How did you figure out how to get started? How did you get to where you are now?
After graduation I worked as an in-house designer in Ohio for a promotional merchandising group. I did everything from branding, to web design, to apparel design. Got my feet wet in a bunch of different aspects of graphic design.
At the time I felt very confused, I felt like I had no idea what I actually wanted to do with my career. But in hindsight I realize that was the best first job I could have had because I got to try everything.
After about 2 ½ years doing that I started to feel stagnant and realized there was no upward mobility within the company, so I decided to move on. And instead of going right to a second job I decided to travel.
I spent a few months in Ohio then I took off for Asia where I spent 5 months backpacking through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
At the very end of that trip I was volunteering in the Philippines for a month and my experience there was really profound. I was helping rebuild homes that had been destroyed by a typhoon in 2014 and these people were the most impoverished people that I’ve ever really interacted with. But they were so happy. They seemed so fulfilled on the day-to-day.
As cliché as it sounds I specifically remember every night I would go and lay in my tent and be thinking through, These people are so happy — why? Because in the States many people are anxious, sad, depressed, overwhelmed, and I think it’s because a lot of people are working jobs they don’t like to buy stuff they don’t need.
It’s this weird cyclical thing that society kind of pushes people into. And I remember having this moment where I was like, Okay, when I get back I don’t know what I’m going to do but I know I don’t want to do that — I don’t want to fall back into that routine that everybody is in.[Then] I was freelancing at an agency [in Denver] for [about 1 ½ years], making a little bit of money. But I was practicing hand lettering 30, 40 hours a week with the intention of somehow infusing that into whatever my career ended up becoming.
I burned myself out because I was working 70- to 90-hour weeks, getting paid for only 20 of those hours. So then I spent 2 ½ months in Europe.
When I came back to Denver that agency had gone under so that safety net was now gone, which was a very scary feeling.
I had about two thousand dollars left and I had that moment of, Okay, I have enough money to last for about two months. Do I spend this time finding a full-time job or do I go all-in and give it one last effort to make the freelance thing work?
I made a self-promotional piece that I sent out to 40 agencies around Denver and Boulder and that got my foot in the door with three or four shops that I ended up doing some freelance work with, which paid me enough to get me going again.
I also got some big projects that I could show in my portfolio and that started the snowball that is continuing to roll now.
I don’t think I ever even consciously decided to get on this path. I just did the things that I really wanted to do.
I took filmmaking classes in high school. In Colorado College, me and my buddies would go out basically every winter on these trips together, filming one another. Every year we’d have a bigger camera and take it a little bit more seriously and go to some more far-flung place.
Senior year was also the beginning of Sweetgrass Productions. We made a ski film called Hand Cut and amazingly Patagonia signed onto it, gave us a little chunk of change. . . . [T]he film was well enough received. I think it got into Banff [Centre Mountain Film Festival]— our first film right out of college.
It was enough of a foot in the door. The next year Patagonia gave us some more money to go to Japan, we made a film over there, got a bunch more sponsors and then that film did really well, won some awards — it won a Powder [Magazine] award for Best Cinematography.
But yeah, it was kind of off to the races and people just started giving us money and we’re like, Okay, let’s push this as far as we can.
I feel very lucky because— I don’t know, I think we were in the right place at the right time and we were kind of riding the wave. For me it was like I never even really had a choice, you know? I wanted to be a narrative filmmaker, that was kind of what I was angling for and that’s what my senior project was that I never finished.
But this started taking off and I was like, Well, all right, we’re going to all these cool places, people are giving us money to do this— we weren’t making money but we had money to create art, which was cool.
So it was almost four years later when I was like, Well, here we are, we’re doing this, this is our job now. And we never even realized it was happening, it was just kind of working so we didn’t question it.
But I feel very lucky in that regard because I think for a lot of people, they really struggle and fight to get where they want to go. And for us it was a big stroke of luck. Not to diminish the hard work that it took, but I think we got pretty lucky early on and that really kind of gave us the inspiration for pushing it.
