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jim thiebaud and the contest of holiday champions

You know what's fun about running your own skateboard company? Being able to fulfill all sorts of silly fantasies. The flip side to this frivolity, however, is that in my whimsical case it often means doing so to my own detriment, because running is only a typo away from ruining—but not today! No, today will not be yet another instance of me shooting myself in the foot, because I finally feel like I managed to stitch up a loose thread that's been dangling throughout my life.

Let's go back in time using remedial grade school journalism practices.

The when was 1988. The where was Madison, Wisconsin. The what was a skate demo at our local shop Flying Fish. The who was Jim Thiebaud, a prominent amateur for Powell-Peralta at the time. The how is wholly inapplicable, really, so let's just say that up until this point I'd never actually seen a sponsored skater in real life before. So there was that. And the fact that Thiebaud was also featured in the Bones Brigade videos catapulted him to a whole other starstruck level. What really compounded everything in a wrapped lattice sandwich of cosmic coincidence, though, is that the day before he arrived I'd received a call from Powell-Peralta saying I'd made the "final four" cut in their art contest [1] and they wanted to fly me out to Santa Barbara, California, for a legitimate job interview.

So on the day of the demo I was already feeling an imaginary sense of kinship to Thiebaud, but I didn't dare approach him until well after the event when he good-naturedly agreed to join a few of us in skating this rather crappy backyard mini-ramp on the outskirts of Madison. The "session" itself didn't last long—there's nothing quite so uninspiring as weatherbeaten Midwestern plywood and most of what Thiebaud was doing was shaking the mini to the core of its foundation like it had never been shook before [2]—but I did manage to tell him in my stammering manner about the art contest and how I was coming out to Powell for the interview. To my surprise, Jim gave me his phone number and said to call once I knew when I was going to be out there. Well, color me dumbfounded, to say the least, as visions of street skating with him and Tommy Guerrero—maybe even Natas Kaupas!—began wildly dancing in my head.

My apartment in Madison, circa 1988—make special note of the modest Powell-Peralta shrine and Spider-Man phone with Flammable Bones and SMA Natas adhesives.

A week or so later I finally received my flight itinerary, at which point I sat and stared at my Spider-Man phone for a good 15 minutes before I finally mustered up the courage to dial his number. There was, of course, some initial confusion when he picked up, but once I was able to form a coherent sentence Jim asked what dates I was going to be there. When I told him I was flying in and out of Santa Barbara in essentially 24-hours, he kind of laughed and asked me if I knew exactly how far away San Francisco was from Santa Barbara. Now here's where my true-blue Midwestern näivete shone like a thousand blistering suns, because the furthest west I'd ever been in my life was a trip to Minneapolis and I had no concept of distances in California whatsoever. All I thought I knew was from watching Animal Chin and Thrashin', where it looked like you could basically skate from Venice Beach to the Del Mar Skate Ranch and then pop over to the hills of SF all in a single afternoon.

Needless to say I didn't meet up with him and my skate dreams were dashed.

But it doesn't end there! No, because I was ultimately offered a position in Powell's art department, whereupon my dreams took on a whole other Thiebaud tangent. I mean clearly he was being groomed to become the next Bones Brigade pro—we'd all seen the "experimental" shape he was skating at the demo—so I couldn't help but wonder that if by some wild chance I would be asked to do his first pro model graphics?!? Again, another short-lived fantasy, because Jim flew the Powell coop to skate for Santa Monica Airlines before my own wheels had yet to depart Wisconsin.

Silly aside but kind of true story that I don't feel entirely bad about divulging now: My whole mission in life once I arrived at Powell was not to draw a graphic, but to somehow get my feet on an experimental board with that madly coveted sticker. But not just any experimental, mind you—I wanted to skate the Thiebaud shape. Fortunately, my co-worker in the Design Group [3], Jim Knight (RIP), vouched for my skating abilities to the head of Powell's R&D, Chris Iverson, who just so happened to have two last Thiebaud shapes on the shelf and he let me have one to skate with the experimental sticker already affixed. Fulfill the dream indeed!

I didn't want to carpet bomb the paragraph in footnotes, but my third big California dream was to procure a pair of the Ellesse high-tops that I'd always see sported on the feet of Natas, Tommy, and Jim in photos—and I finally did at a Santa Barbara store specializing in tennis gear!

Anyway, back to my rambling tale. When Thiebaud's first pro model on SMA came out in early ’89 with DC's Joker featured prominently on the graphic, I'll be damned if it didn't rekindle my innate collector's compulsion [4] which had lain dormant ever since I left the financial security of my parents' roof. Clearly the company was going to get a Cease & Desist order, and clearly I could now afford to indulge myself what with the $500 (after taxes) paycheck I was taking home every two weeks, so I splurged and bought it straight off the wall at A Skater's Paradise, making it one of the first few boards [5] I'd ever picked up without any intent of skating. Damn it felt good to be a gangster.

