This is a person you know. You occasionally do not enjoy his company because you know what he is like. His stories unspool and wrap you up and incite wonder and awe. He is the simulacrum of nearly everything you’ve wanted to be or do. He is this but he is also just your buddy because he’s not really wrapped up in all that shit. Let’s talk about this guy.
This guy is an artistic type. As a matter of fact, his artistry is such that we may rightly call it obnoxious. Or selfish. Like, spread it around. This fellow – our collective and gathered exemplar – began adulthood with pen in hand, creating fine art in college and beyond. He has since taught himself graphic design and now creates art that sells well online, to an accumulated customer base who fawn over his reliability and spread his name about the industry like autumn leaves in a gale. To wit, his art became a career and he makes money doing the thing he loves. This is a stressful observation for some people. To see that. I’m stressed at this very moment.
This fellow works remotely from a camper van. Early ‘90s Vanagon, perhaps. It is evergreen colored and has an aftermarket veranda attached to the side. Beneath this veranda we may see our guy strumming his dreadnought acoustic guitar that he bought with the windfall of a big logo design he just wrapped up. He laments that he no longer plays in a band but life on the road does not allow that sort of collaboration. You see, not everyone can do what he does and so he strums alone or with other folks he meets on the road. He is a very talented, nimble guitarist. This, of course, you already knew.
Yesterday morning this fellow tucked his computer beneath his bed, cased his guitar and grabbed a crash pad. He warmed up and then walked his V11 project, although he had worked it for awhile and he was trying pretty hard. You see, he is an expert climber, as well. His roof rack protects an Indian Creek rack, scratched to almost silver and much loved. He owns four crash pads. He bagged Ama Dablam when he was 24. This guy owns sun bleached etriers, peckers, fifi hooks and a shredded assortment of copperheads, which means he is willing to try anything. Even aid climbing.
And so, here we have a gentleman who lives on the road for a portion of the year, makes his living as an artist, plays guitar (sometimes in a band) and climbs hard in nearly every discipline. He also has a dog. And a wife. Oh, and he writes articles and gets them published, mostly about his climbing adventures.
How does this guy have the time to squeeze all of it into a life, one also full of love (remember the wife and dog, who our exemplar treats with equanimity and gentle ease…of course) and friendship and business dealings and regular life’s mundane hinderings? I don’t know. No one knows but him.
What say we talk to him? And her. I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative life, lately. Especially a creative life lived within the vast vacuum of climbing infatuation. How do they squeeze creativity, climbing and work into each 24 hour block they’re given? And excel at damn near everything they try along the way?
I reached out to 19 creative climbers and peppered them with five questions apiece, trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. Some of them you definitely know, some of them you’ve never heard of. They share two traits in common, as far as is germane to this interview series. One, they’re climbers who make a living being creative. Two, they graciously took the time to answer the following questions. Let’s check them out.
Five Questions For Six Climbers You Definitely Know
Global first ascent maestro, gigging musician, published writer and irreverent brain behind the world’s most popular climbing podcast, The Enormocast.
Years Climbing: 26
Hometown: Libertyville, IL
Current Town: Carbondale, CO
1. You wrote an article for Ascent a number of years ago about Layton Kor that happened to be my favorite piece that year. When did the writing bug first hit you? And, as people often ask of writers penning pieces for the mags: how did you start writing in the outdoor industry?
I have been writing since I was a kid. “The Adventures of Watermelon Man” was my first highly regarded work (by my mother) in 3rd grade. Neither a racist screed nor a tribute to Herbie Hancock, Watermelon Man was simply an anthropomorphized watermelon with roughly the same powers as superman, but, as is obvious by the title, a rotund fruit (and he could shoot seeds). Throughout high school, I continued to write for classes, but often found ways to subvert the assignments given, such as with my high school era masterwork, “The Death of a Mailman,” a play about a narcoleptic mailman who simply gathers mail in his basement and is finally crushed by a toppling pile while he sleeps. I now have a BA in English, and pursuit of that involved both creative writing and the mastery of the essay.
As to writing for the outdoor industry, that started simply through proximity. At one point, both Climbing and Rock and Ice were headquartered here in Carbondale. My first feature for Climbing about the Ghost River in Alberta, unimaginatively called Big Limestone in the Canadian Rockies, came out of a conversation over beers with then editor Jeff Achey that ended with, “You should write something for us about the Ghost.” Voila, I was a professional writer.
Most of my writing gigs for the climbing rags have come about the same way. I have never really pursued it too hard because I am not a ‘writer,’ per se. I can write, and I do cool trips sometimes, so I write about them when someone will pay me. The Kor article was an idea I had been kicking around, but I only got it on paper when Alison Osius at Big Stone Publishing approached me to submit something for Ascent. However, I am not a guy who writes every day for the craft. I don’t keep a journal or anything like that. And when I do write a longer piece, its brutal and takes me forever.
2. You have a big, irreverent, bouncing baby bowling through the climbing landscape. Tell us about the inception of the Enormocast and what you see for its future. Bonus points if you can carry on the metaphor…
I am about to have an actual baby in my life, and if I feel the same way about him as the Enormocast, then we are in trouble because some days I love doing the podcast, and some days I feel like, “Ugh, I should shut this thing down and just go climbing!” I don’t know if its more work than I anticipated, or if I just don’t like work no matter what type, but it is a constant pressure and cuts a lot of time out of other aspects of my life, including actual climbing.
