A sculpture for skating becomes a path to healing

07/10/2014 1:16 PM

07/10/2014 2:40 PM

Art meets skateboarding in a unique ramp created by Alex Gartelmann of Chicago and Kansas City artist Jonas Sebura.

Covered with texts and housing a grotto space within, the comma-shaped ramp features hand-lettered signs inspired by personal experience. It was put together at Hufft Projects headquarters at 3612 Karnes Blvd. Sebura does architectural fabrication for Hufft Projects, a design collective founded in 2005 by Kansas City architect Matthew Hufft.

Over the past six months, Sebura has been spending his free time on the skateboard ramp — which measures 12-by-12-by-12 feet — sawing and fabricating the parts in a work room.

“Two weeks ago people came and skated it,” he said. “The ramp took on a whole new life — skating completes it. It’s not just an art object.”

Sebura and Gartelmann’s long immersion in skateboard culture made their ramp a perfect fit for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis., where it will be part of a fall exhibit opening Oct. 3.

“It’s a group show asking artists to reveal places formative to their sense of self,” said Karen Patterson, Kohler assistant curator. She is organizing the show, titled “Building Stories.” Patterson has known Sebura and Gartelmann since the three took a class together on visionary art environments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

When Sebura and Gartelmann visited the Kohler art center in November, they were intrigued, Patterson said, by Nebraska artist Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine.” The device is constructed of found materials designed to channel the earth’s electrical currents to heal ailments such as arthritis and cancer.

Patterson and the artists talked about Blagdon (1907–1986) and his statement: “I don’t know how it works, I just know that it does.”

“That’s how they feel about skateboarding,” she said of Sebura and Gartelmann. “They don’t know how it works, but it invokes feelings of fearlessness, community and the idea that there can be success through failure. You’re going to fall, but the point is getting back up and trying again, taking risks on better moves, bigger moves, because you have the support of the community.”

“For us skateboarding not only represents a physical act, but a source of escape, and an introduction of cultural awareness, creativity and family to our lives,” Sebura said in an email.

In a recent interview, he added, “we think of skateboarding as our own personal healing machine.”

Forging a friendship

Sebura, 34, met Gartelmann in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Sebura completed his Master of Fine Arts two years ago. They discovered they were both making text works based on signage and decided to collaborate on a piece for a show at an alternative gallery in Missoula, Mont.

What they turned in was a sculpture in the form of a theater marquee. It was originally intended to include text, Sebura said, but the two thought the piece was stronger without lettering.

Vernacular architecture became a favored point of departure. Later, when they both worked at Ox-Bow school of the arts in Saugatuck, Mich., they constructed a houseboat atop a 32-inch-wide canoe.

“We lived in it on and off for a month,” Sebura said.

While inspired by the feeling that “home is a state of mind,” the boat also became a statement about how the artists relied on each other and their interaction as two straight males living in close quarters.

“It opened us up to new ideas and pushed our work into a gray area about hetero-normative masculinity,” Sebura said. The two further developed the idea in a series of video performances, including one in which they mount facing stepladders and struggle to the top, where they embrace.

Ox-Bow is also where Sebura met his fiancee, Emily Duke, who became a resident artist at Red Star Studios in October 2012. The following year he moved to Kansas City to be with her, a part of a trend of young talents moving here because of the city’s growing reputation as an art town and an inexpensive place to work. Opportunities at Red Star and the Charlotte Street Foundation — Sebura was part of the foundation’s 2013-14 studio residency program — are important draws.

Inspirations from life

The curved face of Sebura and Gartelmann’s skate ramp features pictographic symbols inspired by their history as collaborators. They include an image of two facing ladders, alluding to the performance, a diagram of a curved road through mountain peaks, commemorating a trip together to the Rocky Mountains, and a six pack of beer.

The simple drawing style used for these symbols has a historical source. “We were also looking at the lexicon of vernacular images developed by vagrants during the Great Depression to communicate,” Sebura said.

The keyhole, which divides the ramp in two, is meant to evoke a religious grotto and the idea of spiritual connection, Gartelmann said. The interior features shoes hanging from the rafters, in a nod to roadside “shoe trees” covered with dangling old shoes left by passers-by. Gartelmann said the shoes are stand-ins for people who stop in such places and leave their mark.

Both artists admire Jesse Howard, the Missouri folk artist known for his obstreperous hand-lettered signs. Howard’s influence is apparent in the painted signs that emblazon the front of the ramp, but the specific texts, like the pictographs, allude to Sebura and Gartelmann’s personal history.

“A lot of text work on the signs is about being awkward as kids and not fitting in, not being comfortable in your skin,” Gartelmann said. “The conceptual underpinning is the idea of home and trying to find your place in the world.”

In skateboard culture, the two found acceptance and freedom.

“You can do it yourself and be fully accountable to yourself, Gartelmann said. “You can choose to push further. Artmaking is the same way, we’re pushed by our own own drive.”

Sebura and Gartelmann are currently in conversation with Patterson about how to include skating as part of the presentation at Kohler.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

‘I Am What I’m Doing’ at La Esquina

In the coming week, Jonas Sebura and Alex Gartelmann offer another platform for their ideas about self-accountability with “I Am What I’m Doing,” a group show at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina gallery. The show opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday.

“It’s about fearlessness in artmaking,” Gartelmann said. “All of these artists are people who make honest work drawn from autobiography and not using theory as a platform.”

The two felt they got too much theory in art school and have sought work that avoids “art history, irony, pretentious language or obtuse didactics.”

The exhibit’s press release notes that a post-9/11 shift “from comfort and complacency to uncertainty and fear has given rise to a need for accountability in our lives.”

“This search for accountability has driven a trend among makers to construct a framework of research, in hopes of gaining some type of ‘real-world’ validation,” they write. “The inverse are those confronting their practices with fearlessness and sincerity, through a personal approach.”

The exhibit features works by 20 artists from around the country whom Sebura and Gartelmann have admired and kept in touch with over the years. The exhibit includes Tim Brown from Kansas City.

“I Am What I’m Doing,” continues through Sept. 6.

La Esquina is at 1000 W. 25th St. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday. For more information, call 816-721-8752 or go to www.charlottestreet.org.

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