February 3- 9, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Skater/artist Jim Houser dips his foot into a new medium.
"It's like me and Michael Jordan," laughs Jim Houser, standing over a pair of pink-and-black Nikes in the living room of his Queen Village home.
We're examining the sneaker the Philly-based artist designed for Nike SB, the sneaker giant's skateboarding division. They will not be called Air Housers. In fact, when the limited-edition shoe makes its debut later this month, Houser's name won't appear anywhere on them. Still, they feature materials and colors of his choosing as well as a sleepy-eyed bird that shows up frequently in Houser's work.
So what's the big deal? In skateboarding, images and icons amount to something like a secret visual language. The fact that Houser's name won't appear on the sneakers doesn't mean people won't know he's behind them. It's all about cred, and for Houser, 32, and for Philadelphia skateboarding, this is a slice of understated fame.
Nike SB occasionally taps boarding-minded artists and graphic designers to conceptualize sneakers for its ever-evolving line. (Graffiti artist Futura and graphic designer Evan Hecox have also contributed shoes.) In an act of subtlety not typically associated with the Swoosh, the sneakers aren't hyped. In fact, Nike SB's shoes are only sold at skate shops.
The release of the sneaker will be Houser's first public foray, artistically, since October, when his wife, fellow painter Rebecca Westcott, was killed in a highway accident in Connecticut. One gets the sense that he's making his way back to something resembling normalcy; in addition to the shoe launch, he's recently ended a self-imposed painting sabbatical.
The collaboration between the Philly artist and Nike came about quite by chance. Houser was in Tampa in March 2002 as part of a group art exhibition and to paint a ramp in conjunction with a large annual boarding competition. While there he met Nick Halkias, who manages a skate park in the area. "We got to know each other pretty well," says Halkias. About a year later, when Halkias became Southeast sales representative for Nike SB, he contacted Houser and asked him if he'd be interested in designing a Nike shoe. "We e-mailed back and forth for about a year," recalls Houser. "He sent me an Illustrator file, and I picked the style, the colors and the materials garment leather with a mesh toe."
Once samples were approved by Houser, everything was set. Except for where to actually launch the shoes. (Nike is cagey about numbers, but it's safe to say we're dealing in hundreds of pairs as opposed to thousands.) "They wanted to launch the shoe in New York," says Houser. "Of course, I wanted to launch in Philly. I'm very Philly forward. I want to be associated as an artist in Philadelphia."
So Nike and Houser tapped Nocturnal, the South Third Street skate shop that distributes Nike SB products, as the natural launch pad. Houser thought it only sporting to offer to design an accompanying store board. "He just got in touch with me and asked me if I would be down for him to do something on a shop board with his graphic," says Tim Quinn, one of Nocturnal's owners. The board features a recurring character Houser calls The Lifer, the store name written in his recognizable bone lettering, and his pyramid-like representation of the Tower of Babel poking through the clouds, "disturbing God," Houser notes.
The Babel reference is significant: It's a nod to both his forthcoming book, Babel, and his upcoming solo show in April at Spector gallery, which will be the first public display of his work since June.
And while the collaboration with Nike won't make Houser a bundle he's being paid in shoes it's a big deal all the same. "To me, this is not a money thing at all," says Houser. "I just thought it would be a cool thing for me to do."
Houser's Nike sneaker ($69.95) and Nocturnal skateboard ($34.95) will be on sale later this month at Nocturnal, 610 S. Third St., 215-922-3177, www.nocturnalskateshop.com.