I started the podcast because I listened to podcasts for years and really like the DIY medium. I am a believer in podcasts because there are none of the usual gatekeepers involved with media production and distribution. Especially before bigger media started saying “Hey, we need a podcast, here’s 500k, go start one!”, the medium was very much about creativity and quality rising to the top. There were and are 1000s of unlistenable podcasts out there, but decent ones could find their audience through the mire. As usual, money and mass marketing are taking something cool and are slowly fucking it up, but fans for the DIY casts are still out there and rabid.
In particular, I was inspired to start mine by listening to the inception of Marc Maron’s show: WTF with Marc Maron. Marc started his in his garage, and as a sometimes successful comedian, he was able to call on his friends in the industry at first to come in and do the show. He has come to define the podcast style which is to throw off the fetters of journalism and allow your own personality to infuse the interviews, for better or worse.
As a long time climber who has dabbled in the upper end of the sport, I, too, had many “famous” friends to help me get started. I did have a previous podcast attempt with a partner which is now defunct and eradicated, and that helped me define what my style would be. So when I launched the Enormocast, I had a bunch of really interesting friends right here in Carbondale and Moab to help me get it off the ground. It started to take off, especially with the Cerro Torre interviews with Hayden Kennedy, and after I hit up a few out of town folks who happen to be in Carbondale for the 5Point Film Festival, and then a few more at Outdoor Retailer, it jumped from just me and my friends to being less regional and more authoritative.
Its important to note that from the start, I decided to limit the interviews to face to face encounters- no Skype or phone- mostly because I thought (think) those types of podcasts sound like shit and I can hardly stand to listen to them (also, Maron does face to face exclusively). A face to face vibe is hard to match over distance – unless you are a pro like Terry Gross – which I am not. Incidentally, NPR also has the tech to get clean audio even over distance. This limit has created many headaches and does tend to make the podcast seem pretty regional and Colorado-centric, but I’m always on the hunt for ways to get some more far flung climbers on the show when I cross paths with them. Overall, I think the face to face interview standard has made the podcast what it is, though.
The future of the podcast is just grinding it out until I can’t any more.
3. I’ve heard you mentioned as climbing’s “Renaissance Man,” rightly so, I think. You play guitar in gigging bands, you single-handedly helm the most popular climbing podcast on the planet, you write and, of course, you actively pursue hard lines and FAs all over the world. Is it ever a struggle to cordon off all of your passions into manageable chunks or do you just do what makes you happy in the moment? In other words, some people can’t write when they’re caught up in music. Or they’ll put climbing on the backburner when they’re enraptured with a different creative process. There’s just not enough open data space available in their brains. How do you manage it?
The limiting factor is not brain power, but time. Time time time time, always about time. And in my pursuit of several different creative outlets, as well as other projects, I do somewhat fall into that category of being jack of many trades, master of none. Though, I think my podcast is pretty consistently good for being a one man show. Still, I am constantly back-burnering ideas for the show that, if it was a full time gig (which many people think it is) I could pull off no problem. My music is definitely a hobby, and I am one of those musicians that is passable only through hard work, not raw talent, so I am not sure I could be much more than I am even with more time dedicated to it. Writing, as a creative outlet has pretty much been usurped by the podcast. I had (have) thoughts of enormocast.com being a more multi media site with video, blog, essay, etc. but its all I can do to get two podcasts out a month. I haven’t published anything in a while because of the podcast (and the day job, of course, which ruins everything).
The problem for anyone with a ‘normal’ life who wants to seriously pursue a creative outlet is not just having the time to do it, but the time you do carve out is not always conducive to creativity. One can’t normally work all day, come home and take care of the other business of life, put the kids to bed, and then just sit down at 9 o’clock and stare at the medium and be like, “Go, be creative…Now!” Its very hard to call up the muse on demand. Most of the billions of humans who have lived on the earth probably have the capacity to create something amazing, but only the very few had both the fire and the situation to do it. I often joke that there have been 1000s of bands as good as the Beatles who just couldn’t find a place to practice and called it quits before they could write their “Hey Jude”. Its also why so many artists have miserable, messed up lives because they let everything else go to shit in lieu of their art. I will never be that guy. I’m too responsible thanks to my dad. Thanks, dad. And fuck you, too, for crushing my inner artist!
But I like when people see me as a Renaissance kind of guy and I pursue that in my life. In addition to creative projects, I try to be a man like my dad taught me: I can rebuild engines, hunt, shoot, remodel bathrooms, lay flooring, frame, know my way around a chainsaw, etc. I am also a dedicated partner in relationships as best I can and a soon to be a dad. Oh, and I can climb pretty well in nearly all disciplines (including bouldering and ice climbing if I had to, despite the running riffs on the show).
4. Do you ever get self-conscious knowing that a good chunk of the climbing world is listening to your voice, your thoughts and your opinions on a fairly regular basis? In that same vein, do you feel any responsibility to express your opinions in any certain way, knowing all those dirtbags are out there eating up each episode?
