Midpeninsula Post

From sketches to skateboards: A recent Paly graduate creates art in a unique medium

The pieces in recent Paly graduate Josh Donaker's AP Art and Design portfolio share one thing in common: They're all skateboard decks. (Arya Nasikkar)

Just one look into Josh Donaker’s car trunk might get him pulled over for questioning. At any given time, it’s scattered with around 10 cans of spray paint alongside a duffel bag large enough to hold his weapons of choice: a glove and cleats? 

Rest assured, the recent Palo Alto High School graduate isn’t actually a criminal. He’s an artist. And a pitcher for the school’s baseball team. Both of which Donaker said he’s been doing for as long as he could remember.

And those cans of spray paint? They’re Donaker’s medium of choice for his newest and most extensive art project so far: his Advanced Placement Art and Design portfolio.

Using spray paint and paint pens to design 13 skateboard decks — each playing off a different theme and in a different style — is no easy feat, but it’s well worth it for Donaker.

One of Donaker’s completed skateboards, titled “Ink,” depicts an octopus eating a bowl of ramen; he said this piece was inspired by tattoos. Another skateboard design has the word “art” hidden among its abstract components, and represents the “idea of street art as art,” he said.

“I’ve always been more into the more modern and kind of exciting art styles, and more unconventional [mediums],” Donaker said. “I picked up spray painting a few years back and then it’s all led [to here].”

Donaker’s spray paint and paint pen art piece “Somewhere in Atlanta” was featured in the ArtNow 2021 Show for the New Museum in Los Gatos — that’s what led him down the road of using the medium, he said. Skateboarding itself, though, was a new endeavor.

“I actually just picked it [skateboarding] up over quarantine,” Donaker said. “I learned to skateboard so I [could] make my own skateboard. And then after I made that one, then I realized, ‘Oh, that would actually be a super fun way to put art out.’”

“I’ve always seen the bottom of skateboards, right,” he said. “People have all these cool stickers, and they’re really bright and exciting. And I always thought [there was] an obvious connection between street art [and skateboarding].”

Specifically, Donaker pointed to the thrill shared by both skateboarding and spray painting — two primarily “youth activities” that he said he hoped to bring together through his portfolio theme of “youth street culture and art.”

Donaker’s sources of inspiration take many forms; he finds it in famous artists, like Keith Haring and Michael Jean Basquiat, but also draws from his life experiences: beach trips, visiting old diners, or really, coming upon anything unique.

“When I’m bored in math class and stuff like that, I’m always kind of like, doodling in my notebook and [think] ‘Oh, that would be a pretty cool idea,’” Donaker said.

And occasionally, the project comes straight to him, like in the form of a text in the middle of second period. The project proposed to him was none other than designing Paly’s senior jersey — which almost all seniors wear during spirit week and various occasions during the year. But the catch? Donaker had only three hours to design and submit it, a time crunch unlike any other project. 

“Someone drew up an original idea [for the senior jersey] and a lot of the ASB [Associated Student Body] people were not huge fans of it, so they basically reached out to me in the middle of the day, and I had until the end of the day to submit it,” Donaker said.

So, Donaker rose up to the challenge; it was a memorable experience that he described as “pretty sweet” but “super chaotic.” And when Donaker saw 50 of his classmates wearing his design during spirit week and the homecoming football game, it was all worth it.

Two of Donaker’s portfolio pieces were also shown in a show called Youth Art: a compilation of K-12 art from the Palo Alto Unified School District. But instead of hanging up on a wall for visitors to peer at, the pieces were displayed on the floor, in a similar fashion to a sculpture or installation.

“I think that’s the fun in art, you know,” Donaker said. “You get to interact and play with it, and so hopefully, you know, I’ll be riding some of these skateboards and all that, and [seeing] people wearing jerseys.”

Donaker gets his social fix through baseball, which he’s played all four years of high school, and he said both activities — art and baseball — provide a break in his day. But while the concept of teamwork doesn’t traditionally translate to art, he’s still been able to find a community in art, especially thanks to access to Paly’s art curriculum and his artistic family members.

“When I have art class, it kind of breaks up the day … because it’s very unstructured in the sense that I can just listen to music and go to work, spray painting outside and it’s just kind of your own little world there,” Donaker said. “And then it’s the same way in escaping the school day … after school with baseball with your teammates and just having fun.”

Each of Donaker's skateboard decks are created using spray paint and paint pens. (Arya Nasikkar)

“I’ve been doing art ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “My mom was a graphic designer, so there was always art stuff around my house. I’ve been drawing for a really long time [and in] high school I’ve taken art every year.”

Donaker said his mom has always encouraged him to be creative, and has helped teach him how to use programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Both of his brothers — one older and one younger — also have an affinity for the craft.

“My older brother does product design in college, and my little brother’s really good at drawing, so all of us have kind of taken art in our own way,” Donaker said.

Donaker said he plans to double major in business and art at the University of Miami in the fall, and possibly pursue a future in marketing and advertising. 

“When [Donaker] was younger, he really liked to read and draw comics,” said freshman Nate Donaker, who is Donaker’s brother. “So then, for him to have incorporated that into his own art style on the skateboards: it’s pretty cool.”

Kate McKenzie, Donaker’s art teacher for the past four years, has also been a critical component of his art journey, Donaker said, with her words of encouragement and guidance helping him develop a strong artistic foundation. 

Over the years she’s taught him, McKenzie said she’s observed Donaker’s personal voice come out and creativity flourish. His AP Design portfolio was a clear example of his growth, she said.

“It just ended up being the right place for Josh: the right marriage of his personal aesthetic and his medium,” McKenzie said. “In other words, the medium really serves his vision and the vision serves the medium; the two came together.”

But putting together a portfolio is no easy feat, and not a task without struggle.

“That’s the beauty of AP, is that it just absolutely pushes people beyond their comfort zones,” McKenzie said. 

For Donaker, that meant searching for new forms of inspiration after running into art blocks; McKenzie said she recalls Donaker talking about visiting art shows and seeing additional art to help strike inspiration.

Donaker drew inspiration from tattoos to create "Ink" for his AP Art and Design portfolio. (Arya Nasikkar)

“The exciting part for me is how much he’s broadened his horizons,” McKenzie said. “He started with pieces that he was really comfortable with and a style that he really liked a lot. But when you do 15 pieces, you know, after about piece seven, people hit a wall. And that’s actually a great thing.”

While AP Art and Design lacks structured lessons and is a more independent class by nature, Donaker said the support that McKenzie provided was invaluable.

“[AP Art and Design is] really awesome because you get to see all the kids around you grow in different ways,” he said. “She really encourages you to be different and try out new things, and I think that’s really helped me, over time, develop my style.”

And the long and tedious journey didn’t just help Donaker grow as an artist — it, at last, gave life to the idea that Donaker has been developing all year.

“I really liked getting to see the vision come true, in a sense,” Donaker said. “You have an idea in the back of your mind and then you can’t really stop thinking about it. You write it down, you sketch out the little ideas, and obviously that’s really messy and like not perfect and stuff [but] when you get to actually do it and see the finished product and be really happy with it: that’s definitely my favorite part.”

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