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Alexis Sablone

Architecture & Ants

Alexis Sablone first appeared on the screen in 2002 in P.J. Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible, Life. She then studied architecture, got offered numerous scholarships, received her master’s degree at MIT, won some contests, and went pro for WKND – that part of her career is pretty well known and impressive enough. Not so much known but no less interesting is that she also designs the boards for them, does animations, and works on a huge graphic novel. Sounds like a fully packed schedule? Yeah. “How many hours do you sleep?” asked Sarah understandably when she met Alexis for a talk about her art projects.

Alexis Sablone Tws Mehring 4

Photo: Jonathan Mehring

Alexis, can you tell me how you got into graphic design?

I’ve been drawing longer than I’ve been skateboarding. Drawing is probably my favorite thing to do. So that’s how I ended up even studying architecture. I like to draw and I like math, so someone was like, “Oh, study architecture.” But it kind of just fell into place as a job when I started skating for WKND a couple of years ago. They didn’t have enough time to do all the animations for a video, so I volunteered to do it. I ended up doing a bunch of them and my role expanded to do some graphics and then the graphic designer quit. I took over doing also the graphics, and by now, we have another graphic designer, Lea, and we split it between the two of us.

You never studied graphic design, right?

No, I didn’t. I guess people that haven’t studied architecture think that it’s really just buildings and stuff. But it encompasses all kinds of designs. Of course, it’s different than having a graphic design background, but you can make a lot of stuff that’s not buildings. So I got into animating at architecture school and into all kinds of different things. I like to see how someone draws. Seeing what they make is kinda a different way of figuring out what’s inside someone else’s head instead of speaking about it. I’ve always flicked through tons of books and it has always been an interest of mine. Not just graphic design but anything with drawing, design, architecture. Anything visual basically.

"I got into animations. That carried on into my thesis, which was a story about a nuclear waste repository"

I feel like you’re attracted to motion and not only still images.

Yeah, animation is something that I’ve always been really into. I have only started teaching it to myself through architecture and that’s where I got into storytelling and narrative stuff. Also, I think that buildings can be so stagnant. As long as you represent certain things, architects are happy, but if you want to tell a certain story… It kinda got boring for me to just draw the building. Actually, I had this one studio where we were building our own weird concrete objects that had sort of different movements built into them. We asked ourselves how you make some kind of geometry that can move in a way you imagined from the beginning. We went to Peru and looked at Machu Picchu to study how they moved massive things a long time ago. All together, we built this 4,000 pound thing [1,800 kg, editor’s note] that two people can move by their own.

Kickflip frontside noseslide | Photo: Sarah Meurle

Soloskatemag Alexis Sablone

Kickflip frontside noseslide | Photo: Sarah Meurle

That’s what you can see in the pictures as well.

That studio was called Megalithic Robotics. Not anything to do with actual robots but rather robotics in the sense of that there’s a preprogrammed motion built in geometry. And since we were looking at Machu Picchu and all these ancient places, I started thinking about wanting to tell stories about this fictional object that I was making as if it had been really massive and in the landscape of some place since the beginning of time. And in order to be able to tell that story, I got into animations. That carried on into my thesis, which was a story about a nuclear waste repository. It’s a fictional story told from 10,000 years in the future because the life span of nuclear waste is so long. It’s about what happens to this architectural site that holds all the waste we are producing today. It’s the most interesting thing to me to think about these periods in the scope of time in the universe. So this is how I fell in love with telling stories which is again connected to animation. Also, I’m kinda a perfectionist. And when you just have one drawing, you feel really dissatisfied with it, and animation makes it less about the single drawing. Even if the actual single drawing sucks, you can make it about something bigger by animating it. It basically comes to life.

What else is inspiring to you?

All kinds of stuff. Visually, I think there’s always someone’s work that I’m obsessed with at any time, like different animators, comic artists, or weird rappers. I save anything that I like.

Like ants.

Oh, I do like ants. I’m inspired by their work ethic. But yeah, I think I’m too inspired sometimes by other things which can be distracting. I have to stop looking at anything else and start focusing. It’s easy to love other things and hate your own. I think it changes day to day, week to week, depending on what I’m working on. Even recently for this Malmö project, which is more like an architecture project.

"I do like ants. I’m inspired by their work ethic"

Tell us a little bit about that.

I got asked if I wanted to design a skateable sculpture to be placed somewhere in an urban context in Malmö. Of course, I wanted to do that. As designer and architect, everyone always asked if I wanted to design skateparks, but I was always kinda annoyed by that question. I love skating skateparks, they’re fun, but I never thought about that. Maybe subconsciously, skateboarding works its way in my architecture work somehow, but it was never with intention. But this project seemed really cool because it’s something that’s gonna be living in the middle of the city. Skaters would use it, maybe non skaters would hang out there. That’s really exciting to me. Whatever I work on is really all I can think about. So the things that inspire me change depending on what I’m working on. Suddenly, all my old architecture books came out.

Because you wouldn’t look at skateparks as a reference but rather stick to architecture for the designing process?