I now get recognized at the crag all the time if I open my mouth, which is both fun and embarrassing at the same time. I do have an Enormocast persona that is slightly different from my real self, but only slightly. I am more crusty in real life, and I have the same gripes about crowds, gumbies, idiots, and changes in the sport that most climbers with my age and experience have, but on the show, I minimize this to the occasional quip because I want it to be welcoming to all climbers. I don’t really worry about people hearing my opinions because I’ve earned them. I know as much or more about the ‘sport’ than almost anyone out there. That’s just a fact. I think this is the real reason my podcast is the most definitive of the few out there now and the one that came before (anyone remember podclimber?). I am an expert. No doubt about it. I don’t think I say too much that is all that controversial, and I call out silly shit because its fun and funny and some of it might literally save a life. Hopefully when we do take a shot at some idiot gumby maneuver, a listener might be like, “Oh, that’s me! I better wire my shit tighter before I get killed or punched in the eye.” Oh, and don’t fucking put your daisy between your legs! It might work, but you look like a tool!
5. “Fame” (it’s the climbing world, so those are some pretty heavy quotations) is a fleeting creature, hanging out with you and telling you all sorts of romantic things one moment and then barfing on your duvet and lighting your patio on fire the next. Do you ever wonder what comes next, in all aspects of your creative life?
What comes next is a kid, all else after that is a mystery. Some days I want to shut down the Enormocast, other days I’m hyper-excited about it and there are a lot of episodes that I am proud of. The fame that has come with it has only been positive but not much more than a novelty. I haven’t gotten laid because of it, or rich, or even been able to quit my day job, so its really just been about having conversations with people that I would probably not have met otherwise and expanding the community for me, which I enjoy. I really do like to talk about climbing!
That’s the extent of the ‘fame’. I could live without it, and some day will. Then I’ll just be sorta famous again and my friends can stop rolling their eyes when someone at the cliff says, “Hey! Are you Chris from the Enormocast?”
First ascents of some of the most daunting boulder problems in the States, fine artist, pioneering hold shaper, filmmaker, occasional writer, climbing gym designer and reigning Dark Death Baby of the climbing world.
Years Climbing: 22
Hometown: Jarettsville, MD
Current Town: Boulder, CO
1. How have you evolved as a shaper and designer over all those years? What inspires you year after year to keep with it, to keep innovating and pushing your own boundaries?
I think what mostly inspires me is there is so much to do. There are endless possibilities for new designs, just not enough time to do everything. Also, I just love the process. Because I am a climber and a setter I get a lot of enjoyment out of using the designs I create, be it climbing holds or walls. If a was just the designer and not the user I don’t think I would enjoy it as much.
2. You really have your pick when the creativity bug strikes. You’ve got fine art, filmmaking, graphic design, shaping, writing, climbing gym and wall design, and on and on. This strikes me as an amusement park of talents to play in, but are all those different irons in the fire a difficult maze to manage? Can it all become overwhelming while still trying to find time to get on the rock?
It is just difficult to manage because I can’t do all of them all the time. But each have their place, and there is a time for everything. It’s also nice to be able to transition from one to the other, which I think really helps to not get burnt out. If I had to only choose one, I think I would slowly lose interest.
3. Do you consider your image to be a piece of art, now or at any time in the past? How does the idea of a public image or persona influence your creativity?
Yes, everything I put out to the public is a piece of art, I think. They are the viewers, and it’s my choice what to show them. In that way, I think everything can be art. You are the one controlling it, nothing is accidentally and everything creates some sort of reaction.
4. Most would say that your artwork is dark. Spun out to the end of the metaphor spindle, one could also posit ridiculously highball bouldering as a dark art form. What energy inside you is sparked when you’re working in dark, iconoclastic or dangerous art forms and climbing such dangerous, high-risk boulder problems? Is there a tie that binds here?
Sure, it is dark; fear is a powerful emotion, but also easily controlled if you know how it works. I love illusions because there is so much work and thought put in behind the scenes, but the end result is the initial reaction of the viewer. This is my thought process with most of the highball climbs I have established and most of the art I create. People see what I have done and their initial reactions are fearful — or this guy is crazy — but that’s not the case. That’s just a first response to the situation, and all the work and back story stays hidden. In most cases that reality is even hard to comprehend. I love that process and it really feels like I have accomplished my goal of overcoming that initial fear. A lot of times I feel the same way as the viewer when I first come across these lines. I just put in the time to understand them.
5. This is a question I’ve never asked you that I’ve always meant to. Who are some of your artistic inspirations? What lessons did you learn from these people?
When I was growing up I liked the concept of magic, although I never wanted to be a magician. Visually I was inspired by H.R. Giger and Tim Burton, and when I was a teenager I was really into horror movies and I wanted to do special effects make up for movies. I was really into art, mostly drawing, photography and sculpture in high school and college. That’s when I found climbing and I began to mix them. I got more into film as the access to the technology progressed and was influenced more by films from Jodorowsky, Svankmajer and less and less by high budget productions. Its most important to be creative, tell a story and control your audience. I believe this has nothing to do with money. I think the lesson I learned from all of these people is that you are in control, everything is a choice, and if you do it right, your message can be very powerful.
Professional climber, route equipper and destroyer, global traveler, occasional writer, route setter.