I worked two 40-hour jobs ten years straight — I would work 8 hours during the day and 8 hours in the evening or on weekends — we didn’t have kids then, which helped. But there were a lot of years of just figuring out all the business side of the art stuff and waiting for the income to be sustainable enough.
Artists starting out are like, I don’t know why I’m not seeing more success. But I always say, Well, are you working it as a job or are you just tinkering? If you want to do it full time, then do it full time. Work part time if you have to, wait until the income comes from art.
About a decade ago I purposefully wanted to leave the computer. My back was hurting, my shoulders were hurting, it was super stressful and everything was on a timeline. I loved working for myself [as a graphic designer] but it was time to think ahead and move in a different direction so I really tried to figure out how to paint. I didn’t have a lot of education for that, but I basically started schooling myself on acrylics and canvas and just started making art, kind of giving myself exercises — not for a market or sale, but to figure out how to use the paint and brushes and water with the paint. I painted the things that were around me — Alaska wildflowers, Mount Alyeska, things that are familiar and everybody else can relate to.
Ten years later I’ve successfully moved away from the computer and now am pretty much making art on canvas for a livelihood. And that has now also morphed into translating those original works into marketable products and wholesale.
So I’m now able to make a living off my art but it’s not going to end there. I really want to try doing sculpture or things that are 3D. I don’t know what that means in terms of a market or making money but all still hands-on, nothing with technology.
I think one of the sides of being a professional athlete in the ski and outdoor industry is that you get to learn as you go. There’s no set path and I really appreciate that about what I do. I’m not following a formula for how to build a career, how to make money or anything like that. I make it up as I go and I really like that. It doesn’t sound too professional, but that’s what it is. It’s figuring it all out for myself and what works for me.
I thought I was going to go to art school . . . but with [my dad’s] encouragement I decided to pursue a degree in biology. But when I was pursuing that path, my artistic nature and production dropped off significantly. I was like, I kind of think this is now who I am, I’m going to be a scientist, I’m going to be a researcher and that’s me.
For maybe about 10 years after college I was creating but not a lot. And during that time I was a total critic. Everything I saw that anybody else did I was just like, Oh, I could do that. Or, Oh, that’s cool, but they should have done this. But they were creating and I wasn’t.
Then I moved up here [around 2015] and got involved at UAA [the University of Alaska Anchorage] with the master’s of applied environmental science and technology and, while I was working on that, I started taking art classes again.
Around that time I read this book, The Artisan Soul, and one of the quotes that really just sucker punched me is like, There’s no proof of creativity without action. And I wasn’t acting. So I was like, Oh my gosh, that’s my problem. And then it just was like wildfire.
I met Steve Gordon who is a local artist and he was also my professor and he totally took me under his wing. He was like, You’ve got a fire and I’m going to help stoke that. . . .
Then I just couldn’t get enough of painting. I couldn’t get enough. Every night I was in the studio until— I would show up probably at around 5 and then I’d leave around midnight. For weeks on end. I wanted to try new things and explore new areas — I did finger painting, portraits. Just couldn’t get enough of it. And that kick started me back into the art scene. I was just so happy that that happened because it’s definitely a passion of mine and it gave me permission, almost, to dive back into the art scene and not just be a scientist or a researcher. I could be a more complete person.
So it was just putting together all these different jobs and then I’d take off for three months at a time.
I started the company because I didn’t quite know what else to do with myself at the time. I was an aspiring professional skier in the late ‘90s and in January 2000 I blew out my knee. I had already committed to taking that one year off from school so I thought, What could I do with my time?
The freeskiing community at that point was very small and a photographer friend of mine suggested that I make a film because I was studying filmmaking and photography at the time. I was like, Well, this is a good way to keep myself busy while I heal. So I made the first Level 1 film that year called Balance.
Starting a company was just a way to give it some level of organization. There wasn’t really a grand design behind it. It was like, Okay, if we’re going to make a film, I need to have a company name and I think that’s how we do this.
I never took any business or economics classes. I had no idea what was involved in actually being a business person and really having goals and moving forward, I just kind of fell into it. I didn’t have a goal to create a business in the beginning. I think that’s what allowed me to perpetuate it because I had no expectations.