I was looking at a couple of my favorite architects and sculpture projects. Some of my favorite stuff is from the late ’60s, early ’70s. There are a bunch of fictional architecture projects where young architects drew things that were never built.

Is it important for you to step away from skateboarding when it comes to architecture? Cause when I went to art school, I felt like I wanted to do my own thing aside from skating.

Right now, a lot of the graphics and animations I’m doing end up within skateboarding. In my future, whatever outlet I’ll have, wherever they’ll end up, I’ll be fine with. It would be cool if that’s not only in skateboarding forever, but it’s also kind of a dream. I’ve been drawing ever since. I just really love it. Especially when I’m doing work that’s just for myself, where there’s no clear outlet, that’s some of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I feel like I have total creative control and get to be making whatever I want. Sometimes, I’m super inspired and then I have the moments where it’s like, “What am I doing? What is this for?” For whatever reason, I want to make it so badly and then the low part of this is wondering who actually cares for it. There are a lot of cool, creative people in skateboarding, but there are also a lot of cool, creative people outside of skateboarding. But I’m happy that it gives me some purpose with the work I’m doing. But yeah, I’m definitely on the side of trying to finish some bigger projects that are just my own. 

If we look at the pictures that you sent to us… This is the rock you were talking about. What’s the story behind that? 

I’m working on this graphic novel. This one originally started with my thesis I designed the nuclear waste repository for. There are some weird properties with nuclear waste that I was really excited about. After nuclear waste leaves the reactor, robots have to move it because it’s so hot. So robots move it into these pools of water and the water glows blue. It’s this effect called Cherenkov radiation. The main way it’s stored is that they put it in deep geological repositories. In a mountain of a certain type basically. But one of the dangers is that it gets so hot that it can melt entire mountains. And another thing is that it lasts for 100,000 years. When you look at the life span of the materials we use, they don’t last that long. The interesting thing is that glass lasts for over a million years and is actually 15 times stronger than concrete in compressed strength. All these things are part of the project, and the graphic novel basically takes this repository project as a starting point. The first part of it takes place in the near future and it’s telling a story about how the architects came up with the idea of putting all the world’s waste at this one spot in the desert. They built this huge thing that is the size of multiple Hoover Dams and they filled it with sand and the heat from the waste melts the sand into glass over time. And over time, the concrete that held the sand breaks away and what’s left is this glowing glass thing because the radioactivity glows in water and glass. So it’s basically this weird glowing thing that would be in the desert for 100,000 years. Part one is telling how the construction started and how it came to be and part two jumps 2,000 years and the site is now a big tourist attraction. For a long time, it has been an exclusion zone where nobody went. Nature took over again, similar to what happened in Chernobyl. Populations of animals are actually higher even though it’s radioactive. So now it has become this bizarre twist of fate that this once really serious site becomes a place for tourists to look at things that were once scary. At that point in the story, it’s the largest natural place left. Because the rest has been filled with cities. And part three jumps 10,000 years and it’s the story of the same site, but there are way fewer people on earth and it has turned into this massive glowing rock. They think that it’s something sacred… It wants to show how the same place on earth is being seen completely different over time.

Alexis Sablone Ollie Mehring 8015

Ollie | Photo: Jonathan Mehring

Maybe you can talk about your next projects.

The main thing besides skateboarding is probably finishing this book. It’s like 300 pages. And there are two longer animations that I’m trying to finish. The ones I get to do for WKND are only a couple of seconds even though all animations take a lot of time to do. But the ones I’m planning are more narrative. I’m not sure about the order in which I’m gonna finish all these projects, because it’s a ton of stuff. Right now, I’m working on four animations and six or seven graphics. That’s all due in three weeks.

How many hours do you sleep?

Not that many. More than I did in school, but my schedule is a mess.

You get really into it?

I get tunnel vision. It’s different though. Whenever I’m writing for the book, I could fall asleep midsentence. It’s really painful for me to get through. But with drawing, it’s like, I think it has been two hours, but it has been ten. It’s kinda scary, but then again, it’s cool. I like working at night or early in the morning. I’m a morning person, but I’m also a night person. I hate the middle of the day. It depresses me. I pretty much work all day even though it mostly doesn’t feel like work. Of course, I take breaks to eat and a little bit to hang out. I like going to the movies a lot. But besides that, I’m always working. And some skateboarding, too.

"I’m a morning person, but I’m also a night person. I hate the middle of the day."

I feel like you always draw whenever I meet you.

Really, when I’m working on something that involves some kind of drawing, it’s all I can think about. To be thinking about it and not drawing is frustrating. It’s like being at the perfect spot and not having your board.

When you have the idea, you just want to start working on it?

A lot of times, I work in circles because I hate what I did and have to go back again and again.

Never not working.

Like an ant.

Tell us the walnut story.

It was a rainy day in Paris and I was walking past a whole trail of ants while getting a drink. I left them a walnut and when I got back twenty minutes later, the whole walnut was in tiny pieces, being carried up a massive sculpture right next to them by these small ants. I started recording them in slow motion and I was mesmerized. Now, whenever I see a little trail of ants, I try to feed them and have this moment again.

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