Michael Sieben, tall and lanky and chill, is approaching 40 the way a seasoned skater on a vintage Powell-Peralta deck approaches a previously undiscovered half-pipe in a vast concrete construction site: stoked and ready for action. The University of Texas graduate is the Visual Arts Center's artist-in-residence for spring 2014, and Sieben is featuring, in the vaulted gallery, his enduring fascinations with skate culture, with graphic illustrations and zines, with what it feels like to be young and alive and making art in this increasingly urban landscape.
"It Will All Happen Again" is the name of the VAC exhibition, and what's embodied and evoked will all happen again – because it's also a universal thing, this personal milieu of the artist: a scene that never really ends but only kaleidoscopes around the intersection of youth's manic vigor and the compulsion to explore and create.
Bright with paintings and sculptural installations and a short animation, Sieben's show conjures a mythos of wheels and speed and skilled kinesis, the music-fueled camaraderie and architectural surround of its young inhabitants, the sensation of participating in a thriving and shared reality in the midst of teenage turbulence. There's a full-sized skater's clubhouse built into the middle of this exhibition, a salvaged-plywood A-frame filled with all the pieces and particulars, the shapes and shadows of the culture on display. It's a culture that the artist promotes and revels in and makes a living from, too: Sieben's the co-founder and art director of Roger Skateboards; he's the managing editor of longtime skater mag Thrasher; he's a founding member of the Okay Mountain art collective that wowed the crowds and critics at Miami's Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in 2009; he's a freelance illustrator whose bright, thick-lined, cartoony style is acclaimed the world over. And now this sweet gig at the VAC. It's like ... well, maybe it's like he's gone down some ramp all pro-wise and now he's getting big air off the lip of a sick vert?
But the artist's journey – begun around age 12, when he encountered his first zine in a New Braunfels skate shop – wasn't always as smooth as it is now. Not many college-level instructors, for instance, were familiar with the whole skater thing.
"When I was going to UT," says Sieben, "I found it very challenging to talk to my professors in the art department about what my interests were. I was young, so I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but what I was doing wasn't celebrated within the department. And there weren't very many resources I could point to, in terms of the subculture that I was celebrating and participating in. I think that now, if you were going to UT, you'd just bring in a copy of the Beautiful Losers book or documentary, and they could see what you're talking about."
And now, of course, you'd have the example of Sieben's own work there on campus.
"Yeah," says Sieben, grinning, "it's enormously validating on my end, to be welcomed back to the university I graduated from. I'm still creating the same type of work, and now it's being celebrated within those walls. I had a conversation with a younger student – he's a grad student in the print program – and he said that he walked by the VAC while I was installing and he thought to himself, 'What's going on here? They're showing something that I like.' What a great thing to say! But it does point out that the art programming might not normally be engaging to students who are interested in subcultural, you know, skateboarding or punk rock. But this guy's work was very much in line with what I do, so it's not to say that's what most of the kids at UT are interested in. But I thought it was a great comment."
Sieben has many great comments of his own, which is what we figured when we texted him to set up an interview. But first, you should know his response to that request. Because you might be of the assumption that, once a long-struggling person finally gets validation – beaucoup validation, in this case – as an artist, that person starts putting on airs, maybe starts acting as other than the decent, affable human being they previously were? But no. Our suggestion to meet at a familiar coffeehouse was met with this reply: "Can we meet at Okay Mountain instead? I hate talking about myself in public environments. Makes me feel like a dickhead."
Here, then: a conversation with this talented man who's definitely not a dickhead.
Austin Chronicle: What is it about the fine art or the academic art world that seems to diss illustration for itself?
Michael Sieben: I don't know. But when I was going to UT, the illustrators I was looking up to were very much commercial illustrators. They were coming through skateboarding, but they were also doing punk rock album covers and T-shirts – and those were the guys I was looking up to. They had great chops, and they were master illustrators. And that was my goal: to become a commercial illustrator like those guys – and that was very much frowned upon. I mean, yes, it was a fine arts program, not a commercial illustration program; but, at that age, I didn't know what those terms were, I just knew I was interested in that thing called art. In hindsight, maybe going to an art school with an illustration program might've been a better path; but I totally appreciate the education I got going through the program at UT, as far as opening my eyes to the fine-art world as opposed to just commercial work. But it seems like, historically, that dissing has always been the case – which is interesting, because everybody associated with Okay Mountain, we all have a drawing background. Which may have been what brought us together. At our previous space on Navasota, we'd sit in the backyard, at a picnic table, making drawings together. When we had gallery hours, we'd meet up and just sit and work on these collaborative drawings.
