Text: Robert S. Curry : Photo: N/A
I've found you've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.
- John Coltrane
You need to show 'Indian people' in the 21st century and not so much as museum pieces.
- Douglas Miles
So I'm sitting at a dead stop on College Avenue in Tempe waiting for the train to hurry up, roll on by and set me free. Then I notice a whole string of out-the-past streamliner cars emblazoned with "Artrain USA- Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture." After that, the capper: two guys hanging off the back of a caboose waving at me. What is this?
Two days later I find out. Josh from shade calls, asking if I'm interested in writing about Douglas Miles, a San Carlos Apache artist who does portraits of contemporary and historic Apaches. And skateboards. Fine art skateboards. Skateboarding skateboards. One of them is on display in the Artrain.
The Artrain is parked in Tempe at the old rail depot just west of Mill Avenue. Over the next four years, it will traverse its way across this entire country, stopping in cities as diverse as Flagstaff and New York City. Tempe just happens to be the first stop on the tour. The mayor is at the opening. "Native Views" is an exhibition focusing on popular culture and its influence on contemporary native American artists. I climb aboard the train as watch as people in varying states of confusion and wonderment wander past the art. It's not exactly what they expected: websites and computer games, a Steve Yazzie painting with his Anglo girlfriend and his three-legged dog in a pool at a roadside teepee motel. And there is Douglas Miles' Apache skateboard. Beautiful maple wood, with a hand-painted portrait of a 19th century Apache warrior, strongly stylized in the manner of Japanese anime or American graffiti art. And framed and hanging on the wall.
Where does this come from?
"I think there's a spiritual side to skateboarding,” says Miles. “It has a warrior aspect to it."
It started with his son, Douglas Miles Jr. After looking through many skateboard designs, Miles and son could find none that "reflected our own Apache/Native culture.”
So he decided to make one.
“Making art that shows Natives/Apaches in the 21st century is what I enjoy a lot right now,” says Miles. “It seems to cause collectors in the ‘Indian Market’ to do a double take. I like putting an urban spin on our culture. Painting on the skateboards as well opens up a whole new medium for me. My skateboards are both traditional and contemporary by design. Are they fine art or pop art? Why can't they be both?”
Miles has even started the first native owned and operated skateboard company, APACHE SKATEBOARDS, and sponsors a reservation-based skateboard team, which includes his 15-year old son. A documentary about the team is in the works. Miles and the team was recently invited to attend the Red Rhythms Native American Dance Conference in Riverside Ca, and he has a major show, Native Nollies: Skateboard Deck Art currently running at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe.
Douglas Miles grew up in Phoenix and moved back to the San Carlos Reservation outside of Globe fifteen years ago. Where does his art come from?
"I've been drawing since I was a little kid," Miles says. "Cartoons, Channel 5's The World Beyond, Sci-Fi, Batman, Starman, Sgt Rock, Mad magazine and DC comics really fueled my imagination. Also an older brother Duane got me really wanting to learn how to draw. I went to Phoenix's own Al Collins Graphic Design School. It was in a small storefront then on East McDowell. It was...the first time I met other artists...we were all art nerds but I guess it was cool."
Urban Phoenix permanently shaped Miles' world-view.
"Maybe around 1978-80, I attended the old Bostron Alternative High School on Van Buren and 7th. They had a learn-at-your-own-pace program."
"Blacks, Chicanos, Whites and Indians from all over met up there with one goal in mind, to try to ‘get into’ school after having been kicked or dropped out. One of the best schools I've ever been to."
For Miles, art was there from the beginning.
"My graffiti art got me in trouble a few times,” says Miles. “I was actually charged with vandalism off campus as well as on. A teacher there must have seen some potential in me so she sent me on a field trip to meet with a graphic designer from the Arizona Republic. I don't remember either of their (teacher or designer's) names but...they really turned me onto something about art."
Miles vividly remembers those days in Phoenix.
"Colors, sounds and cultures were virtually everywhere (pre-internet) streaming out of from the candy-lacquered-low-riders blaring Parliament, cruising during lunchtime to the early pop-locking crews wearing color coordinated homemade decaled shirts representing their neighborhoods or dance groups with names like ‘The Funk-O-Nots,’ carrying large stereos and playing the hottest funk for the afterschool crowd...
