To conclude last year's collaboration with Isle Skateboards, we caught up with Nick Jensen to talk about painting, skating and his work as Isle's Creative Director. Interview by Theo Krish.
How did the Isle Palestine trip come about in the first place? Was it easy to persuade you to go?
Thats a good point actually. Chris (Jones) was always saying on the Isle WhatsApp group 'let’s go to Palestine!' I kept ignoring it because it was exciting but I’m a bit of a pussy when it comes to travelling. I get really anxious and I felt like it was going to be really intense and stressful leading up to it. Then I realised stop being a fucking pussy it's going to be amazing!
And was it less stressful than you imagined?
Absolutely! It was one of the most fun trips I’ve ever been on, it wasn’t at all stressful for me, just really thoroughly enjoyable. In my head Palestine was a twelve hour flight away but then I realised it was an Easy Jet flight four hours away. It’s just because so much crazy shit has gone on there that you compartmentalise it and put it in this place in your mind where you think that it's miles away because somewhere so close can’t have that much trauma.
Isle were the first official team to tour the country. So that trip and the way Jake’s portrayed it is the way that other professional skaters...
...will receive the first ever skateboarding on that landscape.
Exactly. People who have never heard of Palestine before are going to discover it through Pieces of Palestine.
Yeah and it looks thoroughly different. It’s got a touch of the Mediterranean, it’s got the Middle Eastern quality, it looks like a bewildering, magical place and I don’t know many other places that look like that in footage.
Do you think the way Jake's put the video together is going to alienate some people?
In a way I think Pieces of Palestine challenges the idea of what a skate video actually is. It's really different - it sits in a space halfway between journalism and a skate video. It doesn't lead up to a heroic moment with a 'well done they saved Palestine' or an amazing tre flip down twenty stairs. It's just an intimate portrait of some lads going around Palestine. It's not that straight forward, you don’t go from A to B and get to understand the role of the piece.
I think it's going to cause people confusion on both sides; the skate side and the non-skate side because they won’t necessarily understand what the value of the piece is or what it's designed to achieve. I think that's the whole point of Jake's film, but it will definitely cause a lot of confusion I think.
Since working with Jake on Vase have you left him to do his own thing?
It hasn’t been my place to step in. When we do Isle projects like Transworld (Cinematographer Project) we kind of conceptualise and brainstorm together, but with the Atlantic Drift series it's been one of those things where it’s not an Isle production. So he’s kind of delivering his own vision.
With Pieces of Palestine, although it was made with Isle, I think we had this understanding that it wasn't a branded piece. So it was more just Jake feeling confident in his style and pushing it in a new direction as a filmmaker in his own right, working alongside but not with Isle. He’s getting stronger in his own vision so he feels more confident in his decision making right now.
Tell us about the history of Isle...
Let me work this out... Isle is about four years old. It started when Paul Shier came up to me, we were skating in Kings Cross and Blueprint was kind of going under due to the recession and loads of things like that. It was getting managed by someone else in the States and it just wasn't working out. Paul quietly said to me ‘would you be interested in starting up a company with me and doing the design work?’ I was obviously excited and said yeah!
Then Sylvain (Tognelli) and I went to LA on a Lakai trip and we’d always stay at Paul's house. Me, Paul and Sylvain sat down and properly discussed it because at that point it was still a bit of a hypothetical option. We worked out a mass quit from Blueprint and orchestrated it that way so everyone could quit at once, so everyone was in the loop. People didn’t know that Isle was going to start but that's a different story. Everyone on the team was over it and it was a known factor that people were going to jump ship. The way it was being run wasn’t the Blueprint it used to be.
But in essence Isle started out of the love of skateboarding, wanting to do something that was different to what was already out there. We felt that we already had that option, trying to show skating in a different way and the design of skateboards in a different way. We had a really strong crew and vibe and it was born out of that connection.
Other than you three had you already chosen the rest of the Isle team before leaving Blueprint?
No, after we quit Blueprint we kind of worked out the team, it happened quite organically and quite slowly even though some people don’t think it did.
Were you involved in any of the art work in Blueprint before this happened?
So the aesthetic of Isle has no crossover?
Only in that I skated for Blueprint and (Dan) Magee who was the mastermind behind the graphics and all the editing, he was the kind of director and creative for Blueprint and I had a strong connection with him. We used to skate together all the time. So there was definitely a crossover in terms of understanding the value in Britishness. There is a crossover in some ways but for me with Isle it was a case of 'right ok Nick time to do a set of designs'.
