Rebels on Decks
Inga Guzyte’s Art of Recycled Skateboards Takes Off
By Charles Donelan | December 16, 2021
The Anapamu Street facade of Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery, looks friendly with a dash of imposing. As the city’s premier gallery, its status complements the Santa Barbara Museum of Art across the street. Established artists such as Hank Pitcher, Nicole Strasburg, John Nava, and Angela Perko have been with the gallery for several decades. Individual works on display are priced as high as five or six figures. Its archival holdings stretch into the 19th century, and the gallery has published handsome scholarly monographs on master artists including Ray Strong. Leon Dabo, and Lockwood de Forest. Sullivan Goss looks like a pillar of the art establishment because it is one.
This accumulated prestige makes the story of the gallery’s breakout star of the moment that much more interesting. Inga Guzyte, a 37-year-old immigrant from Lithuania by way of Germany, just sold out her solo show Young Sparrows. According to the gallery’s owner, Nathan Vonk, this maintains Guzyte’s perfect record of selling every work she’s ever shown at Sullivan Goss.
To say Guzyte’s work is distinctive is an understatement. Even in an era of relentless innovation and stunt-like conceits in the visual arts, Guzyte’s dynamic and colorful portraits stand out. Going by visitor responses to the work’s impact, it practically jumps off the wall. According to Vonk, “It’s not all the time when somebody comes in and says, ‘That’s the most exciting work I’ve seen by anybody in a long time,’ and that repeatedly happens whenever we show Inga’s work.”
Take, for example, “Lifting Spirits,” a vibrant portrait of Amanda Gorman, the young poet who shot to stardom after appearing at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Guzyte’s image centers Gorman’s face amid an ecstatic circle of bright-yellow daffodils and accents the central composition with a pair of red birds pendant on the top right and left. The hue of the flowers recalls the bright-yellow coat Gorman wore to the inauguration, and the faint blue tint that shades her face draws from the podium’s backdrop. The birds reconstitute the red flash of her headgear. The work’s colors are unquestionably an essential element in the overall impact of “Lifting Spirits.” As Guzyte explains, “I chose daffodils because of their symbolic meaning: hope, resilience, and creativity.”
And it’s made 100 percent from broken skateboard decks.
What It’s All About
Young Sparrows is Guzyte’s second solo show at Sullivan Goss. The first, #RebelWomen, in 2019, consisted of similar portraits focusing on another distinguished group of feminist icons. Looking closely at any one of these works reveals an intricate construction process based on an unlikely palette.
Each work begins with stacks of discarded skateboard decks that the artist collects in her studio off Milpas Street. Guzyte sorts the decks by color, then painstakingly saws them into individual pieces that vary in width from several inches to less than a centimeter. Employing aspects of the woodworking technique known as marquetry, she pieces together the colored segments, then varnishes them for display as wall-mounted sculptural reliefs. Rather than applying new pigment to realize her vision, Guzyte relies solely on the color schemes already present in the decks. She obtains used decks through friendly skate shops and individual skaters who know and admire her work.
Left: “Super Rebel — AOC,” 2019 | Right: “Little Sword,” 2021
It takes her long hours at the scroll saw, surrounded by stacks of color-coded decks, to create these one-of-a-kind handcrafted objects. Like a kind of freeform jigsaw puzzle, each design requires so much concentration that Guzyte only works on one at a time. The series procedure standard among painters, in which multiple canvases are going at once, would overwhelm the equipment and the artist.
Great art gets more interesting the more you know about it, and that’s abundantly true in this case. Guzyte’s work reflects her journey, and her story offers a handy lesson in what makes someone successful in contemporary art. To trace one way that might be true, here’s a brief list of qualities that characterize breakthrough efforts in this wide-open yet highly competitive field of endeavor.
