Alexis Pike: The States Project: Montana
Evel Knievel graced the homes of America during the 60s and 70s. During these wonder years, children were enamored by his death-defying performances and flashy appearance. One could say that while today’s mind-blowing stunts and performances are more common with televised talent competitions and David Blaine specials baiting network ratings, nothing has come close to spirit of Evel Knievel. Enter Alexis Pike, only a little girl at the time, wanting nothing more than to grow up to be Evel. Alexis would go on to use this energy to photograph her body of work Color Me Lucky, exploring the the same daredevil culture that excited her back then.
Alexis will be joining Lenscratch this week as guest editor of The States Project: Montana, but today we’ll get a little more insight into Alexis herself and the Evel Knievel legacy.
Alexis Pike is a sixth generation Idahoan calling on the geography of her genes for inspiration with projects focusing on the American West. Pike received her BFA from Boise State University and her MFA from the University of Iowa. She has exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Missoula Art Museum, Photoville, Guate Photo Festival, Aperture Foundation, and has been a Top 50 finalist for Critical Mass. Her work has been featured in Harper’s magazine, Surface, Travel and Leisure, LensCulture, Wired.com, and has a monograph published by Blue Sky Books. Currently she lives in Bozeman, Montana, in what some might call a zoo, with her four children, two dogs, a cat, and a house rabbit. The family enjoys dance parties in their kitchen and colorful conversations at the dinner table. To subsidize the cost of vinyl, food for her kids and pets, and her photography, Alexis is an Associate Professor of Photography at Montana State University, and is fortunate she can share her knowledge and experience with others.
Color Me Lucky
When I was six, I planned to be just like Evel Knievel. Naively, I couldn’t understand the consequences of my choice. Imagining myself in his striking leathers, I raced my bike down a hill like a kamikaze on a mission for the sake of a stunt. At the bottom of the hill, with too much speed, I crashed, tumbled hard across the gravel, laid there unconscious—my prize was spending four days in the hospital with a fractured skull. Injury aside, I gained bragging rights.
What attracts us to risky behavior for the sake of a thrill?
Color Me Lucky is inspired by Evel Knievel’s swagger. It explores desire, sexuality, masculinity, image, and risk. It’s also about the momentum that carries you forward, even when you know there’s a train wreck ahead. In the 1970’s, during my childhood, he represented the daredevil—steadfast, virile, courageous, and determined. Knievel’s illustrated legend captivated an audience. Clad in red, white and blue, he embodied the fantasy of soaring over obstacles—even if the landing wasn’t pretty.
I think we all have a bit of Evel in us.
Can you give us a little insight on what it is like to be a working photographer in Montana.
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this because my primary income is from teaching photography and not commercial or editorial work. But I’ve had a couple of fantastic editorial gigs in Montana; one was photographing the outdoor sculpture park at Tippet Rise for Surface. I was fortunate to pick up that job, especially because I don’t market myself as being “for hire” and there are a tremendous number of talented photographers here. When I tell someone I’m from Montana and work in landscape photography, they often say, “Well that’s a good place to be a landscape photographer. It’s so pretty.” Yes it is, and Montana is a western photographic cliché—beautiful scenery, big game animals, cowboys and cowgirls… it’s the kind of place where you can fall into the trap of the western fairy tale you see in ads for cigarettes, beer and clothing but it’s also a place where you can challenge yourself to look beyond that western formula and dig for images that have meaning beyond being purely spectacular.
Sixth generation Idahoan, quite the lineage! With your continued interest in the American West, why did you begin making work about place?
My childhood summers were spent at our lodge on the banks of the Salmon River in Stanley, Idaho an area framed by the Sawtooth Mountains. The lodge sat alone on the other side of the river between Upper and Lower Stanley, it was essentially our own private Idaho. It is one of the world’s most beautiful places. When I was sixteen my mother and grandparents couldn’t afford to replace the bridge to the lodge and it was sold to someone wealthy from out of state. It’s difficult for me to talk about selling this place because it was a loss. Today I see how that sale represents how ownership and class have shifted in the West. What a generation or two had before in terms of land ownership is not as attainable today; you need real money to buy land in the west. By making art about this place tied to my ancestor’s history and my own, I am claiming ownership of this place. I think many of us do this on some level. We snap a quick photo of ourselves to claim our place in a place. I love the West and my work is a love story about this place.
I rather enjoy the American spirit of Color Me Lucky. You ask “What attracts us to risky behavior for the sake of a thrill?” After photographing these events and typical American traditions were you able to get some answers?
I believe it’s about getting that adrenaline rush, even if it is vicariously. For spectators and participants there is a feeling of anticipation, blood pumping, pulse racing, etc. makes a person feel alive. As a spectator you can get that feeling without having to take the risk by imaging yourself as the stunt person. A spectator can gaze in awe with mouth gapping and heart pounding, and walk away if the stunt is successful or goes awry. As a spectator you might also ask yourself the question “what would I dare do?”. That is the big thing… our questioning what risks we are willing to take. I’m not a daredevil but I’ve taken more risks, partly because of this work.
As you approached making this work, how did you manage the masculinity of the sport? Would you perhaps say that your regional identity allowed you more access to the themes you wanted to convey?