Years Climbing: 11
Hometown: Boulder, CO/Las Vegas, NV
Current Town: Hmmm…airplane? Literally, I am on an airplane. Does that count?
1. I picked you for this list for a couple of different reasons. First, you’ve been traveling the globe, nearly full-time, for roundabouts six years now. There’s a certain creativity and artistry in the way you travel and I can’t seem to put my finger on it. It’s part positivity, part relentless drive, part curiosity… What does the art of travel mean to you? Do you view your globetrotting through a creative, artistic lens?
The art of travel?… Ultimately, in my mind, art is expression, and often creation. I suppose in many ways my traveling is expression in the sense that it’s the way I want to interact with the world; it’s the pace and the lifestyle that I always dreamed of and this pursuit informs almost every decision for me – both personally and professionally. So, in that way it is my ultimate expression, I suppose, like trying to make a dream into reality.
2. Of course, putting up first ascents is a creative process. If you can, describe the feeling of exhilaration or euphoria (or whatever it is) that you feel throughout the equipping, sussing and sending evolution of a route? Could this rightly be described as an addicting process?
Is it a creative process though? I would say that the creativity comes in the form of imagination. Bolting routes – especially harder routes – requires a kind of vision that is invigorating and creative. All the while attempting to preserve the actual medium (the stone), and thus nothing is really ‘created’, but a path is made viable. It’s almost like the creative process is just in imagining there to be movement, and then the exciting part is discovering that there is. And furthermore, for me personally, the best part is sharing the creation with others and seeing or hearing about their experience. It’s super addicting.
As far as the feeling, though, the best feeling for me is not actually climbing the route. The best feeling in development is the first time I lower over a blank wall or in some cases aid my way up. I swing and touch the holds; I imagine a sequence, a clip, a rest, a crux. Like a child frantically sampling a new playground I jump back and forth across the wall evaluating where, how and what might happen. The feeling is nervous excitement and pure discovery. Maybe the route is actually impossible, maybe the rock is shit, or maybe it’s perfect. I’ve experienced the full range of possibilities.
3. You’ve spent a fair amount of time on the opposite end of a photographer’s lens (plenty of those nosy folks on this list). Did it take some getting used to in order to perform without a great deal of self-consciousness when climbing in front of a camera? Do you like the process of working with photographers and filmmakers? How does this process affect your session or overall climbing trip, as a climber trying to get some work done?
Climbing in front of the camera took a little getting used to but the real struggle for me is the ‘acting’ that is sometimes required to tell or complete a story. Like to pretend that I feel emotional because I just sent (when I really sent 9 days before) or to act as though I am nervous about the day ahead when I am actually in a different location altogether and stoked on something different. These are just examples, but yeah, it’s the acting that is sometimes tough for me. Acting is hard!
In my mind there are two ways to capture climbing. One is through story telling, which is creative and difficult but also often produces the most entertaining result. Another is like journalism, which is time consuming and unpredictable but pure.
I really prefer to work with friends who know how to put the camera in my face when I actually feel stress or stoke. People who can be there for the whole process and capture the real moments, those are the filmmakers and photographers that I love to work with. Cameron Maier, Colette McInerney and Andy Mann are great examples of that. They are down to be there for the shit as well as the champagne, and I love that.
The older I get the more excited I am to work with friends. The kind of people that I feel comfortable around and that I want to share my fears or concerns or passion with. The people that understand that my climbing will always come first and know how important to me it is – much more than a photo or a video. Media is a huge part of being a professional but I would much rather be a broke crusher than a rich poser.
4. You’ve described the Boulder Rock Club as a “home,” a place you’ve been setting routes at for years now. Has the discipline of route setting offered you any insight into unfurling the mysteries of routes when onsighting/flashing or when eyeing possible first ascents?
Yes, I feel so at home there. I love the people and the vibe, and I do occasionally still set routes there but mostly I go in to train. I did, however, set routes there all through college and more – for roughly 7 years. Route setting taught me so much about climbing movement. It really has helped me to know my body’s limits, at a glance. I mean that I can look at a sequence of holds and generally know which feet I will be able to reach, which holds are better than others and what might be a solution for me. I also feel strongly that it has helped me memorize beta. Just the exercise of thinking about movement so often benefited my ability to remember specific hand and foot holds as well as sequence. This skill is invaluable in redpoint climbing.
5. Many men/women on this list will leave their legacies with pieces of art, companies striving for innovation, books and photographs. Now, you have a long, long climbing career ahead of you…but…what sort of legacy would you like to leave on the climbing landscape when you closet the Sportivas for the last time?
Well, I’m not sure how super long my career will be, but I am hoping for another handful of Octobers…haha. I think about this question quite a bit, actually. It is important to me to make a contribution, because I derived so much inspiration from the pioneers before me. I would never consider myself a pioneer but I do hope that some of my first ascents drive people. I hope that my pursuit in climbing motivates some young punks to train hard or quest out to a remote crag or pick up a drill themselves one day. In the end I really can’t write my own legacy – I can only stay true to my path and let my peers decide if my achievements have value.
Climber with impressive resume, filmmaker, entrepreneur, former DJ, guy who fell off John Gill’s The Thimble in a climbing film and is now known as such.
