You’d never know it from the beige brick exterior of UT’s Visual Arts Center, but inside is an underground skateboard world—complete with a clubhouse, a skate ramp, a campfire ring, and a mysterious cast of characters known only as the “The Dwellers.”
Artist Michael Sieben, BFA ’99, is the Visual Arts Center’s artist-in-residence this spring, and he’s created the exhibition It Will All Happen Again.
For the show, which opened last week, Sieben draws inspiration from his childhood and skater culture to fill the two-story gallery. The show’s title references a line from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and indeed the show explores the line between youth and growing up and trying to hang on to youthful imagination.
Pale pinks, yellows, oranges, and aquas are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ books, despite the “lightheartedly gruesome” imagery of skulls and snakes depicted in the paintings on the walls. A giant A-frame clubhouse in the center of the gallery is large enough to hold a twin bed, skateboards, and a shelf full of Sieben’s own childhood relics: books, a plastic Thermos, a Donald Duck figure, a panda radio, Cookie Monster, posters, children’s books, and more.
Sieben was interested in skateboarding from a young age, and when he visited skateboard shops, he fell in love with the look of skateboard graphic art—a design aesthetic that is central to his work as artist today, both in the fine art world and commercial world, where he works as a graphic artist and is the managing editor of skateboarding publication Thrasher Magazine.
“I began conceptualizing the exhibition by returning to aspects of my own childhood, specifically a childhood fantasy I have in which I live underneath a skateboard ramp,” Sieben says. “A cast of characters similar to those found on Sesame Street or Christopher Robbins’ dreams of Winnie the Pooh occupies this fantasy world.”
Sieben calls that cast of characters “The Dwellers,” and while you may not see their full bodies in this show, their eyes peek out at you from tree trunks in screen prints and from a video screen tucked under the skateboard ramp. A short animated video in the galleries gives a bit of backstory on “The Dwellers” and how they are everywhere, though many of us forget where to find them when we grow up.
“For me, ‘The Dwellers’ became a metaphor about the spirit of creativity and staying engaged throughout your life, remaining interested in things, and continuing to discover and be amazed by the world,” Sieben says.
The themes in the show have become especially resonant for Sieben since he’s become a father. Many of the relics in the clubhouse came from his own attic when he was cleaning it out to make room for a bedroom for his son.
UT art students worked closely with Sieben and helped assemble a zine that will be available for visitors to peruse inside the clubhouse zine library. They also assisted with painting and assembling items in the gallery.
“We’ve had a couple of classes come in, and he’s been able to talk to them about what it’s like to be in the commercial art world and fine art world and back and forth,” says VAC director Jade Walker. “I think that’s something that our students haven’t been able to hear from some of the other artists that we’ve brought in.” Walker says the College of Fine Arts also wanted to bring in an alumnus in honor of the college’s 75th anniversary this year.
The show is on view at the VAC through May 10, and a variety of programs are planned for the semester, including a zine-making workshop and a panel discussion on zines in the scholarly world.
Photos courtesy UTVAC.