Shaping a Community with Art
By Scott A. Williams
“I get most of my inspiration from my community, and I try to address the spirit of my community in my art.” So says artist Douglas Miles. An Apache Indian, Douglas lives on the San Carlos Reservation, a community of 6,000 in the high desert mountains of eastern Arizona. His talents are far reaching, but he is gaining recognition, popularity, and respect for an art form that he has made his own: Douglas Miles paints skateboards.
On the day of this interview, Douglas was working on a two-dimensional woodblock drawing with an image of a Geisha girl. His work is stylized and borrows from Japanese hip-hop animation as well as traditional Apache designs.
How, exactly, does the artist paint a skateboard? Douglas starts with a professional-grade skateboard deck purchased from a skate shop. He uses only the deck (with no wheels or trucks attached), sands it to remove the lacquer and polyurethane, then uses acrylic to paint a design created specifically for a skateboard.
“I create my designs in pencil drawings on paper,” he explains. “Good drawing and good composition are important to me. I like using the Van Gogh colored pencils, pastel pencils, and watercolor pencils, and I especially like Arches Hot Press paper for working through my designs. Its smooth surface works great with the pencils.”
When he paints his final design on a deck, Douglas prefers acrylics. “I have found Rembrandt Acrylics very workable with regards to painting the skateboards. Six decks I painted are now on display at the Common Ground Gallery in New York City.”
His original decks are collectible works of art that can be found in galleries as well as museums and private collections the world over. One place you won’t find them is underneath a skater’s shoes. “The only person who’s ever ridden a hand-painted skateboard is my son.”
Still, there is growing demand among skaters for Douglas Miles decks. To get his designs into the hands (or under the feet) of kids, he silk-screened his designs onto skateboard decks meant for skating. “I started with a run of 100 and they were gone in four months.” More recently, he has been working with ABC Board Supply, a California-based maker of decks, to make his original art available on their skateboards.
Art may be great for art’s sake but Douglas, a former social worker, looks to his art to bring opportunities to the children of his community. “I like that my art is helping create a resurgence in skating. It’s fun, it’s good exercise, and it helps the kids make smarter lifestyle choices. It’s also a way to promote pride in our Apache heritage.”
Douglas has helped organize a skateboard team on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. He’s enlarged the skate teams’ world through travel and cultural exchanges. He’s drawn the kids into the world of art, and even has hired some to work as assistants. By sharing his artistic talents and creative insights with young people, Douglas does more than create art. He serves as a friend, mentor, and role model to the kids in his community. ”I like giving the kids a sense of who they are and what they can do. I tell them their possibilities are endless if they have the desire to learn, the talent will come.”
One thing these kids can do (and like to do) is skate, and from the most talented of the kids Douglas formed the Apache Skateboards Team. “There are four riders on the team, and they do it mostly for fun. They can test the products, ride together and work together while gaining some notoriety.”
It’s a good activity for the kids, and he likes the idea of keeping them active, out of trouble, and focused on their potential. Toward that end, the Apache Skateboard Team scored two significant invitations. First, to a Native American Dance Conference at the University of California, Riverside, and second to an exhibit of skateboard art in the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The art exhibit, entitled “Native Nollies” (named for a skateboard trick) includes sketches, hand painted decks, and silkscreened decks. (Wesley Images sponsored the team for travel to the Riverside and Santa Fe events.)
A documentary film about San Carlos is currently in production. Directed by Franck Boistel of Emerica Shoe, one of the largest manufacturers of skate shoes in the world. The film is about more than skateboards or art. “Franck liked the idea of the decks and we started talking about a film on the people of San Carlos. There are kids skating in it, but the overall theme is art and its role in this community. We’re working on getting the deck designs out to a wider audience, and with a documentary and traveling, we’re trying to create that demand.”
The demand continues to grow, and the kids of San Carlos are enjoying life seasoned with art, skating, and a friend named Douglas Miles.
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This article originally appeared in Canson Master’s Circle.