I’m grateful for the mistakes I’ve made. There are always mistakes you could live without, where you didn’t learn as much as you got hurt. But that’s life. We’re human, we’re all broken. You’ve got to learn to deal with that reality, to make your peace with it. – Jamie Thomas
The world of skateboarding lends itself to the creation of mythological figures. Despite having been thoroughly infiltrated by corporate interests, skate culture remains grounded in a kind of psychic free zone that not even Nike can fully buy its way into—an astral plane soaked with the dark magic of lawlessness, the jazzy beauty of kinetic free association, and the weird energies of underground culture.
It is a world littered with tall-striding demigods, some of whom you have probably heard of even if you aren’t a skateboarder. But it’s the cult heroes we’re interested in today. Tony Hawk, with his video games, clean-cut image, and technical precision has done much for skateboarding, but he will never hold the same type of appeal that the dark horses do; the Heath Kircharts and Tony Trujillos of the world, rebel punks who come by cover of night to grind their way across flaming gas station pumps or shred abandoned pools while blasting hair metal. Guys like Jamie Thomas.
In the naked quest to forage inspiration for myself that my “editorial responsibilities” at Ragged Band generally constitute, I regularly find myself reading, viewing, or otherwise consuming the work of men and women more talented, recognized, or well-compensated than I am and daydreaming about how they got to where they are now. The bright-eyed search for an answer to that question is the guise under which I have secured several of the interviews on this site. “Care to share with other younger aspirants about how they can attempt to follow in your footsteps?”
But in reflecting on that strategy over recent weeks, and on the focus that comes with it, I’ve been reminded of how trying to zero in on how others have done what they’ve done can quickly become an exercise in despair and envy. While I remain confident that the niche aim of this blog, to ferret out information and inspiration about the art of making art, is a worthwhile endeavor, I’ve also been reminded that part of trying to foster endurance and hope while getting sandblasted by the storm-clouds forever hovering above the creative path demands that we not only get down to brass tacks about the practical aspects of how lofty goals get accomplished in the real world (“How do I put myself in the right place at the right time?; …actually get the first draft of my novel out onto the page?; …pursue an internship?; …build my network?; …figure out where to start in making a film?”), but also remember to continually surround ourselves with good work.
You know, garbage in garbage out. You can only read so many blog posts about how to develop your personal network or increase your creative output before starting to wonder how the tines of that fork lying on the counter over there would feel if you jammed them into your eyeball.
Enter Brian Phillips, a staff writer for Grantland operating in his own self-contained nexus zone at the edge of mainstream American sports reporting. Folks, this is the kind of writing that makes me want to keep writing. Phillips combines Grantland’s colloquial style with his own ephemeral touch to create work that is honest without being self-important, and funny without feeling vacuous. The site, a subsidiary of ESPN, offers up long-form reporting and features on pop culture and sports. In addition to an expected focus on the most popular topics in modern American sport—football, basketball, baseball, and the personalities and exploits of the athletes and owners who populate their respective national leagues—the editors make room for a healthy range of fringe coverage. This is the realm Phillips operates in.
His first passion is soccer, which he covers with vigor and pathos for both Grantland and The Run of Play, where he serves as editor. But Phillips is not daunted by the constraints of expertise. He seems up for anything, bringing the same razor wit and eye for humanity to his coverage of the National Rodeo Finals as he does to his take on the current state of world-wide soccer in the wake of Europol’s recent damning report on match-fixing. Two of my favorite pieces he’s written over the last year include his reflections on Felix Baumgartner’s mind-blowing astronaut skydive, and his epic five-part series of dispatches from Wimbledon.
At Ragged Band, our focus has historically been on emerging or recently established artists. Their struggles, their successes, their specific stories. In speaking with folks who are still early in their careers, we’ve pursued the hope that connecting readers to the reality of what it’s been like for the normal, mortal, flawed men and women we profile and interview to try to make their dreams come true, in hearing what they’ve had to go through and what wisdom, if any, they’ve gained on the journey, there might be encouragement for those still dreaming into the void.
What’s become apparent over the course of many conversations is that there are three realities linking all “successful” artists. Three common threads running through the stories of every writer, painter and photographer who ends up sticking with their craft over the long haul and enjoying some level of success, as defined by compensation and recognition for their work, those threads being luck, talent, and discipline. The novelist Michael Chabon famously stated that out of these three there is only one that an artist has any control over.
That Kristofor Lofgren is a former member of the Cal rowing team comes as an unsurprising revelation after you’ve met the man. His gaze is piercing, his build long, lean, and muscular. His stride, as he walked out to meet me in the central seating area of his then-unopened second sushi restaurant, was brisk. As we pulled up chairs by the plate glass windows looking out on NW 23rd Avenue, me with my laptop, he with a bowl of sashimi thrown together by the chefs in back, his head seemed haloed by the aura of a man used to having things go his way.
