“I was pretty tickled with the name, just because it sort of captures my thoughts about what skateboarding is to skaters versus what it is to people who are from an outside perspective,” said Paul Somers. “I’m not super concerned with your average person on the outside.” I sat with Somers on his screened-in back deck. Two of his children, out of school for the Labor Day holiday, begrudgingly did chores throughout the house while his youngest daughter napped inside. It was idyllic, the moment just missed a Golden Retriever roaming about to be a scene out of the quintessential American dream. Paul and I aren’t chatting about his day at the office or an upcoming neighbourhood BBQ, though. Rather, the subject at hand is the punk-drenched, blood-and-guts aesthetic of Somers’s seventh annual art exhibition, Skatan Worshipers.
Somers grew up skating, a logical endgame for a kid not terribly interested in school and too rebellious for organized sports. His experiences were typical: negative interactions with the law and business owners, ugly glances from passersby, and the occasional victory of jumping a gap or skating a rail after hours of trial and error. He also picked up on the culture of skateboarding at large, browsing through Thrasher Magazine and soaking in the deck graphics, photography, and problem solving that comes when your mastery of an art progresses only with your own tenacity.
“A staircase isn’t just for walking down, it becomes an opportunity to succeed in life at this thing you really enjoy,” said Somers. “It’s not about what is this for, what am I supposed to do here. It’s what can I do here that people aren’t seeing.” In Harrisonburg, what Somers wasn’t seeing was the celebration of skateboarding, not just for its physical feats, but for the richness of its contribution to the art world. It was with that impetus that Skatan Worshipers was born. First held seven years ago at the Artful Dodger, the event featured a skate ramp outside and art, films, and musical performances inside.
“Some of the better design artists in the punk scene have been skateboard artists,” said local artist Elliot Downs, who created the logo for the original event and has showcased work every year. “They’re just cranking out art, there’s a ton of variety in it. It’s the same way that music is: you always have to have a record cover, you always have to have show flyers. It goes hand-in-hand for that same culture of people.”
As the event evolved, so too have the names in the showcases. Mike Ballard and J Strickland contributed to the first event, while this year features original work from Jason Adams, Chet Childress and Barf (he designed this year’s logo). “Seeing people like Elliot’s work next to Jason Adams and Chet Childress is really cool,” said Somers. “It fits in because a lot of the time what separates people that have a huge following with people like Elliot isn’t really in terms of what the artwork is. It’s like getting famous in a band. A lot of it is just up to chance.”
At Skatan Worshipers, there’s a curious dance between art as academia and art as violence. Downs, who also grew up skating, admits that “street skating in general is a destructive form of skating in the sense of how society looks at it.” While that segment of society might also view the imagery and music on display with the same disdain, there is no argument to be made when it comes to the merit of the talent on display. Since its onset, the event has been for skateboarders, by skateboarders. “As a kid, you wanted the board that was messed up,” said Downs, “Your parents didn’t want you to have it, so you wanted it. Whether you know it or not, a lot of that art impacts you and creates your style.”
Last year, Skatan Worshipers was set to be held at the Blue Nile, but it unexpectedly closed a week before the event. Somers had already assembled the art for the show plus had booked Richmond’s Inter Arma and Harrisonburg’s Crab Action to perform, so he needed an alternate location quickly. Brothers Craft Brewing volunteered to host the art exhibit, even making use of their parking lot to build show’s signature mini-skate park outside. Amongst the regulars in attendance was 13-year-old Lenore Penrod, daughter of Crab Action’s frontman, Grant Penrod. “I started skateboarding because I was jealous of my siblings and dad skateboarding,” said Lenore, who started skating when she was seven. “I loved all the other skateboarders there and the fact that I was the only little girl.”
The music last year went on as well, with the fabled Crayola House hosting the bands in their low-ceilinged basement. This year, Brothers Craft Brewing will host the art and skating portion of the event again, but musically, things have come home for Somers. The Golden Pony, Somers’s reincarnation of the Blue Nile that opened in its wake six months after it closed, will feature The James Badfellows, Crab Action, Valkyrie, and doom metal godfather Scott Weinrich’s Spirit Caravan. Regarding that last act, Somers seemed to be in disbelief at the coup of securing their performance. “Part of the reason that they were willing to do it is because it’s not some place trying to have a show that’s sold out,” he said, “We’re trying to do something that’s cultural. I’ve put a lot of work over the last seven years to make sure it’s something that I can stand behind and that it’s not this big branded and sponsored event.”
For Lenore, who will be skating at this year’s Skatan Worshipers a few hours before her father takes the stage at the Golden Pony, she believes that Somers has his work cut out for him. “I’m hoping the next event is even better than last time,” she said. “That’s going to be hard to do, last time was amazing.”
On October 10, Skatan Worshipers #7 will be hosted at Brothers Craft Brewery from 12-7 PM, immediately followed by an after party concert at The Golden Pony.
Photography by Brandy Somers