I come from a painting background, I generally make oil paintings on canvas. So when it came to doing the designs, I wasn’t very sure on how to use Photoshop. So I just decided to make objects in the same way I make paintings, things that physically exist on the wall and photograph them and use that photograph to turn it into a screen-printed graphic. The first series we did felt really scary to me because I didn’t know if it was good or not. But it got really well received.
Which was the first series?
The studio series, with frames and one had a palm tree with sand on.
And that was the first time you'd ever designed a board?
Had you ever thought about designing boards for Blueprint?
Not really, I’d never engaged with it. I was into painting and I'd never really thought that painting would physically translate onto a board.
Do you feel differently about that now?
Well I don’t feel that differently about it now, because I still don’t put my paintings on the boards (Editor's note: since this interview was recorded Nick used one of his paintings for Casper Brooker's pro board).
There have been times where people have said 'oh put that on a board it looks really cool', but I don’t see a link at this stage. For me it was for more just about really engaging with what it means to make a skateboard and I’d never had to think about it in that intense way. I mean it took me a while, about two months, to figure out how to do that for the first Isle series.
So you basically hadn’t considered designing boards full stop…
No, because it takes quite a lot mental energy to consider a concept for a board and I’d never even fantasised or imagined that. It wasn’t in my mind. Until someone said you should do it, it forced me to fully engage with it and think 'ok these are the parameters I have to deal with, these are the problems I need to solve'.
And did Shier fully back your ideas from the beginning?
Yeah he was very trusting, he had no idea what to expect really. We had a chat about it. It was still really very sketchy, it was very like 'what the fuck, what are we going to do for our first series?'. We didn’t really do that much of a brand exercise at the start like ‘this is what we are going to be or this is what it represents’. We tried, but we're skaters, we're not that professional, we don’t know how to work like that. If we did work like that then maybe it would feel more wooden and constructed.
Did the reception of the first series help you to have confidence in your work?
Yeah it spurred me on and actually I’ve just realised that a major point is that I used to run a gallery in my flat and show contemporary art. So I knew what it was like to show work on white walls and organise the work of different artists. I have a massive interest in that world so I think that crossed over into the way I treat the boards, almost like the white wall in my gallery.
That make sense as to why there is a lot of white in Isle’s imagery.
Yeah. That white is supposed to be like a gallery wall.
Where does your inspiration come from for art and skating? Is there an overlap between the two?
Yeah definitely. When you see a skater interacting with a space in a way that feels original, that's exciting and it's the same with art really. You see a painting and it has a certain energy to it that you maybe haven’t experienced before. It's a really innate feeling that's difficult to articulate, it's just a drive that makes you think 'I want to be involved in that'.
That's something I get from Isle videos and British skating in general, things feel achievable and that inspires you to go out and skate...
Yeah I think there is definitely that. With Vase I think it came down to the way we made the installations for the video. We were quite happy to reveal the scrappy nature in which they were designed. So you might see the masking tape holding up an object or you might see a finger holding it. It wasn’t about being super slick and professional. It's about the process of an idea just as much as the idea itself.
For example in art, Picasso doesn't just make a masterpiece. If you go to an exhibition you see all these amazing etchings where he goes through a thousand options before he gets to where he wants to be. There's a lot of working it out and that's what skating is, you don’t just wake up one day and smith grind a twenty stair hand rail.
Something that really shows this creativity I think is Mike Arnold’s Lloyds part; you can take one area and use your brain and skill and really do some inventive stuff. It doesn’t mean you have to do something super impressive like flying down loads of stairs. You can use the space and do something simple. I think there's a materiality to Isle, bringing things back to basics, nothing is too slick.
How do you see the work you do for Isle vs your solo work?
It's just different, tapping into different a world. In skateboarding I’m thinking much more about graphic design. When I’m making a painting I’m not thinking about design at all. So my mindset is in a different space. It's not that one is better than the other, it's just a different mind space, a different channel of thinking. The people I’m inspired by are slightly outside of those graphic-y things or they work well because I love the way they look on canvas which you don't get on a wooden screen-printed board. They're a different medium so I don't try and pretend that they're not.
I guess with skateboards you always have a constant - the shape stays the same whereas a painting can be any shape...
Exactly. You can’t crop a painting to be really narrow and weird unless it's been designed in that way. Also there is the reproducibility of skateboards to consider, you need to make six in every series and quite a lot of them are different designs.
With paintings I don’t think of them like a product. It's a bit more like poetry, you think of ideas and you get it out there and it has a moment in time. It's not reproducible. With boards you're working towards a market of people and what they like. You have to think slightly differently, like is this is going to really ‘pop’ off the board.
