Man behind the medals |

Man behind the medals

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Contributed photoNew Jersey artist Joe Hodnicki recently won ESPN's inaugural "Test Your Medal" design contest.

The simple, evocative phrase is scrawled across the bottom of artist Joe Hodnicki’s original work “Story of Life”:

Every day of your life is a page of your history. Make your story one worth reading.

The 32-year-old New Jersey native said the print was inspired by the stories of hope and perseverance borne out of the devastation Indonesia confronted after a rash of tsunamis. The maxim is one Hodnicki has taken to heart of late after his own periods of personal tumult and self reflection.

His story is one worth reading: A graduate of Philadelphia’s Drexel University with a degree in molecular genetics, Hodnicki decided to shun convention and pursue his lifelong passion – “I believe that if you love what you’re doing, you’re the richest person in the world,” he said.

In the decade or so since, that fervor for art has manifested itself in many forms – from designing surfboards and his own clothing line to collaborating with high-profile brands and nonprofits across the country.

Add another honor to that list: Hodnicki recently won ESPN’s inaugural “Test Your Medal” contest. His design – an amalgamation of snowboarding, skiing and snowmobiling elements – finished first among 16 finalists in an online poll. Starting today, his medals will be awarded to all podium finishers at Winter X Games 16.

“I’m one of those people who sits there and think, ‘I didn’t do this, then this wouldn’t have happened, and this and this.’ I’ve always done that my whole life,” Hodnicki said Monday, shortly after arriving in Aspen. “It humbles me to think that it wasn’t that long ago that I was in college crunching nine semesters of organic chemistry, thinking I’d be a doctor or something. Now, I’m sitting here at the X Games.

“When I found out I won, I was flipping out. As much as it is very rewarding to be acknowledged by the masses, I’ve been thinking to myself that this is huge for everything I do. It’s an honor. I mean, you watch this stuff when you’re a kid.”

For as long as he and younger brother Mike can remember, Joe Hodnicki has been drawing. He created his own comic book characters and openly fantasized about working for Disney.

He put the plan on hold for school.

“I figured I had to go to college and study something substantial, and I’ve always liked science,” Hodnicki said. “That was the path I was going to follow. When you’re 18, you think you’ve got the world by the balls and think this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Then, when you’re 21 or 22, you realize, ‘What the hell was I thinking?'”

That’s when Hodnicki decided to drop everything, delay a corporate career and travel the globe – from Europe to the Caribbean.

It was during his stay at a self-sustainable resort in St. John that Hodnicki experienced an epiphany of sorts.

“It was this period of time when I was drinking coffee in a treehouse that I lived in for some time. It was one of those things where I was sitting there so simply and not worrying about anything,” Hodnicki recalled. “I had my sketchbooks. I was happy. It was kind of this soul-searching thing where I thought, ‘Is this what I really want to do, or should I follow what I’ve always loved and done since I was a kid?”

The decision was obvious.

He dove in.

Hodnicki produced custom-shaped surfboards, launched a clothing line, Okoto, tried his hand at creating everything from illustrations to furniture and also started his own design company, Sharing the Stoke.

He has worked with Nike, Sony Records and video-sharing company Vimeo (he created a 60-foot mural that will provide the centerpiece of the company’s booth at Buttermilk this weekend), among others, and produced designs for New York and San Diego surf film festival merchandise. He also has worked closely with nonprofits – among them Adaptive Action Sports, which creates and promotes events for people living with physical disabilities and has ties to both the Summer and Winter X Games.

It was during a chance September meeting with one of Adaptive’s founders in San Diego that Hodnicki first learned about the Test Your Medal contest. He was intrigued immediately and got to work.

“I went through all the X Games medals, and there was nothing incorporating the actual sports,” he said. “They’ve had goggles and a lot of different things, but I was like, ‘How can I tie everything in?’ In all my designs, except for a funky snowman holding an X-ray symbol with an ‘X’ in his stomach, I was trying to find a way to incorporate all the elements but very simply.

“My inspiration for my art stems from a lot of things. I guess I have undiagnosed ADD, so to say, where I can’t sit still very long or I get very bored with mediums very fast. If I have an oil painting drying, I usually can’t wait and am on to another project that’s quicker. I’m kind of all over the place doing a million things – that’s how I work. At the same time, when it comes to what I’m passionate about, which is creating in general, I’m looking for different avenues and thinking about what styles will work best. … That’s what I wanted to do with the medals.”

All told, Hodnicki says he created eight to nine renderings in his studio – a barn on a 20-acre parcel in rural Robbinsville, N.J. He submitted three to ESPN.

In November, Hodnicki found out he made the top 16 – a group of designs that included everything from a pile of pancakes to playing cards and mittens.

A few weeks later, he claimed the top prize. The honor is one he and his parents still cannot quite comprehend.

“It’s surreal for me. I could probably cry, shed a tear. To have that image [of an athlete like Shaun White wearing my medal] on my wall for my kids to see one day or whatever, it’s one of those things that would be amazing. Not just him, but anybody,” Hodnicki said.

“It’s funny, though. My mom and dad, I love them to death, but they still don’t get it. … The other day, my mom told me, ‘If this X Games thing doesn’t work out … just promise me you’ll be a schoolteacher.’ And my dad is like, ‘Shake on it.’ I’m like, ‘It’s already getting done.'”

That fact became abundantly clear Monday, when Hodnicki, his brother and best friend and manager, Matt Colvin, turned into the Buttermilk parking lot.

“No big deal,” Colvin joked. “That’s what we always say. It’s our way of playing it all off.”

Added Hodnicki: “When we drove in, my nerves seriously got the better of me:

‘God, this got real really fast.’

“Knowing I have a major part in symbolizing first, second and third place at the X Games, wow. This stuff’s wild, man. I don’t think it will hit me until I get home and digest it. Š No big deal.”

But quite a story.

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