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Sweet Spinning Wheels 

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Harrison LevEnstein

Believe it or not, art and skating go hand in hand. Ever seen a skate video? Someone had to film and edit it. Those decks the kids skate on? Flip a few over and you'll be surprised at the diversity and vivacity of their graphics. Graffiti is an important element too, and its rebellious, aggressive lettering contributes to a maturing skate aesthetic that embraces the cold, hard urban asphalt as well as the playful vigor of youth. Both the art and athletics of skating and BMX biking are central to RampArt, a brand new indoor terrain park and creative center developed by Robert Jensen and Matthew Barry.

As a member of the Ink People's DreamMaker program, RampArt received critical assistance with the inevitable bureaucratic hurdles the new business would face. RampArt's all-volunteer, non-profit, art-heavy strategy meshed nicely with Ink People's vision for fostering creative opportunities to engage the community in positive ways. The space allows kids to explore their interests in graffiti, alternative art, skating and BMX riding with supervision so they don't have to do it in places that are potentially dangerous or even illegal.

On top of skating and BMX lessons, at RampArt's week-long summer skate camps, local graffiti masters demonstrate letter construction and essential color-layering, along with important safety rules and instructions on when and where graffiti is appropriate. Stencil workshops teach kids the basics of cutting out negative-space graphics and words. Adults with skills in graffiti and stencil work have already coated the 4,000 square-foot facility with spray-painted works, providing a drippy, shifting array of colorful murals for an eye-popping background.

This month for Arts! Arcata, RampArt is featuring the high-fire stoneware ceramics of Harrison Levenstein. It's fitting. Where RampArt is a vessel for young artist's expression, Levenstein is a young artist making vessels. He's also a skater.

A senior at Humboldt State University as well as an employee of the Fire Arts Center, Levenstein is enamored with the ceramic process. Sitting at his electric potter's wheel, a beanie keeps his mop of curly hair at bay. Clay splatters his faded shirt, jeans and skate shoes. In front of him, the spinning mound of clay puts him in a meditative state. He describes it as being "in the zone;" the world falls away while he focuses on the clay and its response to the practiced movement of his hands.

Levenstein's work is functional and designed to bring a touch of beauty and charm to those who use it. Drippy ash glazes slide over squiggly slip decorations. Wavy lines lead your eyes around each piece, accentuating their roundness. Subtle bulges in the bodies of his vases bloom with swoopy handles. A rusty-orange matte-glazed teapot seems to puff out its chest as it sits proudly aside two little matching cups. Each piece is thrown and slightly altered (pushed, pulled or paddled) before Levenstein adds his trademark dots and flourishes. Nope, that ding in a cup's foot isn't an accident, it's a purposeful mark meant to give more life and personality to these one-of-a-kind works.

Levenstein abhors the plethora of cheap, mass-produced "cookie-cutter" ceramics available today. He sees his work as a direct reaction to the empty, soulless feeling he gets when people accept those inferior pots as the norm. Sure, we all need something to eat and drink from, but he says, "when you step back and check out things that people are making with their bare hands," the laborious effort and high cost of producing such items are "worth it for the aesthetic of it." Levenstein loves it when he sees friends and loved ones using his work. Indeed, picking up one of his pieces is a tactile treat. It's as if you can feel the shape of his hands and sense his connection to each step of the ceramic process.

Levenstein is inspired by ceramic artists who push the envelope, playing with their glazes and forms. In turn, he does a lot of experimentation himself, ensuring that each piece is distinctive. The visual continuity of his work is important as well; Levenstein wants you to be able to recognize that the pots originated from his hands. The result is a tight yet fluid look, which he says compares in some ways to the polished splendor of a finely-honed kick flip. "Being a skater has a lot to do with the aesthetics of the tricks," says Levenstein, and "respect comes from doing a trick and doing it clean." For Levinstein, that means not just mindlessly pumping out pots, but taking the time to refine every detail with grace and sophistication.

Snappy grinds, shiny pots and more can be found at the Arts! Arcata reception at RampArt Skate Park, 700 South G St., on July 12 from 6 to 10 p.m. Johnny B, Katalyst and Something Simple will bring the tunes — you bring the kids, the good vibes and, of course, your board (optional!).

Ken Weiderman spent plenty of time throwing clay and skating as a kid, and he turned out all right.

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Ken Weiderman

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