These cats were moonwalking on Central and pop-locking on the avenues in high school long before Hollywood began to take notice and exploit the dance styles of the street,” Miles continues, “police and campus cops thought it was a fight when it was really urban dance floor guerillas getting down for the funk of it. All of this definitely had a BIG influence on my art then and still does now. Downtown Phoenix just isn't the same anymore..."
Later, Miles would be influenced by Japanese woodblock, anime and manga art, as well as American movie and album cover graphics. Take a look at Gaan, a triptych skateboard piece from his current IAIA show. The Gaan dancers (representing Apache mountain spirits) in Miles' exotic and dramatic rendering might have come straight from an Apache version of Cowboy Bebop or Akira. He's also done many pieces illustrating contemporary youth and dress on the "Rez" and also one of my favorites -- a black and white portrait of the artist as an open-mic hipster in New York. Makes you wish for an Apache version of The Matrix.
And it’s this popular culture that fuels Miles’ production.
"I'm always listening to music while working," he says. "DJ Krush, DJ Shadow, Mos Def, P-Funk, Miles, Coltrane, Bebel Gilberto, Charlie Parker, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, The Roots, NERD, Doug Sahm, Johnny Guitar Watson, D'Angelo, 70's soul-funk..."
In the late 90's, Miles traveled to New York City to research traditional Apache art and culture at the National Museum of the American Indian-- much of said art and culture having been shanghaied east in the late 19th and early 20th century.
"Being Apache carries a whole set of cultural themes," Miles says. "My inspiration comes from my community of San Carlos two hours east of Phoenix. The exploits of a handful of Apache warrior-guerilla fighters whose story is known all over the world inspires me. Standing up to and fighting off the most powerful military in the world of course has its price, but it still inspires people all over the world."
Later, I meet Douglas Miles on the San Carlos reservation. He's there wearing a De Niro-with-a-mohawk Taxi Driver t-shirt. I'm there with the shade editorial/photo team to see both Miles' home base and the skate team in action. We meet at the Apache Gold Casino, then drive out to the town of San Carlos, picking up skate team members along the way. After a brief stop at Miles' home ("the dog's friendly, the roosters aren't," he warns), we drive on to Peridot, through a bright pastel BIA housing development --- looks like they could have been designed by Mies or Le Corbu -- and finally to a somewhat post-apocalyptic-looking playground where the Apache skateboard team was born.
Under a Wim Wenders-looking widescreen sky sits a forlorn playground, monkeybars and other playground equipment overgrown with creosote bushes, wildgrass and squash. Just the other side of five rusted-metal and concrete ramadas lies the basket ball court/skateboard zone. The basketball standards are bereft of hoops and nets. The skate teams uses salvaged car bumpers, an old mattress frame and other odd parts to create a homemade skate park. As the kids skate, a loose ramada roof panel bangs in time with the gusting wind. Jet contrails punctuate the sky.
Later, at Miles home, we'll see footage from the nearly completed documentary about the skate team. His art -- and Apache Skateboards -- have started the team on a journey that’s just beginning. We watch them skate on the Rez, then in urban Phoenix, then in California at ocean's edge. Apaches on skateboards -- all those old 10th Cavalry troopers would roll over in their graves if they could see this now. What's more, the documentary is being financed and directed by Franck Boistel of Soletechnology, a skateboard-shoe company. Miles works hard to get his team sponsored shoes, clothing and travel. More offers are coming all the time. He hopes also to draw more related businesses to the reservation.
But back at the photo-shoot, Miles has laid out several art skateboards, their colors illuminated in the sun. One is of a young Apache woman holding a revolver, her image seeming to arise blue and ghostly out of the wood grain. Wayne works on a group shot of Miles and the team, all dressed in black. They strut toward the camera, then away. Mile works with them to set the mood. "C'mon guys," he says, "think Reservoir Dogs." They all laugh, and keep walking. Not into the sunset, but further, further on into the 21st century.
Native Nollies: Skateboard Deck Art continues at IAIA ( www.iaia.edu ) through August 29. Douglas Miles websites are www.geocities.com/douglasmilesstyle/ and www.apacheskateboards.com. He is represented by Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson.
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