Years Climbing: 21
Hometown: Golden, CO
Current Town: Denver, CO
Company Name: SparkShop
1. When you step into the film industry, specifically for climbing, I imagine you’re entirely psyched to film climbing and the outdoor world forever. Is that how you began with your first film company (well, same company, different name), just hunting out climbing stories to tell? How does the business repertoire expand as the company grows?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. Even at a young age I would invent things or make things and try to find ways to sell them. However, with video production it started off just as pure fun, documenting the antics of my friends and I as we traveled around and went climbing in cool locations. And then something funny happened…there appeared to be a market for my footage. Partly because I was getting better at shooting, and partly because some of my friends were becoming well known, sponsored athletes. But for a long time filming climbing was not really a profession. I was not quite talented enough to get full-on sponsorships like some of my friends, so I always had to come up with creative ways to afford to travel and climb. I always knew that if I took my video camera I could probably get my trips paid for by selling the photos or footage. As the sport of climbing expanded, and as I became a better and more committed cinematographer, I was able to hack out a niche as a filmmaker. It doesn’t take too long, however, to realize that you only make about $5 /hr on climbing films, and commercial jobs pay much better, so when climbing companies or companies owned by climber buddies ask you to make a commercial, you say “yes.” I have a passion for making commercials. I love the practice of creating art that sells a product, and these days it’s mostly how I get the bills paid.
2. I’ve seen all of your films, beginning with Friction Addiction. Your style has obviously matured a great deal. How has your filming and storytelling style changed over the years? Was this out of necessity or did it stem from natural artistic growth?
I’d say it’s natural artistic growth. And that’s also why I’m producing less climbing-related content these days. My vision as a cinematographer has developed to the stage now that I like to work in controlled environments with lighting and more elements that can be controlled. Most of the time, early on, I was primarily a climber and secondarily a filmer. Now I’ve set the two things apart… so that climbing can be purely recreational and filming can be my profession.
3. There was a time when you were known more as DJ Underground Chuck than anything else! Can you talk about your life as a DJ, what your relationship is with music now and if we’ll ever see Underground Chuck back under the dance lights?
UGC was a really fun phase. I continue to spin electronic music, but at this point the DJ ‘scene’ has left me in the dust. I just use vinyl and a mixer… These days you practically have to have a degree in computer science to hold your own as a performing DJ. I loved spinning electronic music, but unfortunately the culture of dance music was (and to an extent, still is) tied up with drugs. I’m not a big fan of drugs or drug culture, and I’ve seen first hand how electronic music can incite people to make some big mistakes and do things to their body that they regret.
4. You often contribute to Sender Films and Big Up Productions projects. What are the relationships like between filmmakers in the industry, for the most part? We’ve certainly seen some drama coming out of the Tim Kemple/Jimmy Chin social media-fueled kerfuffle over the last couple weeks. But, generally, it seems like you guys and gals are really on the same page and support each other professionally. What’s your insider’s take?
In general, there’s an unspoken pact between all the top-level cinematographers called the ‘pro shooters union,’ in which we try hard to avoid stepping on each others’ toes. It doesn’t work all the time, and technically we are competitors in a competitive field, but we have generally found that respecting someone’s creative work and focusing on originality instead of competition is more productive for everyone involved. This doesn’t mean you have to be a total doormat, but it’s much more fun to be in cooperation with people than it is to be in competition.
5. Climbing media is saturated with amateur films, some of which aren’t too bad. How do you cut through the clutter to make your films stand out? In other words, what allows a good climbing film to separate itself from the chafe as unique and exceptional?
It usually boils down to the talent of the athlete, not the people behind the camera. 90% of the quality of a film is set in stone at the moment you decide WHO is going to be in it and WHAT they are going to try to do. And that happens before you even pick up a camera.
All-around climber, writer for magazines and online media, author of a narrative non-fiction book, a Semi-Rad compilation and a climbing guidebook, contributing editor (Climbing magazine, Dirtbag Diaries podcast, Adventure Journal, etc), rock solid blogger and unabashed purveyor of happiness and stoke.
Years Climbing: 10
Hometown: New Hampton, IA
Current Town: Denver, CO
1. A lot of people find that climbing snatches all of their time when they fall into the addiction. As a writer, you need to make climbing fuel your artistic endeavors. You also need discipline to close the shades on a bluebird day and hammer out a story on the keyboard. How do you balance your creative outlets and your desire to get out climbing (or biking or hiking or rafting or…)? What kind of frustration bubbles up when all you want to do is get in a pitch – and possibly find a story therein – but you have another deadline to meet?
The short answer there is the climbing suffers. I think a few years ago, climbing was The Thing for me, but I always had a job—and always a job that didn’t pay that much—so climbing came second to working, and it never became this thing that I pushed everything else aside to do. And even when it was the most important thing in my life (besides having enough money to eat), I always knew I wanted to tell stories, even more than I wanted to climb. So when those opportunities come up, sadly, climbing takes a backseat. There are people whose gift to the world is what they do on rock or in the mountains (like Alex Honnold, Lynn Hill, Ueli Steck, and others), and I’ve never thought that I would be one of those people—I love climbing, but don’t have anything close to that ridiculously huge talent, drive, and work ethic. The thing I give to people is stories, which requires me to sit in front of a computer a lot. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I like writing more, which is not a very sexy answer. If I had a poster of a climbing hero on my bedroom wall, it would be one of Kelly Cordes, because he’s a great writer, a great thinker, and also happens to be a great climber.
