By KATE ALBRIGHT AND LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Proponents of Montclair’s long-awaited, still-evolving skate park have something in common with expected Olympian Alexis Sablone: They’re both big on forward momentum.
That’s, of course, true in the most literal, kinetic-energy-based sort of way — but Sablone’s not just a force on a board. She’s a creative marvel who’s designed skateable sculptures in Sweden, and is slated to do the same for the space at Montclair’s Rand Park.
“I wanted to come here and see the space in person, and see how people use it before I got set on any one thing,” Sablone told Montclair Local Tuesday, Jan. 12, in her first visit to the park.
Her creations will enhance a space at what had been tennis courts, opened to skaters this summer, in anticipation of plans for more permanent facilities at a location yet to be determined. The township has set aside about $10,000 for the sculpture project, which Councilwoman Robin Schlager called “a bargain.” The sculptures will be moveable, and could be transported easily from Rand Park to a new home later, she said.
Sablone, expected to skate in the still-planned Tokyo Summer Olympics (preparations continue even amid doubts about whether the games can go on in the coronavirus pandemic), said her sense of design complements her creativity as a skater.
“There’s this grey area for you to have your own style and have your own personality, and your own flavor, and that’s part of skateboarding. I think that lends itself to other creative disciplines too,” she said. “I’ve been drawing longer than I’ve been skateboarding. Through my education, that led me to art and design and architecture, and now, because of my background in skateboarding, it all just kind of merged together.”
Sablone’s visit wasn’t a quiet duck-in-and-out to get the lay of the land. Skate Essex had been working to bring her to the township, and got word out with just two days’ notice that Sablone’s schedule and local officials’ schedules could line up — she was on her way. The response: Dozens of excited skaters on hand to meet one of their heroes, attention from local media, and a video feature on Montclair’s TV34 public access station. Story continues below photos.
‘Just another person’
Montclair High School senior Olivia Karny, founder of the all-girl Boardroom Skate collective (on hold due to COVID-19 precautions), said she’s been brought to tears by the camaraderie that’s formed among local female skaters in what’s often a male-dominated sport or pastime. It’s helped move past fear and intimidation, she said. And Sablone’s trailblazing as a skater and artist, she said, is empowering.
“[On Instagram], I mainly follow women. I don’t really follow that many men. And Alexis being one of them being able to see her all the time, it just really makes me feel better about my skating,” Karny said. “And it pushes me to want to influence other girls that felt the same way I did early on.”
Karny was a bit star-struck.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna meet [Sablone] — but I know that she’s just another person,” Karny said. “So she might be a celebrity or an X Games medalist, but she’s just somebody that skateboards and is a woman and is doing really well for herself, and it’s just very inspiring for me.”
That “just another person” defied some of the same expectations Karny and other female skaters encounter. But Sablone told Montclair Local that there simply weren’t that many skaters around when she was growing up in the 1990s. She was so excited to meet any, she rarely stopped to think about being the only girl in a group.
“I wasn’t shy about being the only girl,” Sablone said. “I was kind of stubborn and determined to show them that I could do it too.”
Sablone was in her 20s before she routinely had other female skaters around, she said.
“I realized there was this thing that I didn’t even know I had been missing.”
Bringing Sablone to Montclair
Skate Essex board member Paul King said more than a year ago — well before the skate park opened — group members had been thinking about ways to make a space skateable. He was familiar with Sablone’s work in Sweden. One email later, Sablone told King she’d be interested in working with the Montclair community.
“This is all DIY elements we put in here, so the town was considering spending some money on something and I said, ‘Hey, let me reach out to Alexis to see if she’d like to do this,” King said.
The skatepark was busy Wednesday, but that’s not particularly unusual, MHS skate club adviser Jamie Siwinski said. It would be like that even if Sablone weren’t on hand.
“This has been such a fantastic addition to our town. We have kids of all ages,” said Siwinski, also a Skate Essex member, a parent, and a skater. “I mean, it’s really such a diverse group and the energy here is one where everyone feels welcome. There’s this whole contingency of kids between 7 and 13 who are regulars that come here all the time. Everybody’s making space for them.
Schlager, whose 2nd Ward includes Rand Park, says the location has worked well so far — it’s near Montclair High School, and “sort of at the center of town,” making it a natural meeting place. What’s next for a more permanent location is up in the air. Schlager said it shouldn’t involve cementing over green spaces.
“If I had my druthers, I would make this permanent if we could,” she said.
As for what to expect from Sablone’s sculptures, in Rand Park or any future home — we’ll all need to wait and see.
“I do have some ideas, but they’re still many iterations away,” she said. “I wanted to come here and see the space in person, and see how people use it before I got set on any one thing. There are a lot of people using this space, so that’s definitely something to think about — so how it can be fun for lots of people at once.”
See the Montclair TV34 video below:
An earlier version of this post misstated the date of Sablone’s visit to Montclair.