WORDS BY TOM RISSER
PHOTOS BY MIKE DURKIN AND TOM RISSER
I understand that a lot of people think I may be nuts. My wife said, “You’re weird and everyone knows it.” She meant it as a compliment. I didn’t fully embrace the phrase originally, but now I think it would make a cool tattoo. My latest project has sparked more reflection on my possible offbeat nature. The latest clue is that I went off into the woods of South Carolina and spent two years, working mostly on my own, making a massive 70’s style concrete skate park. When I finally showed it to some folks on my birthday, the common description invoked a reference to insanity. Again, I think it was meant as a compliment. Mostly I think this article is a reflection on what may be wrong with me…. so let the analysis begin.
It started with a compulsion to build skateable objects. I have always been making something to skate upon ever since I discovered the joy of urethane wheels. I think I have built about twenty different concoctions to ride over the last thirty-five years; basically because of necessity, and a desire to create. You may have heard of some of them: The Blair Witch Ramp – (Black Ramp), Tom’s Bowl, WXW SK8, and now Whip Snake Park. They have all been large projects and reflected two main desires; to skate unusual designs, and to share the joy with others. This latest creation is the largest of them all – and the most dense in design by far. It also required more technology and physical effort, on my part, than all of the others combined…. but that can be the subject of a separate article, if anyone wants to hear shop talk. Let me avoid the “how” and explain the “why” of it – or preferably, the “why not.”
If you have ever seen images or videos of my old big black ramp from the ‘90s, you would see what was once considered by The Guinness Book of Records to be the largest continuous ramp at the time (6,040 sq ft of skateable area). I tore it down after I built the bowl in 2000, and I continually had dreams that the ramp was somehow still there. I would wake up in a panic, swearing it was just covered in vines in the woods. How do I make the nightmares stop? What were these dreams trying to convey? Two years ago, I hit upon a strategy. Recreate the best parts of it in concrete. Since then, those dreams have stopped waking me up. Of course, I haven’t slept much either to even start dreaming, but perhaps the dream has simply become reality?
It may help if you know that I also suffer from a clearly split brain. Specifically, I use both sides, and flow between them quickly. The engineering and the artistic sides are in full internal balance. I create sculptures of large scale, and also design packaging machines of intricate detail; which allows me to contemplate functional forms and abstract concepts; and then bring these to reality. And of course my favorite kind of functional art involves smooth cement.
I am also easily bored with repetition. Not really a case of classic attention deficiency disorder I suppose, but I don’t like repeating designs. Maybe that is why I don’t thrive on a half pipe. Back and forth, just isn’t my thing. If you want a perfect traditional ramp, you can find those in almost any public skatepark. I want what doesn’t otherwise exist. I want to find a different line every time. I want speed, danger, bumps, kinks, jumps, and most of all I want fun. I want to share fun, over anything else. Which leaves the eternal problem to overcome, finding out how to make this happen before I die?
“I went off into the woods of South Carolina and spent two years, working mostly on my own, making a massive 70’s style concrete skate park. When I finally showed it to some folks on my birthday, the common description invoked a reference to insanity.”
Like a lot of older skaters I have seen private parks come and go, and public parks take decades to debate or eat up enormous budgets. But when I helped construct our little town park for a minimal cost, WXW SK8, using volunteer labor and advanced metal template designs, it sparked a vision for my legacy project park. Why not just build it yourself? That wouldn’t be nuts would it? Why would you do it? Why not? “What if scenarios,” are simply obstacles to overcome; at least in my world. If you don’t roll in – you won’t experience the rush.
Four years ago, my amazingly supportive wife and I finally bought a chunk of land to create what we would hope would become a sculpture park for my metal artwork. We call it Heartseed Gardens – a place to plant inspirational artwork. Then two years ago I decided for my 50th birthday, Sept 14th, 2013, that I wanted to celebrate by making a throwback ‘70s style park that re-imagined some of my black ramp, moguls and bumps from the old concrete parks, but with a modern sensibility. I had the tools, technical resources, access to scrap metal, work ethic and drive to see it through. I cleared at least a hundred stumps, hauled in thousands of pounds of steel, welded many reels of wire, hand rolled all my coping, shoveled dirt on my knees, and smoothed cement with a diamond grinder for four weeks to finish the place precisely on my birthday weekend. During that time, except for the rebar and ‘crete helpers, maybe only three people had ever seen what I was sculpting. And now the time has finally arrived to share it with the skaters who smile when they see this new, yet old, kind of art park.
On her first observation at the site of my design, my best friend, my wife Daisy, walked up and said “This is nuts.” I think she meant the park and not me. In a similar manner, the facial expressions of the skaters as they come through the woods and gaze onto the 13,000 sq ft of bizarre, is almost worth the blood sweat and fears I endured. The real payoff is knowing, even though this is not a million dollar perfect transition masterpiece of the modern age, nobody cares, because it makes people smile. It is my kind of art. It is handmade sculpture of the largest scale.
