An obsession with skateboarding and the need for travel have taken Jon Coulthard from Emory, Virginia, to New York City, Colorado, Southern California and at least 30 overseas locations.
"I started skating in the mid "80s and couldn't really get my hands on skate videos in Southwest Virginia, so my parents graciously got me subscriptions to two of the major skateboarding publications, Transworld and Thrasher Magazine. All that I knew of skateboarding outside of the area came from the decisive moments captured in those pages. As I got older I would buy videos, but I always preferred the idealized decisive moments in a photograph.
"As far back as I can remember, my parents had subscriptions to National Geographic, and I would look at every one of them as well as watch the National Geographic show on television (this was before the Nat Geo channel). This really had me sparked to know everything about these places and things that seemed so distant from the life I lived. But as I got older the idea of being in these exotic locations to document and experience the subject at hand captivated my imagination. My parents also had bought my sister, Catie, and me an encyclopedia set, and I would look up everything I wanted to know about any city or place I could think about."
Coulthard left Emory soon after high school and went to New York City, then to Colorado and lives in Southern California now.
"I left the Southwest Virginia area in 1994 because, like many young people, I wanted to do the exact opposite from what I'd tried to do before and seek out some sort of idealized life/place I'd been creating in my mind where life will be so much more interesting. I have found that anywhere you go, there you are; you can never escape who you are. I think at this point it is more about having the opportunity to make a sustainable living doing exactly what you want to be doing and, in my case, I feel like I would have had to travel a great deal to do that.
"Plus, the subject matter of my fine artwork has a lot to do with large cities. I shoot a lot of large industrial spaces, buildings and other utilitarian, man-made subjects. I know there is a lot to offer as far as those subjects in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, because I seek it out every time I visit the area. Actually, I feel like growing up in Southwest Virginia has really instilled in me a unique way of looking at the world. For instance, I lived in downtown Los Angeles for about eight years. As time went on, the craziness of all the traffic, massive buildings and one of the largest homeless populations in America started to feel mundane and normal, when it used to be a driving force of inspiration to me. Then I moved to a quieter neighborhood. After two years, I have found balance and can appreciate the essence of the craziness of the city again and find inspiration where previously it had lulled. I will always be from Southwest Virginia and having that will always help me to see the craziness of the rest of the world. We are all floating on a rock through infinite space. The moment that starts to seem mundane is the moment you need to take a step back and re-boot."
When Coulthard left home, he says, "I could never really see past wanting to go to new places, experience things and, as always, skateboard. It wasn't until I was 23 or 24 that I decided to go to college for graphic design. I think this decision subliminally was a huge part of my lifelong relationship with print media – in particular skateboarding magazines and National Geographic and the thought of being able to create typography and do layouts of my own. I started to realize that I always included photography in various projects, and as time went on most of my projects would be almost all photography with very minimal typography and other graphic elements."
Before going to college, he had been photographing skateboarding and creating abstract photography and was greatly influenced by "the ideas and visual style of the film "Koyaanisqatsi.'"
The film title is a Hopi term for "Life out of balance." The film is a visual tone poem, set to the music of Philip Glass, that uses time-lapse photography and slow-motion photography to make comparisons between types of motion (i.e., moving cloud formations and ocean waves).
"I am highly influenced by architecture, design, repetition, certain classical music, sociology and conceptual art. I was greatly influenced by the music and visual style of "Koyaanisqatsi.' There are many great photographers who have influenced me as well, such as Andrea Gursky and Edward Burtynsky to name a few.
"My wife has been the biggest help. She appreciates and knows a lot about art, and we go to galleries, museums, bookshops, etc. So for sure, her understanding of art and her emotional support have really enabled me to follow my path. Growing up in a family with parents who nurtured the arts had so much more of an influence, than I would have thought as a child. They have always given me good advice throughout time."
"I transferred to California State University – Long Beach for graphic design and started working freelance designing websites and doing a little photography work. I eventually started to see that although graphic design was an amazing field of work, it also came with a desk and that fundamentally went against how I wanted to live my life.
"I really love photography and decided to stop fooling myself onto a safer path and focus on photography for better or for worse. It was a very liberating feeling, and I don't regret that whatsoever. My parents had always encouraged me to do what makes me happy in life. I really believe that without their support and the culturally rich socialization they exposed me to, I would not have been able to walk away from some parts of conventional life and really see and do the things that interest me. "
One interest Coulthard has is spatial relationships, but his work has "pretty heavy sociological undertones in my motivation," he says.
