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In Business: empire building, from three T-shirts on up

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"Visual art has gotten to a point where it's almost being ignored by mass society, just because it's so expensive," says Felipe Lima, one of the eight Northwestern students who make up the art collective and T-shirt company Shurpa. "The T-shirt is a reinterpretation of a canvas for everybody."

About six months ago the Shurpa members were having one of those drunken conversations in which everything seems superimportant. They started talking about the hat Adrian Adkison was wearing, a knitted number with earflaps. Someone said it was a sherpa hat. "It struck me as a profound term," says Adkison. "They're masters of their mountain." The group started arguing about how the word was spelled and pronounced: Did it have an e? Was an umlaut involved? Instead of consulting a dictionary, Dorothy Kronick pulled out some oil pastels and scrawled what would become their logo--SHURPA.

None of the friends is an art major, but they'd gotten into the habit of messing around on their laptops together while hanging out. "We were all working on different things--drawing, taking photos, writing articles--and we felt like we needed to express this creativity," says Lima. A sherpa--a guide--seemed the perfect symbol for a collective in which each member was helping the others explore different areas of interest.

They set up a Web site, filled it with graphics, illustrations, and music, and then--somehow--hit on the idea of designing T-shirts as an easy way to bring art into the everyday world. "As students, we do a lot of stuff that never gets made into anything," says Kronick. "It's kind of unsatisfying. This is a tangible product."

The Ts are manufactured by American Apparel, a Los Angeles company known for its high-quality shirts and its antisweatshop stance. The designs are inspired by the graffiti-informed graphics of west-coast skate and surf culture and the work of artists like local painter and designer Cody Hudson. A design by Josh Malmuth breaks down three hills into stylized domes, and Lima's "Sunset Blvd." is a yellow traffic sign with a sun setting over the water. "This isn't where skateboarding took off," says Lima--"it's not sunny weather, it's not new concrete--but I feel like it's appropriate for us. . . . The ideology deals with ideas behind the whole pop art movement, like what is high art and what is just a snazzy image to put on the bottom of a skateboard deck?"

Lima, Malmuth, and Kronick all grew up in San Diego, and through contacts they're trying to get their shirts into a few skate shops there and in LA. But they're quick to point out that most of them aren't skaters. "If we were," says Malmuth, "we wouldn't get much done."

And despite the grind of classes Shurpa's been getting a lot done. They've designed a line of three shirts, retooled their Web site (which relaunches May 28), and in April were hired to create T-shirts for Mayfest, Northwestern's annual spring festival. Depending on how well the initial line sells, they plan to make more, and are exploring other retail avenues beyond selling them by hand and online.

Eventually they'd like Shurpa to become a kind of umbrella organization for a range of endeavors, from music videos to book deals. "It'd be cool if Shurpa could be successful in different areas, so we could do production deals where Shurpa could allocate funds towards projects," says Malmuth. "The name would really mean something and boost the visibility of people's projects." But whether or not their grand dreams are realized isn't really an issue--it's more important to the collective that Shurpa continue to help them make room for creative impulses as they go about their daily lives. "We don't like being too serious about these things we're interested in," says Lima. "This is what friends do. This whole line is about community--you can't do anything without friends."

Shurpa is having a party Friday, May 28, to unveil the T-shirts, which will be on sale for $18 at the party and online at www.shurpa.net. It's from 10:30 PM to 2 AM at Bill's Blues, 1029 Davis in Evanston, 847-424-9800. In between sets by L.V. Banks, Shurpa members will DJ. There's no cover if you mention Shurpa, but you must be 21 or over to attend.

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