close, see how they're put together and how they work… that kind of thing. Favorite artists of all time would probably be Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso. I'm not really a huge fan of art, to be honest. Sometimes I'm more blown away by things that occur in nature than I am with things that were produced in a studio or whatever. I love all the stuff that Blender does and has done over the years. Tons of respect for Blender. Tons. The fact that he's not more celebrated in skateboarding today kind of scares me in a way. To me, he was pivotal in all aspects of modern skating. 

What other media are you looking to explore? Animation or music? I’ve read where you’ve expressed interest in writing a novel….

I was probably more serious about writing that I was about drawing when I was in college. But eventually, they work off of each other in a way if your art tells a story. I think it's just visualization of concepts and ideas and story lines that I have in my head that fill in the blanks, so to speak. I'm not sure one would work without the other. I don't have any other ambitions though. You know those guys who are actors but want to be musicians? And then musicians that want to be models? Or models that want to be actors? Such a tragedy. I think if you are lucky enough to have one calling in life, enjoy it. I mess around with music, but I've no ambitions to ever do it for a living or in front of a crowd. I have a lot of little things that I enjoy doing but not on a scale that would make it a career or anything. Sculpture, writing, music...I enjoy all of this stuff but it's nothing that I'd let other people really see. Just other avenues to explore creativity and play around without pressure. Just creating something to have fun and explore those other approaches.
In the last decade or so, the concept of “skate art” has really gained a lot of mainstream recognition and success, through things like Beautiful Losers and the Alleged Gallery. Those watching Rob & Big have all seen your work along side others like Andy Howell and Gonz. Are you comfortable being labeled a “skate artist”? I’ve heard of others considering this to be too restrictive or even condescending in a way, what do you think?

Oh, I think it's just another way for people to put a label on things in an effort to process it or organize it in their minds. It's typical of people coming from outside of something into the inside of something. It has to be defined, it has to be laid out for them, it has to be packaged and presented in some kind of descending order for them to feel that they've got a grasp on it. I think it's kind of laughable but it's like everything else in American culture. It's misrepresented to a degree and it gets kind of turned into something it's not.  It seems like Americans need to have things out laid out, labeled, rated and organized for them to process it. And with other things that end up in this predicament, someone will always be there to become the 'leader' of the movement and make a buck off of it. It's not just skate art. It's anything that Americans feel fit into pop culture. I kind of look at it all and have to laugh because making sense of it all is too hard to do.

I equate the whole thing to the Andy MacDonald phenomenon. Outside of skateboarding, everyone knows him because he's everywhere on TV with X-Games, Dew Games, Slim Jim Games, Gravity Games, whatever. Inside skateboarding, nobody really cares. And that's not a slight to Andy Mac, it's just that people outside of skating will never really understand what's going on inside skating. They may know Ryan Sheckler but they don't know Eric Koston or a guy like Van Engelen. And that kind of says everything you need to know about how the general public regards skating or skateboard art or whatever from the outside.

So I don't respect many opinions on 'skateboard art' outside of actual skateboarders. Do you want to be the Andy Mac of skateboard art? Because I don't. I'd rather be the Eric Koston. You may not spend much time on the X Game podiums, but the people who matter know who you are and what you've done. I've been fortunate to be able to do something that I care about and make a living from it. If it all ends tomorrow, I still feel like I accomplished what I set out to do, which was just be a part of skating and give something back to it in a small way.

Don Pendleton

Every kid wants to be pro at some point in their lives. You were a sponsored skater for quite sometime and you almost had this dream come true. What would the Don Pendleton Pro Model have looked like?

When I was about 15 or 16, I'd do my own graphics. You know, as a kid, spray paint the bottom and just draw on it with markers or paint. They always get scraped off. And that's probably the best way to describe my skateboard career. If I would have become pro, I would have just wasted a lot of time because I wasn't good enough. I finally came around and was like,' this is a waste of my time.' Because I realized I could skate every day, still love it and enjoy it without becoming a pro. And my style was horrible. So a Don Pendleton graphic never came to be, thankfully. I watch footage these days of me back then and I cringe at how I land tricks. I'm a lot more critical than I used to be in terms of style. I like sketchy. Mine wasn't even controlled was more like a skinny humpback whale riding out a 360 flip or something. Not pretty.

How was it putting together your own skate team for darkroom?

It's amazing because I can keep it small and try to get some of these guys that I really enjoy their styles and their skating. There aren't a lot of younger dudes that I like but Scott Pfaff is definitely one of them. I've always been a fan of Dave Ackels because he does all of these tricks that most people would never consider doing. You can tell he loves it and has fun. Kevin Terpening...another young guy with a super good style. When you watch him skate, it looks like he's been doing it forever. Smooth, consistent...good trick selection. It's rad to watch these guys and it makes skating fun for me again to watch them progress. Ackles has been a huge help with the team so I have to give him props for that.