A Checklist for Artists
My hot take on what artists must do circa 2021:
1. Make work that embodies your story and resonates with your tribe.
2. Make work that reflects an original idea about material and process.
3. Make things that can’t be easily replicated by just anyone.
4. Capture and communicate a sense of history and timeliness with an element of surprise.
5. Add hope and serve.
To see how Inga Guzyte’s art fulfills these five criteria, it’s helpful to know more about how she came to Santa Barbara.
From the Skate Park to the South Coast
When Guzyte was born in the mid-1980s, her home country of Lithuania stood on the verge of a significant, much-welcomed, yet highly disruptive change. In 1990, when Inga was 4, Lithuania became the first Baltic state and the first Soviet Republic to declare independence from the Soviet Union. In the years following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Guzyte’s mother, a single parent, took her daughter, Inga; and her son, Linas, from Lithuania to Klingenthal, Germany, in search of a better life.
For little Inga, the transition was a challenge. There was not only a new language to learn but also local prejudice against new arrivals. Thanks to a sympathetic teacher at her German-speaking school, Guzyte felt somewhat protected, but she remembers that “there were a few kids that were racist,” though “one of them reached out to me not long ago to apologize.”
After a few years in Klingenthal, the Guzytes moved again to Gelsenkirchen in what had been West Germany. It was where Inga discovered a love of skateboarding. It’s also where her mother had to leave her children and go to Switzerland for a better-paying job.
Unwilling to put the children through another move while they were still getting used to the new place, Inga’s mom put her daughter, then in high school, in charge. Faced with the responsibility of caring for herself and her brother while her mom stayed in touch by phone, Guzyte discovered a supportive community among the kids who frequented Gelsenkirchen’s skate parks. “One day, I had been watching them for a while, and three or four of the neighborhood skaters just sort of included me,” she said. “One of them gave me a skateboard, and that’s how it started. [In Gelsenkirchen] they had mostly indoor skate parks because it gets cold there.”
With her mom more than 600 kilometers away, Guzyte remembers the situation as critical but not dire. When I asked her about child services and what the school made of her family’s living arrangement, she was upbeat, saying, “No, we had no problems like that. My mom worked somewhere else, but she always made sure that we had everything we needed. It was legit.” Nevertheless, this early independent living experience left Inga yearning for community, and she found it through skating.
In this country, skateboarding was tagged as something popular among lawless youth, graffiti-scrawling kids, aggressive and prone to vandalism. Some of that bad-boy image changed with the rise of well-designed and modestly supervised skate parks, and more recently its addition as an Olympic sport, but in their time in Gelsenkirchen, Inga and Linas found something that addressed their particular situation — it gave them a sense of belonging.
Skating is an unconventional sport. “It was not like one where everyone wears the same jersey,” Guzyte told me, “it was sort of the opposite.” What made skateboarding so appealing to Guzyte, she said, was “you feel alive, especially if you hurt yourself. You feel cool, and you belong to a cool group. When I was just with my brother, it was super important for me to have these friends. They became like family.”
Left: “The Notorious RBG,” 2019 | Right: “Super Rebel — Marina Abramovic”
Thanks to the well-developed public transport infrastructure in Westphalia, skate kids could travel in groups without having an adult around to drive the mini-van. Yet, despite not having lots of adult supervision, this particular scene did not involve drinking and substance abuse, it did have plenty of graffiti writing and loud music.
As a high school student, Guzyte excelled in art, and when she graduated in 2005, she had the look and attitude of a classic alternative kid — dyed black hair, really into rock ’n’ roll music, and carried a sketchbook and a skateboard with her at all times. “When I graduated high school,” she told me, “I was still figuring out what I wanted to do, and my favorite teacher told me that the best thing for me would be to travel and get a different perspective.” Guzyte studied her skateboarding videos and her copies of Thrasher magazine, looking for places to go that would allow her to progress as a skater.