2. Adventure Journal’s Steve Casimiro has called you “inimitable.” Well…with enough work, anyone can be imitated (ask Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion about it…if you could). Writers all come up, to a certain degree, with imitation until they finally hear their own voices. Did you go through any imitation phases? As a writer with a very recognizable style and a pretty positive and fun message, do you ever see folks out there tapping into the Leonard Zeitgeist and roll your eyes, similar to how Ira Glass must feel when listening to anyone else talk on NPR nowadays?
Oh, I totally imitated people. I’m sure 50 percent of young men who want to be writers, at least my age, pictured themselves being the next Hunter Thompson at some point. I probably imitated Dave Eggers at one point, too, and probably Ernest Hemingway. All of those imitations were probably quite terrible, but I think that’s what most people do when they start out, and I think it’s a good thing, as long as you realize at some point that you need to figure out how to be influenced by those styles instead of copying them. It was nice for me to “grow up” as a writer and have all the garbage I wrote never see the light of the internet or publication, and that I essentially got to practice in obscurity for a few years before I started to get stuff out there.
It’s funny, I’m actually trying pretty hard to learn photography right now, and I’m at the initial stage where I am trying to understand the black magic of wrangling light and figuring out how to work the manual settings on a camera, and I am studying photographer friends’ work a lot, going, “Oh, OK, Forest shot this with a 35mm lens, f/1.4, ISO 800, focused on the guy’s hands, pointed straight into the evening sun…” and then learning by copying that to a certain extent (and of course ending up with a very amateur-looking result, by comparison). It’s fun to recognize that you copy first to learn, and then try to find your own voice after that. And with photography, I am years away from finding a recognizable voice like those friends of mine have—I’m just at the stage, metaphorically, of starting to put together some readable, grammatically correct sentences.
As far as my writing style or voice goes, I don’t know if I’ve actually fully developed it yet or could tell you what it is? I definitely don’t think I’ve seen anyone imitate it, but maybe I wouldn’t know if they were anyway.
3. You shopped around your first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, without any publishing houses taking you on. Tell us about that process and why you finally decided to self-publish.
I only pitched it to about a dozen publishers and agents because I had been shopping a different manuscript to publishers for several years and had gotten that one rejected, no shit, at least 50 times. Plus it was a road trip book, and I was aware of how many pitch emails publishers and agents must get from people saying, “I have this book about my road trip…” and they probably just roll their eyes and delete the email. And I had this blog, which I was self-publishing, and that seemed to be going pretty well. So I self-published the book, which was super-fun. One friend donated the cover photo, and I paid another friend to design the cover, and another friend to do the copy edit, and my girlfriend edited the manuscript. It sold pretty well, I think—not that I would know because I’ve never had a book published before. In my head, it’s still somewhat not a “real book,” because I published it myself—it’s super-easy with the tools we have available now. You just upload a Word .doc, a PDF for the cover, and voila, a couple weeks later they send you a paperback book. I usually joke with people that I could make them a book in a few hours, you know, hey, 50,000 words? That’s like 500 emails. Put all those into a Word document and you’ve got a book. Of course selling it is another matter altogether, and I had to spend quite a bit of money trying to get it out there. But in the end, I definitely made some money off it, so that makes me feel at least not dumb for doing it.
A happy ending that came out of that book is that it sold well, and I went back to one of the publishers who decided to pass on it back in 2012, Mountaineers Books, and said, “Hey, that other book I pitched you, the one I self-published, sold 4,000+ copies in the first year, if that means anything.” And we talked, and have since then been working on this other manuscript I had—the one that’s been rejected 50+ times since about 2008—and it’s coming out in April 2016, titled Sixty Meters to Anywhere. The same friend took the cover photo, but he got paid this time, and of course the entire process is much more professional. So I’m excited to work with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing realm, although I’m glad that I had the grassroots experience of trying to do everything myself with The New American Road Trip Mixtape.
4. You are probably the greatest writing hustler that I know. You author books, manage corporate blogs, contribute as an associate editor for the mags, work for podcasts, write for films, and probably eight other things I’m unaware of. All of this while never missing your weekly column deadline for Semi-Rad. Describe the hustle, how you’ve seemed to master it and what some of the frustrations and rewards are of being a full-time, professional freelance writer.
Ah, thanks. I feel like my friend Anna Brones (author, blogger, film producer/writer, nonprofit PR) is more deserving of that title—several times every year I see her post on Facebook or I get an email from her and I go, “Wait, you’re doing that, too? Where do you find the time?”
I guess I would say that if you want to write full-time, you just pitch and pitch and pitch and write and write and write, and at some point a little bit of work comes to you and you don’t have to spend as much time pitching. If you believe that you can be a writer, you’ll do it, or you’ll eventually decide the hustle isn’t for you. I have a talk I give to college kids, and one of the things I tell them is that the saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is bullshit, and that if you love 30 percent of what you do on a daily basis, you are living the dream. The frustrations are probably the same as any sort of creative job, Magazine X hasn’t paid me for my story that ran nine months ago, Publication Y massacred my story and the piece that came out in the magazine doesn’t even sound like my writing anymore—but I guess the great part about that is that as a writer in our day and age, you can usually find an outlet for your vision, even if it just ends up running on your personal blog.