It wasn't until my first ASR trade show in Long Beach that I encountered Thiebaud again. Unfortunately it went a little sideways, because he mistook me for someone who had apparently just jumped ship from the Thunder trucks team. That night, however, he came up to me in the hotel lobby where everyone was congregating and straight up apologized for vibing me earlier. I guess it was only after my puzzled expression during the run-in that he realized I wasn't who he thought I was. To this day I have no idea who that other skater was, but Thiebaud earned my lifelong respect that night for owning up to his mistake and making it right. I was a complete nobody then, I had yet to draw anything at all that had made itself onto a noteworthy product [6], and he could have easily shined me altogether.

If at this point you're wondering when all this rampant man-crushing is going to stop [7], let me drop one last trivial note of no historical importance whatsoever but one that still left an indelible smear in my memory bank—and for very good reason. It was sometime in 1990 when I was skating in the Powell "Sk8zone" that Natas had shown up for the day. How we started talking or how he even knew who I was I'm still not certain, but he mentioned they were beginning to work on a new graphic for Thiebaud's second SMA model and it was going to be an artist jam of sorts. I think he went on to ask if I was interested in participating—or at least that's how I interpreted what he was saying then, because in the days to follow I know I began thinking of a panel to draw. Hell, I'd even sketched out some really dumb stuff, which I now can't believe I would have done if that wasn't what he'd meant. Unfortunately there weren't any magic methods of communication like the internet or texting back then, so we never reconnected and it wasn't long before Jim's last SMA model was in shops with art and words by Jim, Natas, and Andy Howell. Talk about a missed opportunity.

I could conceivably go on and on about my graphic-envy for several of Thiebaud's early landmark models on Real, but for the sake of brevity—ha!—let's just skip to three decades later where Thiebaud is one of the biggest proponents skateboarding has ever had in its corner. Sure, there are others right there in the trenches, too, but I honestly don't feel anyone else gets in as deep as Jim—a sentiment I'm sure he would humbly shrug off, saying he's just grateful to be able to keep pushing his passions into something he genuinely loves. That said, I'm just grateful to finally realize my own dream [8] of drawing a graphic for him after he kindly let me spoof his first pro model in the spirit of the holidays—and for a good cause too! 

To that end, we'll be donating a portion of the proceeds from every board sold to CHAP, aka Children's Healing Art Project, the "only non-profit organization in Oregon dedicated to bringing the healing power of art directly to children and families facing medical challenges." Because for however much I love the devilish character of Krampus, the Eastern European Yin to St. Nick's Yang, good will always find a creative way to prevail. —Sean Cliver


1. For the long form story, please consult Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art, a book that is not to be confused with the Disposable Skateboard Bible because they're really a Part 1 and Part 2 compendium and I can never state that enough because I repeatedly see the question asked in Facebook groups, "Are they the same book?"

2. Only partially true, I guess, because Brian Jansen, the giant frontman of Madison punk band Inspector 12 and current tattooist, definitely rocked that ramp as well.

3. I never understood why it couldn't simply be called the Art Department… but there it was on my official Powell-Peralta business card: Design Group.

4. My entire childhood consisted of collecting one thing or another, going from rocks and minerals to ball cards and comic books, the latter two of which were mostly sold off once I discovered skateboarding and the junkie-like fix for a new deck superseded all else in life.

5. To come correct, I had already allocated some of my paycheck to picking up a few Powell boards using my employee discount—or enough of them to raise a red flag where I had to be called into the principal's office and questioned under the suspicion I was buying and reselling the product on the streets. Red-faced but having done nothing of the sort, I merely admitted to collecting the boards because I loved VCJ's artwork.

6. By this point I'd only been employed for just over a month or so and all I'd done was a border treatment for a "Winged Ripper" banner and some ghost work on the front print of a Tony Hawk "Claw" T-shirt—yep, the "claw butthole" was me!

7. I'll readily and happily admit that I'm my own worst editor. Plus, this is just a crummy blog on the internet, so who gives a shit! I've seen way more egregious examples of a never-ending, so-called, typo-ridden news article via the New York Times online edition.

8. When I relayed this factual tidbit to Jim while emailing back and forth over the proposed graphic, he replied in typical Jim fashion, "Dream bigger… you deserve better." Ha!

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  • Ron Wright on

    Yeah, I remember us PP skater employees were bummed when Jim bailed to ride for SMA. It did however and correct me if wrong opened the door for Mike and a bit later Frankie. If memory serves correctly that worked out pretty well. I agree with Ruth about your PP career start and end- “They made a great choice (and a poor one later)” Chris Iverson whom I believe still churns out popsicle sticks at PP was an odd bird that knew he held the golden key to certain PP items and a first-class a hole IMHO. My run-in with Natas at da Zone in 90 was helping Lance and Bones Brigade Team manager Todd carry him to the team van for a hospital trip for the injury that ended his riding career. That sucked seeing that take place. Anyway, great stuff Sean and Satan Speed!!

  • Ruth Blewett on

    Great reading Sean. I was there the day you arrived at Powell and you had that (rather adorable) deer in the headlights look…They made a great choice (and a poor one later), your work has always been amazing. But glad to see you doing your own thing, your talent just blew up all over the place after you left. If it’s any consolation, I also was called into the principal’s office for loving Court’s work and buying an abundance of it….Anyway, thanks for this piece, I had no clue you were from Madison. I’m living the rural dream about 30 min north and love the Mad City.

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