As a teenager in the early ’90s, skateboarder and Richmond native Ben Ashworth used to get chased away from the Kennedy Center for trying to skate on the grounds.
“The Kennedy Center has these nice marble ledges that are just begging for you to come skate them,” says Ashworth, 41. “From one perspective, that’s architectural reinterpretation. From another, it’s vandalism.”
On Friday, Ashworth can skate at the Kennedy Center worry-free (but those marble ledges are still off-limits). Now a visual artist who manages George Mason University’s Sculpture Studio, Ashworth is co-curating “Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media,” a 10-day festival whose centerpiece is a full-fledged skate park installation on the front plaza of the Kennedy Center.
“Finding a Line,” which kicks off the center’s 2015-16 season, celebrates skateboarding as a Kennedy Center-worthy art form.
“It’s just as valid as any other art form,” Ashworth says. “It’s just a medium for creative expression. Exercises like this are critical for cross-pollination between disciplines.”
The festival’s focal point is the skate park Ashworth helped design and build, which features a large bowl, ramps, rails and street elements, along with a stage for live music. On most days, there’s an open skate session — often accompanied by live music — that anyone can join (provided they sign a waiver and use a skateboard — no rollerskates or BMX bikes) or watch for free.
Indoors, there will be exhibits of skate deck artwork, as well as a panel discussion on skate videos. On Sept. 11 and 12, Ashworth and other skaters will perform alongside jazz pianist Jason Moran and his group, The Bandwagon, for two ticketed events.
Moran, the festival’s co-curator and the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, used to skate as a teen in the ’80s. His skater identity attracted him to punk bands like Suicidal Tendencies and outsider hip-hop groups like De La Soul. Then he watched Spike Jonze’s 1991 skate film “Video Days,” and saw legendary street skater Mark Gonzales landing tricks to John Coltrane’s “Traneing In.”
“Jazz hadn’t really been popular [for a while]. In the ’80s the Marsalis family made it popular to one degree, but skateboarding made it popular to a whole other crew of people,” Moran says. “The Marsalises did not make [jazz] seem like a rebel thing to do — skating did.”
Ashworth and Moran point out that skating and jazz are more similar than one might think: Both have grown into respected art forms, both thrive on improvisation and both are often more complex than they first appear.
“You have to watch a trick happen in slow motion to really understand how it happened,” Moran says. “When you hear a band or an improviser play through a turnaround, which is this very subtle thing that happens in harmony, when you hear this turnaround that all of a sudden turns into a beautiful moment, it often goes by unnoticed, so you gotta build this language around these very subtle ideas.”
At “Finding a Line,” Ashworth, Moran and audiences get to see what happens when the two forms of expression join forces.
“I visualize all the component parts — the musicians, the audience, the skateboarders — as sort of a flock of individuals that make a larger morphing and changing collective body,” Ashworth says. “We are just a conduit for energy passing back and forth. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re going to improvise.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Fri. through Sept. 13, various times, free-$22.
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