If anyone’s learned how to take dire circumstances and spin them into gold, it’s Mark Rivard, who used a series of misfortunes to set the stage for a successful career that’s brought him around the world intersecting art, business, education, and advocacy.
It began in 2004 in his mom’s basement, of all places. Rivard had recently suffered a debilitating knee injury while living as a ski bum in Colorado, which left him couch-ridden for six months in his childhood Brooklyn Park home following a knee reconstruction. One day, desperate for something to do, he picked up one of his old skateboard decks and started drawing. What began as a treatment for mind-numbing boredom quickly gained attention, first from the skate community, then the fine art world.
“I’d never thought about art as a career,” Rivard says. “Well, I didn’t think about a career at that point in my life. The goal was to get to the mountains and ski every day. Then, once I was hurt a little bit, I started thinking, ‘All right, what am I gonna do now?’”
Rivard’s first piece of what he reluctantly calls “skateboard art” (though he would never dream of suggesting he invented the term) was a Sharpie drawing of the Minneapolis skyline. “As a kid, I would go up on my mom’s roof and look at the skyline,” he says. “Growing up in Minnesota, we don’t have mountains, we don’t have beaches. […] But in my time as a kid, going skating downtown and just being in the city, there was an energy about it that I loved. That was the reason I drew it first, because that view, for my entire life, was an inspiring view.”
As a skateboarder and skier growing up (“Whatever I could do to jump off of things, basically”), Rivard was familiar with the brand endorsements that fueled athletes’ careers. When he started working his way into the art world, his business-driven approach disrupted the status quo.
“The crossover between the fine art world and the skateboard world—there are two totally different cultures, and I definitely resonated stronger with the skateboard culture,” he says. “It was just more comfortable there than to be in galleries and be the art guy. It never really fit. I didn’t go to MCAD—I don’t speak that language and I never really cared to.”
Rivard’s art career was on the rise when, in 2007, Sharpie called him up. As a loyal Sharpie user for the bulk of his skateboard art, the partnership was a perfect match. Starting with an interview posted on the company’s blog, Rivard leveraged the connection to eventually get endorsed by Sharpie, culminating in a 2011 campaign called “Starts with Sharpie.” Rivard and three other artists were featured in all of the company’s advertising and marketing, bringing Rivard’s work to the international stage.
Before he began drawing on skateboards, Rivard had never considered himself an artist—though he relied on art classes in high school to get him the high marks he needed to offset his failing grades in other classes. He was so naturally gifted that he breezed through an advanced drawing class his senior year without taking any of the required prerequisites—an administrative error that nearly kept him from graduating.
“It’s so ironic, because it was a drawing class that almost kept me from getting a diploma,” he says. He barely scraped past the finish line and calculated his exit down to the decimal. “I was a terrible student, but I wasn’t dumb. I knew exactly what I had to get done in order to get there, just to get me out of that system.”
After high school, Rivard didn’t give education a second thought—that is, until his Sharpie endorsement started catching the attention of local schools. He was invited to give hour-long presentations on his skateboard art and saw an opportunity to go deeper and introduce an alternative arts curriculum to students like him for whom the mainstream curriculum just didn’t click. “I’m looking around schools and I’m thinking, ‘Why do we teach like this? This isn’t how kids are learning; this isn’t how I learned,’” he says.
Rivard Art Education was officially born in 2012 and offered a week-long artist residency at schools ranging from elementary to secondary. The program provides each student with a skateboard to use as their canvas and keep when they’re done. Rivard credits the inherent “cool” factor of skateboard culture—and his own unique story—with drawing in students that otherwise might not give a shit about art. “When you have a skateboard under your arm, versus a 16-by-20 canvas, there’s a much bigger statement being made there. And they get it.”
In addition to the arts side of his educational endeavor, Rivard also spearheaded STAGE Culinary, a program for high school students structured similarly to his skateboard art curriculum but with food. Rivard teams up with local chefs like Shane Oporto of Octo Fishbar to teach kids the culinary arts and business of running a restaurant. Not surprisingly, this has inspired Rivard’s current body of work: a series of paintings focused on food and beverage.
Aside from making the art itself, Rivard’s driving focus is teaching kids to seize opportunities, even if they’re not what they expected. “To think I’d be doing this today is, like, not a chance in the world,” he says. “But what’s more rebellious than an uneducated idiot that barely graduated high school that speaks at colleges about education?”
Medium: Drawing, paint
Currently Resides: Minneapolis, MN