I prefer to make handmade sculpture because it shows the artist’s effort and vision versus a computer-controlled cutter, and this style is inherent in Whip Snake Park, (named after the coach whip snakes that spooked me often). This is a one of a kind work. Existing nowhere else and never to be repeated; containing a thousand original lines, that have yet to be discovered. It is an obstacle course of crazy. It is a pinball machine of madness. It is a frozen ocean storm. It is in the middle of nowhere, which is now somewhere. It makes no sense to many, yet it makes perfect sense to me. It is a traffic jam to the bystander, but it is a pathway to the skater. It isn’t for everyone, but if it appeals to you – then we have something in common and that creates a crazy connection. Bring on the mutual insanity.
Some specifics of the layout for inquiring minds… The park flows mostly downhill at first, like the start of a small Kona-style snake run, but with some uphill moguls that will allow the more pump-oriented to work their way back. Still the place can also be ridden in sections. At the entrance is an option to either roll over the biggest mogul in the park down a six-foot drop and choose a variety of lines either side of another six foot high wall with an 8’ transition and a section of steel coping; or you can veer left, avoiding the mogul of doom entirely, and quickly bank off a slightly left hand curvy wall, and choose your path towards rapid downhill acceleration. Being goofy footed, this park is built to that path, but because there are so many bumps, it has almost no bias to direction, other than downhill, and fast, really fast, almost too fast at times. The park is about 100’ x 120’ in layout, if you don’t measure the ups and downs, with three distinct 6’ tall jumps that have 10’ wide steel coping extensions scattered within the park. At the top left is also a strange 2’ deep bowl that has a 3’ tall spine ramp opposite it and a 3’ tall mini ramp section behind it. My thought was you could hop from one section to the next, working your way down the park and maybe back, but I haven’t seen but one person do it so far. The complexity of the shapes increases as you progress towards the bottom of the park through another set of moguls where you will find a more technical squared out 4’-6’corner bowl entirely lined with about 60’ of undulating steel coping that whips you back towards what is clearly the biggest first impression when you discover the park. This is a massive welded steel wall at the bottom center that has four feet of vertical surface setting on top of an 8’ cement curve, but just 16’ wide. It took me a crane and a lot of sweat to get that thing mounted, and then I stuck an 8’ sculpture on top of it just for kicks. This is my memorial to the old black ramp vert wall that I miss so much. If you can get up this wall high enough, it will send you over an opposing 6’ launch that lands into one of three possible options. From there it is harder to explain what is going on. All I can say is that I made one mogul that looks like a camel’s hump. I made another ninety degree turn wall that goes around a corner and then pitches almost vertical in just a 4’ height change. I created coping that slopes down, around, and that even goes out of bounds. I created some skate able metal sculptures for creative reasons as well as adding some elements for almost no logical reason. For example, there is a mascot style curving snake bench – why you ask…why not? I made a brick pavers path with a pipe down the middle, an inverted bent metal channel grind rail, and I even dragged across the park a huge three inch diameter pipe that is 18’ long laying halfway sunk into the floor that you can grind till the end slides under the crete, and then if you make that, you roll away downhill towards the fattest mogul in the whole crazy place. Each element and mogul was part of an idea that I wanted a one of a kind skate place. Maybe in total I made a dozen distinct moguls, but many of them are interconnected outgrowths of each other, with hips and bumps that show the organic nature of hand made sculptural forms, versus perfect computer aided template shapes. I even have small moguls built on top of moguls, and one, which we call a “brain cramp” thanks to a finisher who I wasn’t watching close enough – but nothing a diamond blade can’t erase someday. I basically made everything you see and some things you can’t, to keep me interested for years. I have shaped corners to drag your truck on and roll-ins that allow pumping or slowing as needed. I have perfect transitions where I wanted them, and other walls I cut on the spot with only my eye dictating what looked right to me. Sometimes I reworked an entire wall just to get one setup for the opposing wall the way I saw it. So loosen your trucks and work your knees – find one of my lines, or better yet make a new one – this place will inspire and frustrate – but it should never be boring.
If asked why I did this, I can’t explain it in logical terms. I can only explain it in terms of passion for the project, and I find the explanations work in sets of threes:
First “3” – I love to create. I love to skate. I love to share. I have no interest in building what others can build. The pros can do it better, they also do it for a living, and they do it with big budgets and large crews. I work almost entirely alone and this is what I want to do. It is what I have to do.
Second “3”- I have found a desire in my life to effect change through positive tangible creation and in this project I work in three mediums: metal, mud, and mortar. These are materials that I understand, can afford, and can sculpt to achieve a form that intrigues me. I encourage everyone to find their mediums and create in/with them. It will spark your inner artist. I joked once that I am the “Director of Sparks and Recreation.” Yeah, I know that is stupid sounding – but if I cared about what everyone thought – I would miss out on a lot.
Final “3”: Within this project, I remain three things from start to finish: An engineer, an artist, and a skater. I flow in my brain from one to the other to find the balance during every step of the project, until the first wheels roll. But as my body recovers from the project wear and tear, the skater in me has re-appeared and risen to the surface and I am ready to officially drop in. Time to critique the work firsthand from the top of the deck. If you get the chance to track me down on Facebook, come visit. I may actually accept some help at this point, finding the best and fastest lines around this crazy mogul world requires a team effort…. unless that seems “nuts” to you. But I have a feeling there are more weird and wonderful people out there who are willing to lose control in this field of crazy. Come on down and discover the madness of my mogul mentality. M