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Sizzlin Feature

Ramping Up

Local skaters spend the summer combining street art and activism

Photos by Christopher Myers
Jordan Bernier's public art is fully skateable.
Bernier Skates Roosevelt Park, which he has helped build.

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By Alex Ebstein | Posted 5/19/2010

It's seven o'clock on a Sunday evening. Roosevelt Park's sunset hum of insects and birds is broken by the whir of skateboard wheels. The sound pauses as the skater is airborne, and begins again with the thud of landing a trick.

Nine skaters are using the park, a modest asphalt plot behind the recreation center in this Hampden green space. In one corner, a large, treacherous-looking wooden half pipe stands unused. Smaller wooden ramps, worn from use and exposure, hold backpacks, water bottles, and resting onlookers. Five modest concrete ramps, painted light blue ("pool blue," I am later told) ripple the lot like small waves. Jordan Bernier, the tall, skinny 26-year-old behind the DIY concrete project, walks into the park with his board under one arm, dragging a 12-foot metal pipe with the other.

"Coping!" Bernier says. "For a new ramp."

From across the park, another skater glides over and up the fence-side concrete ramp. He stalls on the coping, catches hold of the fence, and jumps off to join us.

Elie Sollins, 27, and Bernier share no social overlaps aside from skating, but through their mutual interest in the sport and a willingness to sweat and spend for the sake of the skate community, the two have formed a friendship and collaboration in their efforts to bring skating into the public eye as a positive recreation and subculture.

The Hampden lot is set to be the eventual location of a full, custom, concrete park--a long-term goal of the local non-profit group Skatepark of Baltimore. The group, which is devoted to fundraising and advocacy, has yet to solidify any plans to break ground. But as one of only two public skate-approved parks within city limits (the other is Carroll Park in Pigtown), the local skaters won't stand to see it underutilized.

"There is a history to this pad," Bernier says. "In 2005, I remember skating it. It was paved then but didn't have a fence around it. Kids would bring their jump ramps and stuff down to the park and skate it, but there was nothing [permanent] to skate. Some kids started building stuff on-site, but it all got knocked down by the city or by people lurking in the park at night." The park has been in the throes of public misunderstanding for years, its slow development due largely to misinterpretation that the defacing and damage of ramps (one was once lit on fire) came from within the skateboarding community.

Bernier and Sollins, along with their friend Steve Santillan, are responsible for the small concrete effort in the park so far. "Elie was the first to put money in," says Bernier, "but we don't have a lot of money to put into the project. It's something like 20 bucks every two weeks. But it goes a long way when you're making ramps out of rubble from around the park--recycled or re-purposed junk and bricks from under 83. All we're really paying for is the concrete."

Building concrete ramps in the park is a community-oriented project. As much as they are building ramps that they want to skate themselves, they hope that their efforts will encourage others to build their own ramps, and eventually replace the disintegrating wooden ramps with safer, concrete counterparts. Fostering a sense of responsibility for the space will help keep vandals out and use up.

"That ramp was built by Stephan," Sollins says, pointing to the fifth concrete ramp and referring to another local skater whom Bernier and Sollins only know from the park. "We helped him smooth it and paint it. Other than us, he's the only one who's put money in. But kids will line up to help us when we pull up with the van [full of materials]." Bernier laughs: "They literally line up!"

Bernier, who received a BFA and MA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and is beginning Towson University's MFA program in the fall, believes that the solo expressive sport and its accompanying architecture should be viewed as an art. As an undergrad, Bernier made a hollow ramp that was skated in a MICA gallery as an investigation of sound. Later, he built a wall-to-wall ramp in his studio, looking at form and space.

"Skateboarding has always been a huge part of my life, as much and sometimes more than art has been," he says. "There has always, for me, been the issue of connecting them. As an artist, who's to say something is not art? I have had teachers and other artists not recognize these [skateable sculptures and forms] as art, but that's their block." 

In 2008, Bernier was given the opportunity to bridge art and skating for Artscape, through the encouragement and curatorial efforts of fellow MICA graduate, Michael Benevento. Bernier designed and executed a pants-shaped skate ramp as part of the public sculptures in the median of Mount Royal Avenue.

"[Benevento's] curatorial angle was 'Outdoor Lounge,'" Bernier explains, "basically, somewhat functional sculptures that encouraged socialization." The pants ramp, designed by Jordan and assembled by a team of skateboarders and artists (including the author), brought together the arts and skateboarding communities with the general public. "People were really receptive to seeing a public intersection between art and skating," Bernier says. "It was a great platform for connecting skating with performance and sculpture." Over five months of consistent use, the ramp became worn and hard to maintain. The section of park that the ramp sat on was eventually purchased by the University of Baltimore, which requested it be removed for insurance reasons.

This year, Bernier plans to make another wooden ramp for the annual arts festival, keeping the Hampden lot in mind as a permanent home for the temporary installation. The ramp, which will be part of the Charles Street bridge performance and interactive sculpture section known as the Midway, will be a sculptural replica of Hokusai's "The Great Wave." Skateboarding has always had roots in surfing, and since the Z Boys and other West Coast skaters in the '70s, a tie to swimming pools. The image pays homage to the skating history, while appropriating an iconic art image to help those who have written off skating as a sport see the ramp for its craftsmanship and artistic validity. Structurally, Bernier and Sollins have designed the ramp so that, once transferred to Hampden, it can be buttressed with concrete for permanent installation.

While the art side of building ramps is fun and personally rewarding, the overall goal is raising awareness. "By seeing skating in a palatable way, the city becomes aware of the need for, and virtual absence of, skateparks in Baltimore," Bernier says. Tickets are still issued daily to those skating the Civil War monument on Mount Royal, and the recently circulated YouTube video of a police officer flipping out on kids skating in the Inner Harbor is a good indication that skating the streets isn't a viable alternative.

"You've got to respect the real world," Sollins says. "You can't be crushin' a church's steps, but there aren't a lot of places to go."

In a city with so much unused space, Bernier hopes that setting aside areas for skating can be viewed as a practical component of urban development. "In other cities like New York, where real estate is so valuable, there are still tons of sites designated for public skating" Bernier says. Through both projects, he hopes to show that there is a responsible, aesthetically conscious community willing to build and maintain attractive and functional structures.

"When it comes to skating, my art is about the community, "Bernier says. "I am not looking to link it to a gallery, I'm not trying to take it to that level, but a public acceptability and appreciation would be nice."

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