"I am very interested in the concept of guiding the making and meaning of the work. I try to flatten space by creating repetitious patterns turning the micro into a macro whole, shot in a way that everything is seen equally in focus, bringing large expanses of space into a very flat image. Another thing you might notice is the lack of people or really anything besides man-made, utilitarian space.
"That being said, I also like to make visuals that are well made. My conceptual art isn't really about how well or technically made the piece is, but more about expressing the particular concept I'm going for by any means necessary. I strive to make imagery that is conceptually strong and technically sound. The best thing about art is there are no rules. It is subjective, and I would hope you would look at my work and have your own ideas about the reasoning behind it, or if you just like the way it looks, that's great.
"I would say that my action and commercial photography are very environmental. I look at the spatial relationships between the surroundings and the object being skated more than the actual skating. I feel like I innately know what I want the actual action of skating to look like from my 25-plus years of being fully immersed in it in every way; it is second nature to know. I would also say I am very interested in the choices made in lighting. I do not like just documenting; I am into the idealization of it. It's hard to just document with all the different lighting, angles, lenses, cameras, details included or not included, negative and positive space and the environment photographers choose. I like to see the choices photographers make."
Coulthard's latest choice is shooting interiors. "It has been challenging, but fun. It is a different direction from skateboarding and abstractions of architecture, but the challenges of lighting and learning something new has been great. There are different details and ways of styling that I am starting to realize and learning."
While Coulthard is refining his art and exploring new topics, he also has been working for Converse with its skateboarding teams. "My role or title is Converse global skateboard ambassador, manager and photographer or something like that," he jokes. "We go to different global regions throughout the year, work on magazine articles and make video pieces or shoot advertising photos Converse may need. I also go to many events Converse sponsors, and we all participate as a team to help with the marketing to reach out to the different regions of the earth. We are all really good friends and that really helps to make it not feel like work. Also, this amount of travel really helps me to see a lot of the world and that allows me to shoot a lot of other subjects I am into for my personal fine art projects."
While some fine artists rail at the necessity to do commercial work, Coulthard is remarkably sanguine about it.
"It takes money to live, and I really don't mind if I am using an art form that I am truly passionate about to financially sustain my wife and myself and haven't felt the need to neglect fine art. I get excited doing commercial work, but fine art is what really motivates me. There is always a challenge or something to figure out to make a living. I think some artists would rather die than use their skill for commercial work. I feel like there is always a comfortable balance, and you don't have to put your artistic vision on the line if you know the boundaries you are willing to work within. I am thinking more about this lately due to my wife and I expecting our first child, because throughout the years it has not always been easy, so this is a new part of my life. I believe that humans have the capacity to grow into whatever is needed. I am really excited about our baby."
Coulthard's wife, Grace, is one of his greatest supporters and also brings a great deal of practical expertise to helping his career.
"I know that I am really bad at marketing myself. If it wasn't for my wife Grace, I would not be where I am now. She has basically forced me to do some of the minimal marketing I have done. She is very smart about these types of things, and I am lucky she takes the time to help me. She works for a top interior design firm in Beverly Hills and has introduced me to gallery owners, art consultants and many showrooms. Being able to work with my wife and the firm she works for has led to some amazing opportunities as well."
For instance, it helped him to get access to the New England Patriot's Gillette Stadium. This allowed him have the "run of the place" to shoot for several days, which eventually led to the installation of an abstract photograph of the home stadium for the star quarterback and supermodel wife.
His wife also introduced him to gallery owners, which he says is exciting because when your artwork is sold, you know that there are people who appreciate and understand your work.
"Selling your work enables you to see your work actually completed as an art piece," he says. "So often in modern photography an image lives on a hard drive, and you don't see it to full completion. Also making a living from your fine art and being able to reinvest in the making and continuation of any bodies of work you are doing is a great feeling. I still need to work on building relationships with gallery owners; my wife would agree."
Coulthard's work has been exhibited in group shows and published in many skateboard magazines. It has been in interior and architectural magazines. His still photography is also shown as a time-lapse in the opening credit of the show "Gang Related" on Fox TV.
During all this hectic activity, he still finds time to help mentor young artists.
"I have been a part of several workshops teaching kids about photography. I also try and offer any technical information and advice to younger photographers and artists navigating their way down the often unclear path. I learned a lot of technical stuff through curiosity, obsession and trial and error- which was invaluable, but a little guidance from someone who has gone through that struggle already can go a long way."
- Meet artist Christopher McElroy