Over the course of our interview Lofgren would repeatedly dip into a well of aphorisms which, combined with his dress and manner of speaking, gave the impression of a man who could find a second calling as a motivational speaker and/or Silicon Valley executive. He talked constantly about the “culture” of his restaurants, the importance of “positivity,” and the fact that “this is very much a we business.”
At one point Lofgren recounted an employee’s having asked what his job is, exactly. “I said, ‘My job is to help you fulfill your full potential. That’s it. If I help you fulfill your whole potential I’m successful by association. If not then I’m a failure.’ ”
Somewhere in the distance Tony Robbins winked.
Laura Kasinof did not set out to become a reporter for The New York Times. Which is probably good, as the success rate of young journalists gunning for that prize is surely abysmal. As is often the case with great adventures, Kasinof came to find herself sending dispatches from a closed country torn by unrest to the desk of an editor in America’s most prestigious newsroom through a series of unexpected turns and unforeseeable developments. She fell into her pot of gold by means of what is often the only way; backwards and without trying.
“It’s a really funny story,” she told me. “It all began at this party one night.”
I first stumbled across Ruth Lantz’s paintings while waiting to meet someone in the Stumptown on 3rd Avenue, downtown Portland. I’d walked in the door, hopped in line, and then started looking around absent-mindedly. As I inched forward, debating whether or not to indulge in a pastry with my coffee, I’d noticed the series of paintings hanging on the exposed brick walls.
They were big by coffee shops standards, and dealt in abstraction, a risky currency. Long bars of color jutted and strafed boldly across the canvases, applied with varying degrees of opacity, some bright and thick, some almost translucent. A few of the canvases had a spotty, mottled quality that reminded me of a steamed-over shower door. I jotted down Lantz’s name on a whim.
When I got in touch with her a few days later, she responded to my e-mail with an invitation to meet at her studio in the Lincoln Building. I did some research ahead of the interview, during which I found the following statement on Lantz’s website.
I create paintings that explore the ambiguity of perceptual understanding. I invite viewers to re-discover unresolved phenomena through the consideration of tensional forces. I produce images that sit on the edge of recognition but are unnamable in their presence. I am seeking a work in constant flux, searching for both its beginning and its end.
Using conscious mark-making and improvisational techniques, I capture the essence of a layered occurrence through a veiled understanding. I fill each surface with an indeterminate field and ask viewers to question what is coming into being and what slips into the absence. I push for an end that has no name but rather hovers in the ether of an uncertain state — encapsulating one amorphous environment on the brink of transformation.
I wasn’t sure what to do with that.
There’s this idea that floats around — the one where critics are mostly just snobs and know-it-alls, the people who have heard everything and live to tell you why your taste is bad and what you should be listening to instead. But that isn’t really the goal, right? – Nitsuh Abebe
It can be difficult to grasp the speed at which the internet has moved, and, in moving, changed our perceptions of what is both normal and possible. Just ten years ago the web was a very different place. Blogs were only just gaining traction, and if you wanted any kind of group interaction with someone, small web boards and e-mail listservs were sometimes your best bet. No Twitter. No Facebook.
Ten years ago, current New York Magazine pop music critic Nitsuh Abebe was toiling away at a desk job, spending his lunch breaks and free moments sifting through threads on various message boards geared toward fans of independent music. Laboring in obscurity like any young twenty-something with literary aspirations and a boring day gig.
Over time he became acquainted with another young man, Ryan Schreiber, whose small music website, Pitchfork Media, would one day grow to become the most influential taste-making site in the history of internet-based music criticism. The Rolling Stone of a web 2.0 generation. Abebe began writing for Pitchfork in 2002, when it was still a fledgling startup. He still contributes regularly to the site, most recently in the form of his insightful “Why We Fight” column.
We live in a time when hipsterism and gentrification continue to levy their tolls on the music world as pointedly as they do the spheres of fashion, art, politics, religion, and, let’s face it, food. It is a time in which the word vintage has been used to the point of obscenity. A prime example; each time the Indie Folk Beard Fetish Movement seems as though it must have reached its nadir, another man slinging a weathered Martin six-string emerges from some corner of the American landscape brandishing a set of whiskers evoking a Chia Pet sponsored by ZZ Top.
My problem is not so much with the decision to grab some suspenders and stop shaving, as it is with the often attendant claim of authenticity, a veneer that seems to say, “Gosh man, we don’t care about being cool, we just want to make honest music.” As if fashion, or genre, had anything to do with authenticity. Gag me with a banjo. It’s a wonder Judee Sill hasn’t come back from the dead to punch some of these guys in the face.
In April, the Foo Fighters embarked on an abbreviated tour that would see them playing just eight shows. These were no run of the mill gigs, though. Instead of the large rooms the hard rock unit usually sells out, these concerts took place in more intimate venues. Much more; the shows were held in the garages of eight of the band’s most hardcore fans.
Filmmaker Vern Moen was on hand to document things, including the host of the New York show giving one of the all time great rock and roll introductions.