AC: Do you find any similarities between skateboarding and working as an artist?
MS: I think that comparison's constantly being made within skateboarding. I think what the two things share is that skateboarding is very much not a team sport? A lot of it, the act of skateboarding, is pretty solitary. A lot of it is just you and your skateboard – especially street skateboarding: It's very inventive, it's trying to appropriate architecture for your own needs; there's a lot of imagination at play. So, in that sense, there is some crossover – they're both very imaginative pursuits. They don't have to be: You can paint whatever people have always been painting, still lifes or whatever, and you can skateboard exactly the way you see in a magazine or a video; or you can totally go into left field with either of those, express more of your own thing, try to do what hasn't been done before.
AC: So people are doing their things individually, like solo artists riding decks – and yet here you are, part of an art collective that often works together on projects. How do those two personalities mesh?
MS: It's been great for me, and I think for everybody involved. Because we all have our own personal work practices that are pretty radically different. But, ah, we come together, everybody tries to leave their egos at the door so we can make an Okay Mountain brand of project. Which, hopefully, doesn't exactly resemble anybody's aesthetic, is more just us coming together and concepting something that none of us could build on our own, everyone taking whatever their interests and skill sets are and plugging that into the Okay Mountain formula. And I've learned a ton from the other members – even ways of thinking about, you know, "What is an art project?" We've done such varied stuff, and just from some of the maximal installations we've done, it's definitely opened my eyes that an art show is not just hanging a couple of things up on a wall. Not that I didn't know these things, but seeing it in practice really opened my eyes.
AC: OK, skateboarding, it's pretty much a youth-based activity. And you're going to be 40 in August, and, when you're older – say, when you're in your 60s and 70s, you probably won't still be skateboarding, right?
MS: Doubtful. I already skateboard way less than I did at 20. But I'm still inspired visually by a lot of the same things. And I still keep up with skate culture – it's part of my job.
AC: And what about your other interests, especially as they relate to your art? What sort of things will you be painting and illustrating then, maybe, when you're so much older?
MS: Well, I don't know if I'll be illustrating and painting then, but I don't think I'll be drawing guys skateboarding if I'm not actively doing it myself. Even now in my work, some of the central imagery has to do with these ramps crumbling and decaying and rotting, kind of like the memories I have of growing up skateboarding. And If I get more into, like, classical music, then my art will most likely reflect that.
AC: What advice do you have – now, before you're a geezer – for a young kid who's just starting out as an artist? What would you have wanted someone to tell you when you were, say, 17?
MS: I think one of the most important things – and I don't know if somebody told me this or I just figured it out – but definitely don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Whatever you're doing, don't just sit around and wait for it to happen. Don't wait for a gallery to contact you, don't wait for a commercial project to present itself to you. You have to be actively doing these things before you're going to be recognized, so you need to make up projects for yourself. You need to throw art shows in your house. You need to make yourself part of the equation. You need to get involved and be part of the community. In my case, me and my friends, no one would show our work – so we opened up a gallery. We didn't wait 10 years until our work matured, we just put our work up on the walls, thinking maybe we can convince the Powers That Be that it's supposed to be there.
AC: Well, it looks like it worked.
MS: Fifteen years later, yeah – but that time would've passed regardless. And that's another thing for a younger artist – for any creative: You have to have a great deal of patience. Most people I know working in a creative field, it took years before they got any type of a break. And, for sure, to make a living, it might take a decade, 20 years, who knows how long it's going to take? But the time's gonna pass regardless, and if you're doing something that you enjoy and truly believe in – writing or acting or painting or whatever it is – what better way to spend your life? Living a creative life is ultimately very rewarding.
"Michael Sieben: It Will All Happen Again" is on view through May 10 at the UT Visual Arts Center, 2300 Trinity, UT campus. For more information, visit www.utvac.org.
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