To a degree my regional identity helped. Because I live in Montana and Evel was from Butte, I was able to approach this project with more of an insider’s perspective. I also lived in Twin Falls, Idaho when I was in junior high, and was aware at the time of his failed jump of the Snake River Canyon in 1974, just outside of Twin Falls. The nostalgia of the jump and living by the original jump site were woven into the community and landscape of Twin Falls. In terms of masculinity of the sport, I had to embrace it because that was a major part of what defined this project. The themes documented in this project are typically male driven—daredevils, stunts, etc. But I’m also coming from working in landscape photography; fields historically dominated by men, and have had to address being a female photographer. There are a few stuntwomen but primarily the performers are men. One group of women, Circus Una, performed in 2014 at EK Days. They are talented—riding motorcycles on a high wire—but also provocative in their costumes, straddling their bikes high above the crowd. During one of their performances, I ended up watching the audience and realized many, especially the men, were gawking at their bodies in hopes of a gravity aided wardrobe malfunction. I was seeing the allure of sexuality in a risky performance. From that point I wanted to capture a more open ended visual definition of attraction and risk. Women attend, some perform, but it is very male centric.
What is the Evel in you?
As a single mother, I adopted my two nieces and nephew in 2015. I went from one child to four. The adoption and going up for tenure happened right in the middle of this project. I have experienced significant transitions in my life and know that I was including metaphors for my experiences in the project. I’m not a daredevil by any means but I’ve taken some hefty risks, ones that many stuntmen wouldn’t. I’ve encouraged my adrenaline to kick in and am charging forward. So I’m a participant and not just observing which is exhilarating and at times frightening. When it comes down to it, there isn’t anything new in the way I am making photographs about Evel and his inspiration, but there is something new in the way I am telling you this story. I’m embracing my experience as a woman to bring you a different take on this American icon to support my narrative. At some point in our lives we are all daredevils. We’re all extraordinary in the risks we take, even if we don’t end up on Wide World of Sports.
Are you currently working on any Montana-based projects?
Yes. I’m working on a collaborative project with Kelsey Weyerbacher that is inspired by 19th Century Montana landscape photographer Evelyn Cameron. We’re tackling themes of Women in the West, something we’ve both done on an individual basis. Outside of Montana, but in the West, I’m working on two projects, one I recently started about the Oregon Trail and the other about exploring government land use in the West, which is almost complete.
Finally, describe your perfect day.
My perfect day would require I had access to a teleporter… Scotty would beam me up to various locations.
Morning: It would start off in an old school luxury hotel, with high thread count crisp white sheets and a complementary robe. I’d wake up to a latte from Stumptown (brewed in Portland-hence the teleporter) and some fresh squeezed orange juice. I’d lie in bed, enjoying not having to get kids off to school. I’d eat carrot cake for breakfast.
Late Morning/Early Afternoon: I’d be in a city, downtown; I see Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco in my mind. I’d be walking. I’d stop at a headphone store and they’d let me demo some extraordinary $800 headphones for the day. I’d have my music on shuffle… somehow my iPhone would know exactly what song to play for my mood. My stride would be long and full of confidence. I’d head to SFMOMA. I’d check out the Larry Sultan retrospect again and be pleasantly surprised to find retrospective for Robert Frank, John Baldessari, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Lorna Simpson, Ed Ruscha, and Christian Boltanski. Time would slow to a crawl so I could enjoy exhibits fully.
Mid Afternoon: I find a dark bar that specializes in Manhattans, with mint green velvet booths. Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nancy Wilson, and Dave Brubeck are the entertainment. They also serve cheese enchiladas with mole.
Early Evening: My teleporter takes me to a Portland Trailblazers game with my best friend from Portland, his son, and my kids. We have courtside seats, right across from the bench. They’re playing the Warriors and the Blazers beat them handily to take the Western Conference championship.
Late Evening: I’m at a small bar with amazing acoustics, listening to Liz Phair play live. I request all my favorite songs and she plays each of them, just for me. Following the concert, she joins me at my table and we drink bourbon together and talk about men, sex, art, music, being a mother, feminism, and how she deals with the criticism of her last three albums.
Somewhere in that day there is a drive with my kids and our pets, traveling down the road in our Sprinter with the music blasting a song we all love and we’re signing and car dancing. There would be a trip to the record store to buy some favorite vinyl that I’ve been searching for and finally find for .99. I’d spend time laughing with my best friend from Idaho. I’d have a second latte with my mom. I’d see my dad and we’d play golf together. And I’d be out in the high desert photographing at dusk, and could hand hold my camera at 1/4thh of a second without camera shake being an issue. At the end, I’d return to my luxury downtown hotel and not have to set my alarm to wake me up. Lou Reed’s Perfect Day would be the song that sent me to sleep.
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Lauren Grabelle: The States Project: MontanaJune 11th, 2017
Patrick Warner: The States Project: MontanaJune 10th, 2017
Matthew Hamon: The States Project: MontanaJune 9th, 2017
Kelsey Weyerbacher: The States Project: MontanaJune 8th, 2017
Christina Z. Anderson: The States Project: MontanaJune 7th, 2017