Friday, September 26, 2008

Words to the Wize

Ketchum entrepreneurs keep company growing

Express Staff Writer

Mike Ames, left, Chatham Baker, center and Shaun Kelly are represent a new kind of Ketchum entrepreneur. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Visual Wize Project, a Ketchum-based, youth-culture clothing company, has in a few short years given the local snowboard and skateboard communities an intriguing guide into their own imaginations.

Since 2003, the Wize team has released designs of "uninhibited imagination," said Chatham Baker, Wize's lead artist and co-founder with partners Mike Ames and Shaun Kelly. The whole project, which is not the way this trio actually makes a living, began simply enough.

Ames and Baker met in college in Maine and Kelly and Baker were hometown friends from Seattle. The latter two moved to Ketchum in fall 2002.

"I was in the San Diego Zoo that fall staring at a giraffe when Chatham called and said, 'I'm getting a house in Ketchum. Should I get two bedrooms or three?'" Ames said. "I said 'three.' We were glorified ski bums."

Like others before them, part-time jobs helped fill the coffers. Ames and Baker taught snowboarding and skiing on Dollar and Baldy, and Kelly worked at Atkinsons' Market for a time.

"We encouraged him to keep the job for the food discounts," Baker said. "We used to play Stump Shaun on the grocery codes," Ames recalled.

Now a draftsman and project manager with Ruscitto/Latham/Blanton in Ketchum, Kelly is Wize's managing technical analyst. Baker became the graphic and apparel designer for Smith Optics, in Ketchum. And Ames is a freelance writer and the editor of the Sun Valley Guide.

It was while they were all transitioning into full-time jobs that Wize took shape.

"I was working on freelance art and design," Baker said. "I was just drawing my regular stuff and Ames said 'We should put this on t-shirts.'"

"Then Chatham and I had to figure out how to do it," Kelly said. The tees and other apparel—hoodies, pants, tank tops, hats—are produced in various locales in Idaho, Montana and California.

In 2003, their first and still most popular design—a snowboard binding insert plate in the shape of Idaho with the words "Wize Up"—was released. It was an instant hit, despite the fact that the snowboard community treated them with a degree of skepticism.

"We were pretty fresh in our understanding of Ketchum's localism," Baker said. "We were stoked on Idaho but that's as much as we knew. We hadn't developed our aesthetic yet."

But it didn't take long to catch on. Wize was a sponsor of the 2003 SoulFest event on Bald Mountain and also served on the event's board. They sold their first tees and hoodies at SoulFest and after Board Bin agreed to sell their clothing, Baker began designing the Ketchum shop's logos as well as logos for the Guy Coles Skatepark and Smith.

"As we got tighter into the snowboard and skate scenes, they began accepting us." Baker said. "We're definitely not an alpine thing. We wanted to support non-traditional free riding, freestyle skiing and snowboarding."

The company is now self supporting and became so fairly quickly, Kelly said.

The Visual Wize Project designs have been sold in such far-flung places as Stockholm, New York and Las Vegas as well as the nearer locales of Lake Tahoe and Washington.

As well, Wize is now considered a legitimate local company. It puts out between three to five new designs a year, which come out in specialty colors. Each design is hand drawn and screened on high-quality cotton clothing with clever sayings that play on imagination and youth rebellion. An upraised fist holding a can opener was accompanied by the words "Open Minds." An illustration of shaking hands has "Like Wize." Their new "Madness Design" has a message inspired by French poet Charles Baudelaire: "Imagination rises on the wings of madness."

"This design is a good illustration of what Wize is about," Ames said.

To see their work visit

Release party

What: Release of new Madness Design, re-release of women's "Wize Up" design and sample sale

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 27.

Where: Board Bin in Ketchum

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