In the art world, Ad Reinhardt (abstract painter) could make an all black painting as a declaration of the end of painting, this final black space. The idea is beautifully poetic but that's not going to work on a skateboard. It'd just be black and people aren't interested in that sort of revolutionary concept he was dealing with in the 1960s, people would say 'fuck off'! I want to look at a picture that's going to function on a skateboard that's going to make me want to ride it.
You're thinking about the end user whereas in painting it's more about yourself.
Yes absolutely. Like your theory on your existence. It's a bit more existential, a bit more personal.
You mentioned before that the Curiosities series was the best selling Isle series?
Yeah I think they were the best selling because they do a few things really successfully. They allow you to represent different characteristics of the skaters, they play on different shapes, shadows, colours and tones. They're really enjoyable on the eye and as a series they look great together. They interconnect like a jigsaw puzzle.
Yeah they bring a very touchable 3D element. If there's any deck you're going to put on your wall it's one that looks like it was already there.
Yeah. Like Trompe-l'œil, it's an illusion of space.
How'd you come up with that?
Chris Aylen, Shier and I were thinking about those cabinets of curiosities and we were looking at these old dusty ones in museums. I thought we should do that but in more of a gallery vibe, keeping with the white aesthetic and we made it to scale. We made the shelves. So if you look at the shelves in my studio at the moment they're the same height and width as a skateboard. There's something nice about that relationship between one-to-one ratios. It keeps it real and not about being too illusionistic and show-off-y.
Do you usually design those on your own?
With that series Chris Aylen was very involved with me. We’d spend quite long periods of time at my studio arranging objects on the shelves for that series. As it's gone on our roles have slightly shifted and I'm doing a bit more graphic work.
How did the Isle x SkatePal Curiosities board differ, did you approach it in the same way?
With this one there was more of a dialogue. Normally it's me and Chris thinking about a skater. With this one it was about speaking directly with you, someone who goes to Palestine all the time and has a working relationship with those memories and ideas, combined with my own experience of what makes a board look cool in terms of colour.
How do you think the board stands up against the others?
Yeah I think it looks like it's just part of series. It doesn't have any thing overtly different in any way. It hasn't got a political agency with it. It's just about objects that remind us of either a person or a place. It serves the same function.
That fits nicely with Pieces of Palestine. What you see on the board is what we brought back from that trip...
Yeah memories as well like, the the Taybeh beer. I have really fond memories of talking with Ala (Hilo) and learning so much about Palestine over a beer in Singer Cafe (Bethlehem).
Ok moving on. What are the difficulties of being a board company in 2018?
The main difficulty is that the market is over saturated. There are so many companies now that it’s quite hard to compete. It's harder to stand out because everyone can kind of move around a bit and that's acceptable, whereas before it was like companies stuck with one style.
But that's a challenge I enjoy because it means it's a bit more engaging and pressurising to think ‘alright how are we actually going to do something different’. That can be achieved through the skaters, through video editing, it can be through any way in which you represent yourself.
At the moment you balance your work between running Isle, skating and painting - would you eventually like to be doing Isle full time?
Well I do love doing Isle because it's a bit like letting off steam in a way, but I guess I wouldn't want to do it full time. I wouldn’t want it to overtake painting and skating and become a pure job because it’s just not who I am. I like the fact that it's a bit like a mini family - we enjoy feeding off each others ideas and that way it grows naturally and stays quite organic. It’s exciting and feels flexible in that way. It feels like we can do anything we want.
And you don’t have the pressure of having to fulfil shareholders wishes or this sort of thing?
Yeah exactly, I think that just wouldn’t feel real anymore.
So on the flip side, would you ever want to do painting full time?
Yeah I would actually. I would like to do painting full time.
Is that something you’d like to do when you are 'done' being a pro skater?
Well I mean it's just not my choice, because it depends on how successful you are. If I was represented by a really big gallery and people really wanted to buy my work and I could make a living out of it I’d love to, but I can’t choose that. At the moment I don’t make enough of a living out of it to support myself.
What's next for Isle?
What I like about it is that it’s not that planned. It’s up to the team and how we all decide what our next trip is or what our next project is. For me it's about things like the guest series, growing relationships with interesting artists and asking them to design a board.
I think it's really interesting to take people who aren’t necessarily inside the world of skateboarding and get them to think about how their work could fit in that format. It's less insular. Being less tribal about it and getting more people involved helps to break down those barriers down, which for me is quite exciting.
Last Question. How has becoming a father impacted your art and skating?
(Laughs). Well I think it's too early to say ‘cause he’s only a few months old. Not as much as I thought to be honest - it’s been a joy and I’ve still managed to do everything else so I recommend it.
What about the next one?
I think one is enough for now!
Keep up to date with Nick's painting and skating: