For one night next week, the art world and the great outdoors will meet face to face in Asheville.
Of course, the two aren’t exactly strangers, since the outdoors is often the subject of fine art. But seldom does art itself protect one’s body from the outdoors. Until now, that is: On display at the Phil Mechanic Studios in Asheville’s River Arts District on March 13 from 5 to 10 p.m. will be several dozen whitewater paddling helmets decorated by artists from across the country. It’s the first of four stops of the “Because Rocks Hurt” helmet-art gallery.
So why use a helmet as a “canvas”? Why not a paddle or a boat? As it turns out, the material used to mold kayaks doesn’t lend itself to graphic expression, and Tom Sherburne, the brains behind the exhibit, happens to operate Shred Ready Inc., a helmet company headquartered in Auburn, Ala. But Sherburne doesn’t view the show is a shameless attempt to exhibit his merchandise. Rather, he’s hoping to bridge the hollow space between art and outdoor adventure.
“Bringing art and the kayaking world together seemed like a cool way to connect people to the sport,” Sherburne says. And a helmet, he figures, is the ideal medium to make the connection.
For centuries, most helmets were designed with one purpose in mind—to protect man’s fragile dome from sword blows and speeding bullets. When Sherburne launched Shred Ready in 1996 he did so with a more peaceful but no less vital aim in mind: to develop a lightweight and functional helmet for paddlers sealed in tight-fitting cockpits on boulder-strewn rivers.
While protection is crucial, Sherburne recognizes that helmets serve another important, though less safety-oriented, purpose. For paddlers, there is perhaps no other piece of gear that is as visible as a helmet, particularly on the river where, often as not, it’s the only way to tell one paddler from another. “Helmets tell who you are,” says Sherburne. “They are a fashion piece. You may not recognize a boater on the street, but their helmet on the river is a sure giveaway.”
Helmets also provide just enough anonymity to add allure to one’s persona. Perhaps no other article of clothing or equipment provides the kind of instant transformation from the common to the extraordinary. Place a motorcycle helmet on a CPA or sweet grandmother and they become someone else entirely, as if touched by a magic wand.
That’s not exactly the conversion Sherburne is trying to promote with the show, but his company has always tried to stay ahead of the curve. In regard to helmet design, that typically involves safer and more durable helmets. But Sherburne hasn’t overlooked the worth of creating unique designs to help paddlers express their personalities while simultaneously protecting their heads.
Gordy Hirsch, a marketing consultant who works with Shred Ready, mentioned the idea of using helmets as an art medium to Sherburne, who immediately took to it.
“Tom had this new helmet coming out, and we were trying to launch it in a unique and creative way,” says Hirsch, who spearheaded the gallery tour. Hirsch was inspired by a show of skateboard decks decorated by artists, as well as the Vader Project, where artists created their interpretations of one of the film world’s most iconic lids.
While Sherburne and Hirsh initially brainstormed the idea as a way to promote the company, they figured they’d stumbled onto something more substantial. They developed a nonprofit foundation to handle the tour and put the toppers on the auction block. Proceeds from the string of events will benefit American Whitewater, a national river-advocacy group based in Western North Carolina.
The organizers chose Asheville for the show’s debut because of its whitewater hub status and its lively arts scene. Froom here, the show moves on to three other locations: Salida, Colo.; Salt Lake City, Utah; and the grand finale in September at the Gauley Festival in Summerville, W.Va. To get the show off the ground, the foundation solicited artists through postings on Craigslist.
“We didn’t know how it was going to go, but people latched right on,” says Sherburne, who gave the artists blank white shells on which to realize their creations. The two men are hoping to display about 50 helmets that, if all goes well, are likely to be more varied in design than the pinewood derby cars at the local Boy Scouts den.
Among the entrants is Black Mountain artist Julia Burr. Her headpiece, called “Discos on Your Head for Protection,” is a multicolored mosaic of reflective tiles that might look strange on the river but perfect at a party.
That’s the kind of design Sherburne and Hirsh are hoping for—ones that will turn a few heads. Sherburne hopes that more than just paddlers will come out for the show—and, who knows, maybe even provide the inspiration for next year’s entries. Disco Inferno, anyone?
[Jack Igelman lives in West Asheville.]