I try to focus on only two things: creating, and keeping my freedom. The thing that makes all the hustling worth it is the idea that I can take off and go ride my bike in Norway for two weeks (for a story) or work all day on Saturday and Sunday so I can take Tuesday off to go climbing if I want to. And more importantly, if I juggle things correctly, I can do a couple creative things a year that don’t pay at all if I want to try them. Our film Frank and the Tower is one of those things—I talked my friend Forest into going up to Devils Tower and shooting footage of Frank for a week, with no idea if it would ever pay off. And thankfully, Fitz Cahall saw enough value in the idea to shoot some additional footage and edit the entire film in his spare time (also for no paycheck). So we all gambled on a story, and eventually REI got behind it, so we’re all going to get paid. No one’s going to get rich off it, but we got to share Frank with the world, which I think we’d all agree is the most important thing.
The trade-off is that you don’t make as much money in the long run (or the short run), I guess.
5. You’re one of the few folks in this interview series that has written a guidebook. Talk about the long process of putting together a guidebook, from getting on the actual routes yourself to the mundane slog of picking your typeset. What is that experience like from start to finish?
So I would call our guidebook (Classic Front Range Trad Climbs) more like “guidebook light,” since it only has 40 routes in it. I look at some of the things my friends work on, with hundreds or thousands of routes in them, and think the amount of work that goes into those things is staggering and terrifying. I think Steve Levin’s Eldorado Canyon guidebook is one of the biggest labors of love I’ve ever seen, rock climbing or not, with the photos, the topos, and the inclusion of every single route ever climbed in Eldo. If rock climbing were anything like the Catholic Church, he would be St. Steven of Eldorado Canyon, just for that book alone.
Lee and I wrote probably the only guidebook we’re qualified to write, covering multipitch routes 5.4 to 5.8+, and it still turned out to be way more work than I initially thought, mostly because I assumed we had more photos of the routes than we did—so we ended up going out and re-climbing a lot of the routes just to get photos of them (and thankfully, had a lot of friends who were happy to contribute photos). We didn’t have to lay out the book ourselves since it was published by the Colorado Mountain Club, so the process was: climb route, write route description including approach and descent beta, edit photos, trace topo on photo, submit to publisher. Once we had all 40 routes included, we had to go through a couple copy edits (like “Mountain Project says Pitch 3 is only 95 feet, you say it’s 120 feet?”) and then look over a final PDF of the book once it was laid out.
Then, after it was published, we of course did a bunch of presentations and book signings, which are really fun. But we didn’t get a publishing advance before we started on it, so our payment is all based on sales, and the book’s only been out for about six months, so Lee and I have each made something like $3.95 on the book total so far. But of course you hope over the long run it will be successful and sell a ton of copies so you’ll get a bit more money from it. Once we get to the point where we think we made $5 an hour including all the time to research and write it, I’ll call that a success. Maybe in 2018! But you really do it because you love climbing and sharing climbing with people, so the money is kind of icing on that cake. And it was also a great project to do with a really good friend of mine.
Climber with a bold and proud resume, author of numerous books, magazine writer, editor and occasional much needed agent provocateur.
Years Climbing: 29
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
Current Town: Boulder, CO
1. You’ve been on every side of narrative non-fiction writing possible. You’ve authored books, written a climber’s dictionary, worked as an editor at magazines and of course had your own work edited before being published. You’ve lived the life of a climbing writer like few others working today. What so inspires you, maddens you and invigorates you about the climbing universe, such that you’ve found a home writing about the sport/lifestyle and the characters living it?
I was always inspired to write about climbing because it was a sport I lived and breathed, for many years. I feel very fortunate that, from about 1996 onward, I was able to make a living or semi-living as a climbing writer. Hey, wow, holy hell, I often even had a regular paycheck and benefits when I was a desk editor, which can be pretty rare in our little corner of the world. I think what makes climbing writing so unique is that, to write about it truthfully and well, you also have to experience it, to understand what’s really at stake and all the many nuances of the gear, terminology, objective hazards, etc. So in a way, you need to combine technical writing with storytelling, all while being “embedded” in the world’s most majestic places; places from dreams, really, that 99.9 percent of people will never experience close up. We’re very lucky to get to go play in the heights and return to tell our tales. Life is simply better up there, away from all the clamor and bullshit.
I couldn’t really say what has inspired me or maddened me per se over the years. I suppose what was most inspirational was the opportunity to travel to write many of the pieces, and to get to know some of the sport’s most dedicated practitioners up close and personal. Climbers approach their goals in a pretty unique, methodical way, and have to get good at dealing with failure; it’s been nice to write about that process.
2. How has the climbing magazine landscape changed since you began writing and editing so many years ago? Any advice for up-and-comers hoping to land their first piece in this ever-evolving industry?
