Mark Rivard is one of those people who redefines the word “busy.” Over the course of building his career as an artist and skateboard designer, he began branching out into freelance education, sharing his passion for drawing and skateboards with kids. His travels have taken him to schools across the country and the world. Now ten years in, his schedule of upcoming projects is downright staggering.
On December 6th, Rivard will launch Boards & Beers at 612Brew, a fundraiser for the nonprofit City of Skate and his first foray into teaching adults the joy of drawing on a skateboard. (You can sign up for the class here.) After that, Rivard is hosting the 6th annual Winter All Student Skateboard Exhibition at Cal Surf on January 18th, which will include the work of his Level IV disability students. He spent the summer teaching skateboard art to kids on Air Force bases and is planning another tour in 2018. If that weren’t enough, he also dabbles in the culinary arts and has plans to bring a group of students to Saint Dinette to create their own pop-up menu.
We found a spare minute and dug into skateboards, drawing, being an entrepreneur, and what he’s learned from all that teaching.
One of Rivard’s signature skateboards
RW: What is your relationship to skateboarding? Growing up, were you more interested in skating or drawing?
MR: I always wanted to hit jumps. That’s the basis for my relationship with all kinds of “extreme sports.” As a kid I would put a piece of wood over a couple of bricks at the end of my driveway and ride off it all day on my skateboard. Growing up, I just wanted to hit jumps and slide rails whether it was on my skis, rollerblades, a skateboard, it didn’t matter.
All of this activity was solidifying that I had a better understanding of what it meant to be an artist versus an athlete. I was living in a world of artforms more than a world of sport. I studied the ads of my favorite brands, looked at skaters’ style as though I was critiquing a dancer. Skating, skiing, surfing, those worlds are more than just sport; they are countercultures in their own right. They carry immensely artistic qualities. So in a way I was developing my drawing style whether or not I held a pen just by being the person I was and absorbing the world I surrounded myself in.
Mark Rivard, Flag #3, mixed media on canvas
I always drew and painted growing up, but I didn’t connect the dots, I didn’t see art as its own thing. But I’m not particularly fond of calling myself any one particular title like “Skateboarder” or “Artist.” Those two names come with so much assumption, it never felt right to pigeonhole myself with a title like that because I felt like I was so many different things. Why would anyone want to limit themselves to being just that one thing? The two exist, art and skateboarding, so cohesively that I’ve never felt more like one or the other.
RW: What is it about skate decks that activates the act of drawing for you and the kids you teach, more than just a canvas or a piece of paper might?
MR: I had a business background that was rooted in the world of action sports, and the art I was exposed to was through that culture. So to sit down and paint a picture that didn’t pose an immediate dual purpose felt stale to me. Imagine that your entire exposure to art is through graphics on a pair of skis or a skateboard. It makes the 18x24 canvas feel pretty obsolete, mundane even. So out of a need to stay busy following a knee surgery from a ski crash, I started doodling on my old skateboards.
Once that faucet was turned on, there was no going back. I drew hundreds of skateboards. I most likely could have never seen a future in art if I had just painted on canvas, but because I was drawing skateboards I immediately made a connection to the industries and cultures I had been a part of my entire life. The very first line I ever put down on a skateboard, I had inadvertently begun a business. I didn’t study art, I studied skateboard brands and the artists that created the graphics. I had no interest in studying art early on because I believed that my style would develop on its own, just like your style of riding a skateboard.
Imagine walking the hallways of a school carrying a bunch of those 18x24 canvases… Those kids won’t give you a second look. Now imagine walking into a school with a stack of skateboards under your arm… You’re not going to make it 20 feet without a crowd of eager kids asking you questions and wanting to know more, wanting to PARTICIPATE in art. That’s the difference, with a skateboard you tap into more than just art, you present an undeniable cultural tool that every kid recognizes. Imagine how powerful that is to capture a kid’s attention in the first ten seconds they see you…. That’s the difference between a skateboard and piece of paper.
Rivard’s students hard at work for an exhibit at Cal Surf Gallery on Lake Street this past summer
RW: You’ve been teaching classes and seminars in elementary, middle, and high schools for the past ten years, not only in Minnesota but across several states and even as far away as Qatar and the UAE. What was your experience with school when you were young, and what have you learned as an adult working with all those kids over the years?
MR: Number one, I have learned that there is no difference in problems from kid to kid. It does not matter if that kid has a billionaire father or lives on the streets, when you are a kid a problem is a problem, and the pain associated with a problem doesn’t discriminate. I’ve learned we have to do better for our kids.
