The Archives: 25 Years of Element Skateboards through the lens of Johnny Schillereff’s Kennedy Center Exhibit
It seems almost ironic that one of the greatest performing arts centers in the world could house an exhibit dedicated to a sport founded on counter-culture. That was one of the thoughts running through Element Founder Johnny Schillereff’s mind when he was approached about curating an exhibit at the Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center.
But beyond that, Schillereff says he was mostly just honored and excited to help bring this skateboarding milestone to life. After seeing his body of work for the brand over the past quarter-century, the Kennedy Center brought him on board to head up Finding A Line: From the Forest to the Streets, which ran throughout the month of September and featured a collection of skate decks and memorabilia that tells the story of the inspiration and history of Element Skateboards.
“There is so much amazing heritage in skateboarding that everyone was a standout and instrumental in telling the story,” Schillereff says. “My hope is that it educated and inspired the audience, and showed respect and gratitude to the individuals who were honored.”
The Element team is looking at future opportunities for displaying memorabilia featured in the exhibit, at its Costa Mesa HQ and beyond. For now, we checked in with Schilleref to get his perspective on the project, what it means to him to commemorate 25 years of Element, and how this bodes for skateboarding moving into the future.
Tell us more about how you made the connection with the Kennedy Center.
My longtime friend, do-gooder, skater and amazing photographer Neftalie Williams (@Neftalie) made the introduction. He is also showcased in the exhibition. Neftalie has amazing positive energy and always makes magic happen. I'm forever grateful to him and the open minded individuals from the Kennedy Center for considering me.
…Skateboarding being recognized by the Kennedy Center is a defining moment for a greater good, and not just my portfolio. It was an opportunity to recognize the culture that has supported and inspired my creative journey.
What was it specifically about Element that interested them the most?
Their interest for the installation began with my personal artwork, both past and present. But, as I began preparing for the exhibit and brainstorming with Neftalie, it became clear that my body of work is mostly observed and absorbed through the Element lens and in many cases, archived in my studio to never be seen. The thought was that skateboarding being recognized by the Kennedy Center is a defining moment for a greater good and not just my portfolio. It was an opportunity to recognize the culture that has supported and inspired my creative journey. The conclusion was to showcase my art and design, alongside my greatest inspirations, collaborations, memorabilia, and a curation of art and skateboarders that tell a fascinating story.
How long have you been working with the Kennedy Center to bring it to life?
The conversations began back in July. Neftalie came by my studio soon after to take a look at my work, which is when the bigger idea started coming to life as we began to look through my collection. I then reached out to my lifetime friend and artist Mike Kershnar (@huskeyroundup), who is most familiar with my work. Mike also has a great eye and extensive experience with art installations due to his own success. He was an immeasurable help with respect to curating and editing a lifetime collection of personal art and memorabilia. It was a colossal task that I could not have done without him. The Kennedy Center was a pleasure to work with and allowed full creative freedom.
What’s your favorite part of the display?
The Element graphic I did for Natas. It's not the art I like, but the eternal memory I have of innovator, pioneer and legend Natas Kaupas asking me to design his first board. It is an indescribable privilege. The idea of working with my childhood hero and all-time favorite skater was beyond my wildest dreams, and a true blessing. It still trips me out.
It solidifies the fact that skateboarding blazed the trails of alternative youth culture and set the tone. It is now cemented into our nations greatest performing arts centre named after one of our greatest leaders.
This is a pretty big deal for skateboarding in general. What do you think this means for the industry and how we are evolving?
What do you think it says about Element specifically?
It solidifies the fact that skateboarding blazed the trails of alternative youth culture and set the tone. It is now cemented into our nations greatest performing arts centre named after one of our greatest leaders. In some ways it is ironic because skateboarders have been chased off properties we now reside in. We have been embraced by society, but must always keep it skate. As for Element, I try to keep things in perspective. We have been in business for nearly 25 years and remained relevant for all of them. That is not common in industries built on change and progress. For Element and myself to be approached by the Kennedy Center with respect to skateboarding, it would be one of the first calls I'd make if I did a Google search. That being said, I hope it's based on the brand, our body of work, and positive impact on the world – and my creative contributions to skateboarding.
In what ways would you like to shape the industry through Element and your contributions in the future?
The only thing I can shape is a skateboard. I've been humbled and inspired through some successes, failures, and mostly people. All I can do is my best and learn as I go. A work in progress, always working. My passion is my family, creativity, and 'Positive Skateboarding,' and I try to reflect that in the way I live and contribute to the world. "The only way to know, is to walk, then learn, then grow" – Lauryn Hill=
Anything I overlooked that you’d like to add?
Skateboarding has provided for myself, my family, my friends and countless people in the world. It has given my greatest joys and most fond memories. I owe it all to skateboarding and have committed my life to skate. It is a honor and privilege that I never take for granted.