For many kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, action sports were an important part of creative discovery and also an expression of freedom. Skaters who hucked themselves down an eight set of stairs often did so to the tune of a blistering punk track or a bouncing hip-hop beat that inspired a whole generation of mixtapes. Magazines served as bibles as well as cultural time capsules with trick tips, band profiles and iconoclastic prose printed on their pages. Companies kept their graphics under wraps until a new pro model dropped or a line of new boards landed in shops. It didn't matter if you could afford the stuff or not; it was all part of a youth machine that birthed an eventual Renaissance of disobedient teens who could call that culture their own and create without boundaries.
Artist Dan Anderson remembers this time quite vividly; in fact, rural life just outside Spokane, Washington didn't look that different to someone's in SoCal. There were just less places to skate.
His parents had some acreage in the woods that served as an endless playground for exploration and with his dog Dude at his side, Anderson's youth was pretty free-range. It didn't take long before he was transforming the terrain into BMX jumps and realizing that the outdoors could serve as a blank canvas for his own imagination.
The proximity of his home to the local ski hills and the explosion in the popularity of snowboarding eventually inspired Anderson to stand sideways. This was in the early 90s when it was still seen as a rebel sport. Parks barely existed and as with skateboarding, the lifestyle signified a coming of age, with the mountains instead of the streets as a proving ground. “What I liked about snowboarding is the genuine interest in doing that thing just for the experience of it. Snowboarding was the first thing I did to allow me to access that way of being,” he remembers.
That state of being is often referred to as “flow”, a feeling adventure sports enthusiasts know all too well. The theory is pretty simple: Exhibit a general interest in a thing and show improvement over time, sometimes mitigating danger and ultimately actualizing one's potential. Psychologists argue that oftentimes this is a fast track to true happiness and can be easily described as losing oneself in an activity. For Anderson, “Action sports birthed the idea of confronting something you might be afraid of but pushing through and getting into the zone. It's meditation for someone who is hyper energetic.”
It wasn't until he started competing that his connection to snowboarding began to muddy. Suddenly, that feeling of bombing down tree runs doing giant GS turns with trees as gates was overshadowed by the anxiety associated with trying to be the first one to rip across the finish line in a boardercross race or out-spin your rival in a slopestyle competition. In order to be the best at something, you not only have to surrender your life to it, but along the way the costs versus the rewards can often make one lose sight of even the purest intentions.
“Snowboarding introduced me to visualizing. That showed me there was a connection between mind, body and spirit and lot of things were coming out that experience,” Anderson remembers. After moving to Portland, Oregon the ritual of envisioning of what to do with an environment was fine-tuned at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Combined with the community he'd met through snowboarding and moonlighting as a bartender, after attending school he and three friends founded Von Tundra, a design house manifesting the talents of the partners' affinity for wood work and making objets d'art.
“Like with snowboarding, I found a sense of self in that work,” Anderson remembers as he sits at a table and chair of his own creation at home in Joshua Tree. There was feeling of freedom only a starving artist can romanticize, and he fully lived that experience until it was time to close that chapter in his life. As things got bigger and the perception more popular, the business of running a design house started to seem far too familiar to competitive snowboarding. “I got wrapped up in the business side of things which took away from the creativity,” he adds. It was enough to leave that life behind, turn inward and move south to the once sleepy community of Joshua Tree.
In a lot of ways, the desert was similar to the Pacific Northwest. For one, buying land or paying rent was once cheaper than dirt when Anderson spotted a defunct three room motel not too far from the state park's western entrance. Rehabbing that project came after attempting to run a small retail space. During high season, Joshua Tree is even more cosmopolitan than Portland, with tourists from all over the world descending on its novel cafes and curio stores. Unfortunately, a lack of foot traffic shuttered his shop but conveniently allowed for more time to focus on his rental property, a way to generate passive income and allow for an eventual return to art.
Things had come full circle, as Anderson and the Von Tundra crew had already been active in the area with projects like Space Post, a modernist bivouac “fairly cozy for a week of rustic living” as well as the High Desert Brunch Club, a folky, no reservations pop-up dining experience literally in the middle of nowhere.
During this time, Anderson met art luminaries Andrea Zittel and Alma Allen. If the foundations of his future had been cast during his early days in Joshua Tree, then they were cemented during his time working with Zittel and Allen. The through line for all three artists was not only the incorporation of nature into their art, but the ritual of adventure as an integral part of the creative process.
“Working for Alma shifted some gears in me. He helped me realign with the path I wanted to be on,” Anderson remembers. “He was going out into the desert and getting boulders. Working with him reminded me of my roots, returning to the sources of objects to create art. There's an adventure to it as opposed to going to the lumberyard and picking up milled wood. I saw in his practice a reminder of my initial inspiration that I kind of strayed from, going through the institution of school or being influenced by other people."
Making furniture was already a focal point of Anderson's creative expression, and Alma's recent move to Mexico City was the eventual inspiration to make that his sole focus. After all, there were paying tenants living at his property, and he had since moved in with his long-term partner and had a son together. Their two acre spread close to the destination road house, Pappy and Harriets, allowed for expansion including a workshop with a lathe, solar kiln to dry out his pieces and plenty of room to stock the stumps necessary for trial and error as well as experimental commissions.
This was all set up right when the calls came in. The first ask was from The Ace Hotel Palm Springs located just down the long hill past the undulating wind farms in Morongo Valley. Anderson churned out twenty-four, uniform, dense wood stools for the hip hotel and quickly thereafter was asked to do another for the property, The Ace in downtown Los Angeles and some for the hospitality location, Tourists Welcome in North Adams, Massachusetts. Only this time, he asserted that as part of his practice the owner have faith to allow him to “create freely, make drawings and do things without thinking of them as good or bad, but be prolific enough that you can pick what you like out of that process.” The result was a collection of stools of all shapes and sizes perfect for the vibe of that woodsy locale. With that specific project, he'd found the sweet spot between making art for the masses in the style he wanted to convey.
From start to finish, Anderson’s process is downright primal and reminiscent of a master sculptor who transforms a shapeless block of material into a thing of beauty. First, the found wood comes in all forms depending on the intended outcome. Hardwoods like oak and olive reveal a character only seen as a result of the old growth process, whereas softwoods like pine and cedar tend to behave much differently. Cutting the log as close to a circular shape helps minimize the time on the lathe, the next step to give the object its shape. Various chisels are used to grind away sections of the stump revealing contours with every spit of sawdust. The finished piece is then loaded into a solar kiln where the desert heat bakes away any moisture and evicts any critters who have overstayed their welcome. Auto body grade sandpaper is used to polish each piece that is further accentuated by applying oil.
Anderson connects his methods back to snowboarding, especially riding trees after a storm where the sky opens up to blue bird and you are free to flow through the experience. While these days it's rare that he gets that opportunity with a family and work, the ethos lives on through his careful life design and a commitment to his craft. After all, he says, “The artist's practice is to live your best life and get something out of it all in the interest of getting your mind, body and spirit into a place where you can truly feel free.”
All photographs by Dustin A. Beatty.
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