Don Pendleton

I remember I bought my first Public Enemy tape based soley on the fact that Natas wore their shirt in his Transworld Pro Spotlight. Is there anything that you would like to recommend people check out? Music/film/art/etc.?

So much stuff...the world has changed so drastically since those days. I know exactly what you're talking about. I'd see Gonz wearing a shirt and I had to have it. No matter what it was. Or hear about a band and spend 6 weeks ordering it and waiting for it to be delivered. And those days where these subtleties were really appreciated are long gone. I think between the internet and the media and transfer of information, cell phones, wifi, torrents information is just exchanged way too quickly for our own good. So kids don't really get things and appreciate them for a rare commodity. It's just another purchase or another download or another image. And that's sad because it floods the part of that brain that allows us to appreciate and isolate things and really form powerful opinions and preferences. It's sensory overload on top of having access to anything and everything at any time.

I remember trying to find a JFA cassette. There was no internet. There were no indie record stores around, no bit torrents, no anything. You'd get a magazine, order a catalog from the magazine, then order the tape from the catalog and the whole process would take 8 weeks. By the time you got it, you were so stoked and appreciated it so much that you would just read all the liner notes 100 times, listen to the cassette until it fell apart, etc. And those days are just gone, sadly. It's in one eye and out the other or in one ear and out the other.

So instead of making suggestions, I thought I'd just rant about how I've become old enough to actually lament The Good Old Days. I find comfort in the fact that I got to enjoy that older process. I think it teaches you patience and builds character maybe. Nothing easy to get is worth having. Cliche, but I think it's true in many ways.

Don Pendleton

What’s lies in the future for dp?

Hopefully more of the same. I don't really care what it holds as long as it's something I enjoy. I feel like the world is wide open at this point. Even if I want to scrap art forever, as long as I do something that I love, I'll still put 100% into it. I just don't ever want to do something 'just because.' I think lots of people just go through the motions. I've got no problem struggling for what I care about. It gets harder as you get older but the payoff is awesome when you start out with a goal and put time and commitment into it and finally pull it off. So who knows, really. Learn a few more languages, play guitar, draw, read and generally enjoy my life.

Anything else you’d like to add, plug, shout-out?

I would suggest to everyone: Look beyond the surface at everything you're presented with. Never take something for granted that it is what you're told. Part of making life interesting is figuring out stuff for yourself. It's like skating. You may fall 100 times trying to learn this trick or that trick but when you get it wired, the last thing you think about is when you were falling. It's worth the effort and that's something I learned in skating that applies to other parts of life.

Don't be afraid to do your own thing and inspire yourself to follow your own path, regardless of how others perceive you. I think kids have a tougher and tougher time trying to be who they are and pop culture and society seems less and less forgiving to those who don't play the part, so to speak.

And in terms of the United States, I love this country but I think it's time to start working to salvage it before it's too late. We've been on the steady decline for a long time now in many ways: socially, economically and so on. There's a lot of work to be done but it's high time that people start to take interest in how this stuff shapes their lives every single day. And to realize what we're up against in terms of keeping this country a place where you're free to do what you like and maintain your privacy. I have serious concerns about the slippery slope we've found ourselves on.

I don't care how boring people think politics are compared to Lindsay Lohan's latest news, Paris Hilton's new bra or whatever; it's time to start taking it all seriously again. We're at the point where if you want to express your views openly and freely through art or writing or whatever venue, we're going to have to take a stand. So there's my political rant. I'm supporting Ron Paul 100% if anyone is interested. Google him.

     » Check out more of Don's work and see what he's up to at!

     » Don's Little Giants trailer at Mumble Magazine


glad this could see some light. thanks to don and shane for all your help.

R.I.P. Jules Dassin and Frosty Freeze

Posted by: eric at April 4, 2008 10:51 PM

Great, great interview, and amazing art. Cheers to that, the good ol' days, and success stories from back home. Thanks & thanks!

Posted by: Sarah A. at April 8, 2008 12:24 AM

Awesome interview of someone whose work I've always seen but never knew too much about. Not your average skateboarder or artist, it seems.

Posted by: christopher at April 8, 2008 2:03 AM

Definitely relate to the good ol days of skateboarding in the 80's and the part about ordering the JFA tape....funny how those of us from the same era appreciate the small details ! Great read !

Posted by: MIKE at May 21, 2008 7:17 PM
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