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Wielding The Sword and Skull: The Art of Vernon Courtlandt Johnson


Skateboarding is a signifier for California and a cool, anti-authoritarian approach to life. A subculture that mixes athletics, aesthetics and attitude -- the art of Vernon Courtlandt Johnson or Court epitomizes these ideals through exquisite pen work and universal symbols for life and death. His drawings of skulls, swords and dragons are reproduced on everything from clothing and stickers to the actual skateboards that fly through the air and slap across the concrete. These designs, which made a strong impression in the 1980s, overtime have become cultural icons and badges of culture to youth around the world. Ironically these seemingly throwaway aspects of culture are now collected and prized works of art.

The skateboard company Powell Peralta was founded by George Powell and Stacy Peralta in 1978 and quickly became a favorite among skaters and followers of the subculture. Court was charged with designing these graphics and the final images quickly became synonymous with the individual riders. The aggressive imagery mirrored the risk taking and adventurous spirit of skateboarding but Court sees this work as substantial in depth and not merely a style, a mentality that pushed his art forward for decades after his foray into the field.

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Court says he spent his childhood "running around barefoot playing with sticks and stones and chasing butterflies. With a pension for creative expressionism including drawing, mud pies, and singing." Brought up in an alternative environment, Court's father bought a bus and led the family around the world for two years on an extended road trip that ended in Russia. Shortly after arriving in the USSR, the family returned to Santa Barbara. The traumatizing return had Court wishing he could have stayed on the bus.

Art has always been a place where Court could find solace especially back home in Santa Barbara. "Being of an introspective nature I found a beautiful place for that in art where I can be alone and reflect upon the craziness of the times. In line between artistic and autistic."

He practiced automatic drawing and constantly was sketching until graduating high school. "Creativity is an amazing infinite realm... art school was like a big sand box." While Court dodged the draft, he found himself involved in several detours including drugs, women and too much time spent at the beach. The counter cultural escapist mentality did not lend to formal education long term and instead he found inspiration from art books, literature, and self-instruction.

Court's introduction to skateboarding was through his brother-in-law George Powell, to help him build a new business. It was not long before Court found himself at the drawing board creating iconic images like the Skull and Sword graphic. Influenced by heavy metal culture, noted artist M.C. Escher, along with illustrators like Fritz Eichenberg and cartoonist Robert Crumb, Court began to carve his niche in skateboard history.

Yet personally, Court's journey to maintain a healthy lifestyle went through a significant transition when he learned about kinesiology. He made an effort to balance his body and start on an equally important path towards self-knowledge. A reflective and important time of growth, Court was able to forgo his insecurities, a characteristic that allowed him to work without fear of criticism. A student of the human psyche, Court developed into an introspective personality concerned with his own development.

Mike McGill Skull and Snake. | Image: Courtesy of Vernon Courtlandt Johnson.

Black and white imagery is the foundation for the majority of Court's work as each of his designs can be reduced to these elements. Yet the artwork clearly became part of his path of self-knowledge. "Mike McGill's skull and snake was an excellent exercise of a technical sort because of the rhythm throughout the composition was perfect in my understanding of control," he says. "Drawing a thousand scales all in proportion to each other taught me to stop time and experience eternity."

The repurposing of skull imagery is a favorite of Court's. "Look at the skull, that creature has a large brain and that means and that the creature is capable of engineering, the arts, thought, music, and literature. That's what the skull symbolizes to me." From Damien Hirst to the catacombs, the human skull is often used to reference humanity in the arts. Court continues this tradition and sees it as a vessel for the brain and its capacity to accomplish amazing feats. The reoccurring dragon logo for Powell Peralta is also a strong example of Court's conceptual mindset coming to fruition. "The dragon is a symbol of a soul that eats one life after another eternally." The unstoppable power of the mythological animal represents the strength of the company and the characteristic of being unstoppable.

Court eventually left Powell Peralta and began a new journey only to rejoin after his hiatus. "I left the company for 20 years and did a number of posters that allowed me to make all the decisions." Pushing the limits of his abilities, Court's path led him to some teaching and art making. Court's recent designs are fresh yet they still maintain a playful seriousness that seems equally dangerous and fun.

The overabundance of information in the 21st century can be hampering but Court has developed a strong understanding of his creative process and how it works. Whether it starts with singing, playing music, or study -- he is more productive away from the drafting table. "The work/ play/ rest rhythm is very important -- I don't burn at both ends like I used to." He is open to spontaneity in his work and it drives him on a daily basis. "Sitting and smoking and watching TV -- I draw automatically off to the side and things develop very quickly." Coming to the tables with a myriad of options and designs, the successful ones are further developed. Humble and distanced from these creations, Court does not appear burdened by his own past but instead just the opposite, he continues to create knowing himself and the game he plays.

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Top image: Re-Issued Powell Peralta Skateboards featuring the work of Vernon Courtlandt Johnson for Collectors. | Courtesy of Vernon Courtlandt Johnson.

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