“I wanted to improve my English, and I knew that skateboarding originated on the West Coast. I had met a few professional skaters who had gone to California and returned to Germany, and they said it was the place to go,” Guzyte told me. Concerned that Los Angeles would be overwhelming for a teenager on her own, Guzyte found an English language school in Santa Barbara with a homestay program, booked a student visa, and took off.
The SBCC Connection
Guzyte spent most of her time at the skate park on Cabrillo during that first three-month stint. “I think I learned more English at the skate park than at the school,” she said, adding, “I mean, the school helped as well, but….” Realizing that her skate skills would not necessarily qualify her for a career as a pro skater, Guzyte returned to Germany, determined to figure out another way to get back to Santa Barbara, where she now had a group of friends.
This determination set her on a path that led through years of immigration bureaucracy. Following the strict rules governing international students, Guzyte returned as soon as she could and enrolled at Santa Barbara City College. In the SBCC Art Department and through the mentorship of professors such as Stephanie Dotson, Nina Warner, and Ed Inks, Guzyte discovered her calling and met her first power saw.
Guzyte settled into the student scene at City College, rooming with some friends and still skating, and she began spending more time in the school’s studios and workshops. “I was still in search of the things that I like,” she said. “I was also in search of my medium as an artist.”
She took a sculpture class that encouraged students to experiment with all kinds of materials. “At some point, I had a few skateboards, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just cut them apart and put them back together somehow,’” she told me.
What began as a one-off response to an assignment soon transformed into a full-time obsession. Working long hours in the SBCC woodshop, Guzyte honed the skills she would be using for years to come. “I had the feeling that something was happening, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I even told a friend that I knew I would be doing something cool with skateboards to pay back the scene that had taken care of me.”
What followed was a time of great creativity accompanied by dislocation. Staying in good standing with U.S. immigration services required periodic trips to Germany and Switzerland. Guzyte found a studio and friends in Zurich, but there did not seem to be the same enthusiasm for what she was doing that she had felt in Santa Barbara.
Like all good young artists, she gave New York a tumble, sharing a house in Bushwick with another young woman who did stunts for movies like Batman. Throughout these years, she remained in touch with friends from City College and with a group of fellow artists who had attended Brooks Institute. In 2013, she finally made it back to Santa Barbara and placed a few skateboard pieces in a small show organized by graphic designer Ulrike Kerber at her studio on East Carrillo Street.
The Vonk Zone
Enter Nathan Vonk, followed by a gaggle of art crawlers. “Yes,” said Vonk, “at the time, I was leading the Santa Barbara art crawl on lst Thursdays, and one of the things I liked to do with the tour was to find shows that were not on the map. We walked down an alley and into this old Quonset hut where two artists were showing.” One of them was Inga Guzyte. “Immediately, I was very excited by the work, and we exchanged information,” Vonk told me.
“This was before the easy connectivity of social media, and Inga would sort of fall off my radar entirely for blocks of time because she was still traveling back and forth to Europe to renew her visa,” said Vonk. “And every single time I’d go see her work, she would have made this enormous quantum leap in the sophistication and craftsmanship of what she could do with skateboards.”
Participation in group shows around Santa Barbara at places such as the Arts Fund in the Funk Zone soon led to inclusion in 100 Grand. This sizeable annual group exhibition at Sullivan Goss, curated by Susan Bush, functions as a clearinghouse for all the new ideas and young artists in town. At that point, Guzyte’s pieces varied in subject from portraits of Air Jordan shoes to cityscapes. Finally, she created her first female portrait. She describes that breakthrough piece like this: “an unidentified young woman with an abstract hairdo and a dangling chain earring repeatedly saying “our walls will never crumble.” And with that, Guzyte began the series that would become her first solo show at Sullivan Goss Gallery, 2019’s #RebelWomen.