As for me, school didn’t serve me well. Aside from access to a ski team and two or three teachers that had the special gift we hope all of our teachers have, I felt failed by the public school system. My experience was incredibly frustrating; I was angry at school, at the process, at my options after school, and how judged I felt about choosing not to pursue college. But that anger built a chip that lives prominently on my shoulder. It helps me stay my course every time I step foot in a school, because we can do better for our kids. I believe that and I will make sure of that for every kid I encounter. I will give them better options, and I will help them see their potential and that they ALL have opportunities.
Working on designs, as part of a collaboration between Rivard Art Education, the YMCA, and US Bank
RW: Over ten weeks this past summer you traveled to 10 Air Force bases across the US drawing on skateboards with over 300 kids from active duty military families. Was skateboard art a tough sell to the Air Force brass, or did they come to you with the idea?
MR: Actually a woman at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma had a couple of sons that liked art and skateboarding, and she reached out to me through my website to ask if I would be interested in visiting the base. When the opportunity to travel comes, you say yes, you just do. Who cares where you’re going… As a full-blooded liberal, I assumed I was going to the land of guns, God, and racism. I was wrong. Certainly those things exist, but there I was, a “Skateboard Artist” standing on an Air Force base with an audience that was eager to learn from me. I was greeted with an openness that caught me off guard. I felt like an asshole, to be frank. I didn’t drive out of Oklahoma a Republican by any means, but I was certainly broadened. More importantly I was honored to have been given the opportunity.
A few weeks later I got an email from the Air Force asking if I’d be interested doing what I did in Oklahoma at more bases. It took over a year to put it all together, but in July 2017 I took off on a 10 base tour. My father, my grandfather, so much of my family has served, and this was a way that I could, in my own odd way, show a level of respect for that. And it goes back to the idea that kids are kids. Whether you agree with everything our military does or not, those are real kids that live on those bases, and they don’t care about your opinion; they want to have unique experiences as well. I had to remove my political or religious beliefs from the equation and understand that I was being given an opportunity to impact a lot of kids. I’ll be working with our military for a long time to come and it’s one of the projects I’m most proud of. I’m honored to have the access and audience I have.
Rivard with some of his students at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
RW: You're about to start an adult art class in conjunction with 612 Brewing, and you're working on plans for another Air Force tour to make skateboard art with service members suffering from PTSD. What do you expect will be different about working with adults instead of children?
MR: I might swear, and I’ll have a beer in my hand… That’ll be different! But seriously, I don’t think much will change. I kind of pride myself on NOT talking to kids like they’re kids. I’m excited to have some really important conversations under the platform of adult programming. Part of the proceeds from the ticket sales will go directly to City of Skate, a non-profit I’m a part of that aims to build better skateparks in our communities. I’m really proud of that. I hope on December 6th we laugh, we draw, we drink a few beers, and we do a good thing that develops into a better life for others. That’s what art can do when it’s given the right platform. One thing’s for certain, it’s going to be fun!
When I was touring Air Force bases I kept being asked by parents and other adults if they could sign up, so that’s kind of where the idea came from. After further conversations we thought my programs could be interesting and beneficial to Service Members experiencing PTSD, so I’m hoping through Boards & Beers I can teach myself what works with an adult audience and what doesn’t. I’m aiming to create a platform that can be used by the Air Force to help those that could use the escape through art.
RW: You wrote recently “I truly enjoy business. It's the least artist or skate thing I could say, but it's true. I love it, it's high stakes poker with your life and I thrive when the stakes get high.” Any words of advice about the hustle for all the self-employed artists out there?
MR: It’s not easy. Not everyone puts all the pieces of the equation together correctly, and that’s just reality. I think that you have to understand that simply having talent and putting the pen to the paper is only half the battle. Especially when it comes to visual artists for some reason. There tends to be this idea that just because you painted it you should be successful. No, you shouldn’t. That’s only step one.
Also understand that if you are a professional, you are your brand. Be a professional. Stay true to your vision. Make the art that you would want to see. Explore opportunities. Study other artists. I read about artists all the time, even if I don’t like their art. I want to know why and how they got to where they are. Look at other industries and try to figure out what you can learn from them that you can apply to your brand. Stay flexible. Pay your bills. Respond to every single email, even if it’s an annoying request. Don’t be afraid to fail. Write down your ideas and revisit them often. Call your mother. Find your value. Use spellcheck. Ask your dad for advice even if you don’t need it. Collect mentors. Help kids… It all gets really cliché, but those clichés are rooted in truth.
In all seriousness I tell my kids all the time, “No one gets to decide how smart you can be. That’s up to you.”
eXposure at Cal Surf Gallery, June 2017