Rodeo and yoga with Tom Russotti.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Buena Vista Park and Tom Russotti, 32, is decked out in greasy jeans and a cowboy hat, drinking beer and waiting for his turn on the yoga ball. When it finally comes, he flops down on the thing and waits for a crew of urban cowfolk to start yanking the corners of a blanket laid underneath. Russotti tumbles off within seconds, laughs and then wanders into a crowd of flannel and 10-gallon hats to wait for his next shot. Welcome to the world of Aesthletics, an organization and philosophy pioneered by Russotti, dedicated to the playing of sports as an artistic practice.

“I didn’t actually invent this bucking bronco yoga-ball game; this is part of my friend’s Neo-Rodeo,” said Russotti, whose Institute for Aesthletics is in the middle of a month-long residency at the Lab on Mission and Capp streets. “But everyone’s wearing costumes and there’s a real focus on group interaction and spontaneous development, so it’s very much in line with the Aesthletics philosophy… just kinda seeing sport as an artistic performance.”

Bucking Broncos and Yoga Balls at Buena Vista Park
Bucking broncos and yoga balls at Buena Vista Park.

With oddball sports organizations like Aestheletics, SFC Double Dutch, SF Zero –which is an online alternate gaming project that sends players out into the city to complete strange tasks– and events like the world-famous footrace/costume parade Bay to Breakers, San Francisco has become ground zero for challenging the idea that the worlds of sports and art are fundamentally at odds with one another.

“It’s just not true,” said Dr. Jamie Williams, director of athletics at the Academy of Art University, the only art school in the nation competing in NCAA Division II level sports such as volleyball and basketball. “Somewhere along the line in our journey as a civilization, we kinda got away from the holistic development of the human.”

Catherine Herdlick, inventor of the Neo-Rodeo and founder of a New York-based street game showcase called The Come Out and Play Festival, agreed. “Tom’s definitely at the forefront of this trend of mixing sports and art events,” she said. “His whole Aesthletics thing is really taking off.”

Founded by Russotti in 2006, the Institute for Aesthletics is an organization that seeks to find balance between the seemingly conflicting worlds of sports and art. The philosophy behind Aesthletics — that sports are inherently artistic and that one activity can feed the other — has been gaining steam across the globe as Russotti continues to spread his gospel, developing quirky sports associations and throwing events in parks and art galleries in New York, London, Estonia, and now San Francisco.

For the past two weeks, Russotti has been tinkering with new ideas from his base at the Lab and staging events like Wiffle Hurling, a game he invented while attending art school at Rutgers University. In it, players try to sink a soccer ball into a goal using wiffle bats. He’s also been playing Mercury, a hybrid sport mixing elements of football, soccer and basketball. Russotti said his run in San Francisco has been going well… almost too well.

“This place is just great for this sort of thing,” he said. “But last weekend in Dolores Park, I threw a Mega Soccer tournament — it’s sorta like soccer, but played with multiple balls — and there were so many other people out there playing weird games that we just kinda faded into the mix.”

Erin Dougherty, aka Venomiss, agreed. Dougherty is a founding member of SFC Double Dutch, a three-girl jump rope crew that performs themed stage shows — they dress as zombies, grandmas, strippers, etc. — at festivals, art spaces and dive bars throughout the city. (See a Double Dutch performance here.)

The girls also have a permanent residency at Cell Space on Bryant Street in the Mission, where they teach adults-only classes to artists and young professionals looking for a way to exercise and stimulate their minds at the same time.

“Our deal is really 50 percent creative and 50 percent physical, and San Francisco is probably one of about three cities where we could get away with something like this,” said Dougherty. “It’s just full of art galleries and clubs that are happy to have creative performances in their spaces. It seems like everyone is putting shows together these days.”

Williams, from the Academy of Art University, said he doesn’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point he believes mankind made a gigantic misstep and began to value the specialized human over the polymath. “These days, you’re either a writer, or a doctor, or painter or a basketball player,” he said. “But the myth we’ve been buying into is that you can’t be all of those things at once.”

It’s a myth Williams, who studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska before spending 12 years as a tight end in the NFL, has been challenging his entire life. He said he was always at the top of his field when it came to both academics and sports. It seemed to baffle people, but Williams always prided himself on developing his mental passions as well as his physical ones.

After retiring from professional football in 1994, he acquired a Masters of Science in mass communication from San Jose State University and a Doctorate of Education in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco.

He also opened his own production company and served as a technical director on the Oliver Stone film, Any Given Sunday, the screenplay of which was derived partially from a script Williams wrote.

“I have always believed that sports and art are mutually inclusive,” said Williams. “And that’s proving to be the case here at the Academy. Let’s just say recruiting has been the easiest part of my job.”

Russotti echoed this sentiment.

“I was a jock back in high school,” he said. “But I was at one of those small, private artsy schools in New York. So, I spent a great deal of time painting and making films and stuff, but then I was also on the soccer, basketball and baseball teams. That was normal at my school and those years sort of inspired me to carry on the tradition with these events.”

A Series of Soviet Propaganda Drawings Served As The Inspiration For "Break a Leg," a game Russotti invented for an art gallery in Estonia
A series of Soviet propaganda drawings served as the inspiration for Break a Leg, a game Russotti invented for an art gallery in Estonia.

Russotti left New York to study history at Stanford in 1995. It was here that he realized his take on the happy integration of athleticism and art weren’t the norm; the jocks and the art kids simply didn’t mix much.

For the next four years Russotti focused on his studies and rarely played any sports, but by the time graduation was rolling around, he began to feel something was missing. This is when he got the idea for what was to become the Institute for Aesthletics. In the years following his graduation in 1999, Russotti began staging creative sporting events in New York and even wrote a sport/art manifesto, which in 2006 he used to get into the art program at Rutgers University.

Rutgers was the birthplace of modern football and Ultimate Frisbee and one of the main centers for Fluxus, an international network of multidisciplinary artists in the 1960s and 1970s that sought to blur the lines between artist and spectator with participatory art events known as “happenings.”

Because of its history as a haven for physical-minded artists, Russotti said, Rutgers was the perfect place to develop his ideas. He spent the next two years fleshing out the philosophy behind Aesthletics and then began traveling the world when he graduated in 2008.

At each city Russotti visits, he tries to further blur the line between what is considered a sport and what is considered performative art. At an arts-and-culture gallery in Estonia he developed a game called “Break a Leg,” during which players on bicycles compete for vodka shots by throwing balls into makeshift hoops. In New York, he invented a version of basketball to be played on grass as part of an installation called Hoop Gardens in Washington Square Park.

As for San Francisco’s contribution to the world of Aesthletics, Russotti is hosting a night of hard drinking and dancing at the Lab on Friday, Nov. 13, during which players compete for prizes and accolades.

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Justin Juul is a freelance writer based in San Francisco's Mission District. He covers culture, arts, entertainment, and city living.

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