In November, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery announced the finalists for the sixth triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. This major exhibition premieres at the National Portrait Gallery from April 2022 through February 2023 before touring the country. Guzyte was one of only 42 finalists whose work will be included in the exhibit. Finalists were chosen from more than 2,700 entries, and the first-prize winner will receive a cash prize and a commission to create a portrait for the museum’s permanent collection. It’s the top prize for portraiture in the United States, and if I could tell you which of Guzyte’s works was named, I would, but it’s a secret until the show opens.
A Romantic Interlude
There’s another episode in the Inga Guzyte story that, from a human interest angle, cannot be omitted. In 2015, she graduated from City College, and could no longer use its woodshop. She needed to find a studio with the requisite equipment to continue creating her work, and was not having any luck until she heard about a place over by Milpas Street, just north of the Funk Zone. It was called Ponto Woodworking, and when she knocked on the door, asking about possibly renting time on a band saw, the owner, Kirk Ponto, opened it and said yes.
To paraphrase a work of classic English literature, “Reader, she married him.”
Now, back to the rest of the story.
The Lighthouse Connection
I’m sure that Naren Porter-Kasbati has pulled some pranks and that he can get rowdy after hours with his friends. Yet, sitting with him on the stoop outside Lighthouse, the skate shop on Helena Street he owns with Spencer Navarro, it’s hard not to notice how far removed he seems from the jackass hijinks image of men in the skate world.
Soft-spoken, warm, and optimistic, Porter-Kasbati completes my picture of the welcoming world that Inga Guzyte found at Santa Barbara’s Cabrillo Boulevard skate park. “She’s such a kind, genuine, and like, real person,” he said of Guzyte. “She doesn’t think she’s better than anyone else, even though her artworks are phenomenal. I’m surprised she’s not world-famous yet.”
Porter-Kasbati led me inside, where the small shop is jammed full of skateboards and enthusiastic kids. He shows me a pair of interesting early works by Guzyte that she has donated to the shop. “One of the reasons we love giving her all the old boards is because she’s just so rad,” he says and points to a Guzyte portrait of a shoe. “Look at this— that’s a Lighthouse board,” he says, indicating one small portion of the piece. “And that’s from an Anti-Hero 8.5.”
Observing the scene at Lighthouse, where kids as young as 12 feel comfortable coming on their own to check out the decks before hitting the park, I thought about the emotional connection Guzyte developed with her skate friends in Germany. I asked Porter-Kasbati what he thought that was about: “What’s so amazing with skating is you’ll go to the park and get your time in the morning, or whatever, and there will be little kids and older men and women, all different ages and races, and it doesn’t matter. You’re all there skating and having fun. And if you’re cool, you’re going to hang out. There’s no judging. You all love skating, so let’s go skate.”
Let’s return to the artist’s to-do list I made earlier with that in mind. Working with the discarded skateboard decks, collecting them, organizing them, and recycling or upcycling them into works of art— that’s a transformation of material that’s not only ecologically friendly but also a tribute to the tribe that raised this artist and set her on her path. The medium and the process come together in homage to a community where the artist could thrive emotionally, not once, but twice— when she moved to Germany and again later when she came to Santa Barbara.
Then there’s the marquetry, which is exquisite. What Guzyte does with the saw and the sander requires patience, practice, and inspiration. It’s beyond what even a well-qualified woodworker might be able to do.
Add in the subjects— the #RebelWomen and the Young Sparrows— and you see what it looks like when all the pieces of a flourishing contemporary art project come together.
There aren’t many women in skateboarding or woodshops, but there are some, and there will be more. By staying true to the original impulse of giving back, Guzyte eventually arrived at a feminist statement, but from an organic rather than an artificial, intellectualized direction. As a girl whom the bros accepted, she never lost her appreciation for the grace of that.
The final touch came when she began to focus on something external that wasn’t skateboarding, but that mattered to her. And here’s where the implicit support of her mom, and her teachers, and the inspiring women in public life comes in and irradiates the whole effort with the power of hope. The only girl in the room invites the rest.
And they all wear hats!