I went a traditional route to a 4-year university. I got a degree in journalism and graduated in ’91. I pursued the path of writing and communications.
Steve, on the other hand, the founder of the company, he got some money from his parents to go to art school but decided to use that to buy a camera and learn on his own. Times were much different then. You didn’t have a phone in your pocket with an amazing camera, it was complicated and pretty technical, not super easy to do. You couldn’t really afford to make mistakes. You had to buy film and the whole process ended up being around a hundred dollars for every three minutes of footage you shot. It was expensive.
So Steve used his money to go out and learn how to shoot stuff and start making a ski movie. He brought me on board after I was done with an internship at Powder Magazine to help him finish the movie, shoot a little bit and then distribute it.
If you have a sense of what you want to do, I think it’s important to at least try it and Steve did a really good job of being like, Hey, this is something I want to do so I’m going to go for it. I think that was a really smart way to get into it and learn.[To be able to continue,] for the ski movie business model, we fund it by selling advertising to sponsors, or partners.
When we want to make a movie or we have an idea for a project we go to partners and say, Hey, do you want to come in and help us finance this film? If you do, we’ll give you publicity around this film, whatever that might be.
Then we basically use the money that we get from partners to fund the making and distribution of the film. We create the film, get it out to the public and sell it. We make our money back on tickets that we sell on tour and digital downloads that we sell online.
Went to Warren Tech for graphic design when I was in high school and continued my education at the Art Institute.
Worked for a long time while I was in college and as a young adult doing construction and it phased into decorative painting, like faux finishing. I was working for a couple different companies doing that and I did a lot of really high-end residential work.
At the same time I was painting murals and doing graffiti a lot, skating, just being a wild kid. But it all kind of meshed together and I was kind of going more towards the commercial side of murals, exterior stuff, just trying to phase out of the whole residential side of things, which is great money and a great career path, but I wanted to be out in the public eye a lot more.
A lot of the places I was working at, like Snooze [restaurant] or Horseshoe Lounge, I started working deals where I would paint the building one to four times a year. It would be consistent work and revenue so that I could refresh and practice, have a space where I could come up with new things each time.
That started snowballing with more businesses and word of mouth was the only way I got all my work. I barely even signed anything — I just felt weird leaving my phone number or something like that on the side of someone’s building.[Later] I met this gentleman Ken Wolf who was a real estate developer in this area and owned this property [CRUSH’s studio and gallery in Denver’s RiNo Art District]. I told him of my vision and he was totally into it so I started doing events here at this space.
Then it started growing each year and we had more and more artists and new businesses who wanted to be a part of [the CRUSH mural event] and it naturally grew to the point where one year it was all graffiti-based. It got a little wild, a little hairy, it was a lot of graffiti. It was getting a little bit of static from some of the people who were involved in the event and in the community so I’ve switched to curating more street art and doing that sort of stuff, bringing people in who were not just from a graffiti background but had fine art degrees.
Everything creative spawned from skateboarding. I think I was nine when I first started.
The drawing came because I got hurt skateboarding and it was just a way to stay sane and pass the time, get better. It turns out that drawing’s something I’ve held on to and it’s taken its own path way beyond what I ever thought it would.
I went through most of my life having a hard time when people were like, Oh, you’re an artist, doing art shows — artist, artist, artist. At first I was young and rebellious and I was thinking in my head, No, I’m not an artist.
I get it now. It’s a way to identify what I do.
But really I’ve always felt like a skateboarder. Drawing, yeah, I do a lot of that. It’s really expressive and I found something I love. But I love it just as much as playing music. Music is something I’m not good at but I have the best times of my life playing music with my friends. It’s just not as marketable or shared as much as my drawings.
People were always asking, How did you make this happen? And I think the easiest piece of advice I can think of that has helped me — and it’s probably good for me to remind myself of it — is just publicly stating your intentions and making sure that the people who can help you are aware that you want that opportunity. That’s certainly how I got my first chance with TGR. I didn’t know those guys at the start, but I knew some people who did and I just told them, Hey, when there’s a slot, I’ll drop everything, I’ll be there.
I think people forget sometimes that you’ve gotta ask for that opportunity.