I started writing for the mags pretty regularly in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was just starting to be “a thing” but really wasn’t yet. Obviously there’s been a huge, ever-evolving shift to digital since then, one that has allowed anyone—from individual climbers to gear manufacturers—to also have outlets for writing and photography and videography. You know, what is called “content” these days. I think it’s great that there are more venues than ever. The mags certainly had a monopoly on climbing content for many decades, and I suppose with fewer gatekeepers there is going to be potentially less breadth to climbing reporting, though I believe the editors at these titles have always done their best. I don’t think that’s a problem anymore. I really like the immediacy of the Web. I’m as much of a sucker for a good, quick climbing vid as the next guy.
As for advice: Pick a story or area or climber that interests •you•, and not that you think will “sell,” and then go after your story or images or film with passion. If you put your heart into it and spend your time polishing the finished product—i.e., be willing to take feedback and go through revisions—other climbers will connect with it. Ours is first and foremost a sport of the heart, and climbers can see through bullshit pretty quickly.
3. Your memoir Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness tackles the subjects of addiction and the Pharmo-Industrial Complex with absolute grace. Was it difficult to pen the book while you were still in the tender stages of recovery from your benzodiazepine addiction? How did you manage the anxiety of drafting, writing and editing (over and over again) the book and then the subsequent media you did to promote both the book and the issue you’ve come to champion?
I was actually in much better health, and stronger physically, emotionally, and mentally, when I wrote the book, so it felt like an OK, natural thing to do. I was four years out then from psychiatric poisoning, and was functioning at 90 percent or so of my old self; life was great. In 2013, a series of stressors rekindled (retriggered) my nervous system, and plunged me back into total hell, worse than it had ever been, with a return to full symptoms. I’m still dealing with that two years later, the type of debilitating physical symptoms and psychic darkness and terror that make writerly anxiety look like child’s play, like a gnat on your arm. Certainly making my story public has been a stressor too, but if putting it out there can help other folks, and future generations, avoid this trap, then it’s worth it. I find it insane that we live in such a fucked-up society, one so cold and controlling and alienating, that instead of taking the time to truly help people in emotional distress, we instead put labels on them and poison them with psychotropic chemicals, often to the point that they take their own lives. I hope someday people look back on psychiatry like they do today on slavery: “You mean people used to OWN other people?” And: “You mean some quack calling himself a ‘doctor’ was allowed to put dangerous, barely understood chemicals into the brains and bodies of other people, often against their will?”
4. Before you were writing books you were authoring scary, dangerous trad first ascents. From someone who took the sharp end and charged into these challenging routes, what separates a bold climber from a climber that maybe wants to be bold but can’t quite muster the head to plow through the fear? Is there something you can put your finger on here?
You know, I never was that bold, to be honest. I liked to be in control, and if something felt out of control I backed off, usually, minus a few unfortunate near-misses. For me, my approach was always to be so strong physically, or at least well-prepared in terms of the holds and sequencing or protection, that a fall was simply not going to happen. I suppose I did some dangerous onsights, but again they were never near my physical limit. No way! I don’t think there is a way to overcome fear, really: you can really only focus on risk management, and try to be honest with yourself about how much risk you’re up for on a given day. If it feels wrong, back off: that is often the boldest decision. Climbing is scary and the consequences of an error, or even just a mishap, are quite severe; it is often right and proper to feel fear, because this is what keeps us alive.
5. I devoured Death Grip and was intrigued when you wrote about your initial mentors and inspirations. Who were some of the writers (climbing or otherwise) that so inspired you to put pen to paper as a young man? What is it that so inspired you about these writers?
I always loved the cynicism mixed with razor-sharp prose of Charles Bukowski and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. They put the antic stupidity of mankind under a microscope, and then describe it in such a way that you can’t turn away, as much as you want to, because the language is just so evocative and strong. Amazing. On the adventure side, I’ve always loved the books of Jon Krakauer, Joe Simpson, David Roberts. I remember reading their stuff early on in my climbing career, in the mid-1980s, and clicking with it. The imagery, the storytelling, the honesty, the incredible sense of place their words evoke. All three are some of my favorite writers to this day. Two other books I read over and over were Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs, and Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock. I used to visit these amazing climbs in my mind, as a teenager growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and later on I was even lucky enough to do some of the routes in Fifty Classics. Good times…
Five Questions For Seven Climbers You May Know
Outdoor adventurer, writer, contributing editor, voice for women in outdoor sports, doughnut and coffee lover.
Years Climbing: 3
Hometown: Hmmm…born in Boulder, CO, grew up in Texas and Nebraska, went to college at Colorado State.
Current Town: Denver, CO — since ’06 (I guess I consider Denver my hometown).
1. A lot of people find that climbing (or biking, as well, in your case) snatches all of their time when they fall into the addiction. As a writer, you need to make climbing/biking fuel your artistic endeavors. And you need to be damned disciplined about sitting down at the desk and doing the work. How do you balance your creative outlets and your desire to get out climbing or biking or hiking or…?
Even when I was living in a van full-time with my boyfriend, I still feel like I erred toward work/writing instead of climbing or biking. Part of it was just the pressures of trying to build a financially viable freelance writing career after quitting a full-time office job, and part of it is that, to this day, I’m equally as motivated to create as to play outside. I really get the same excited feeling pouring my thoughts into a blog post as when I’m bombing down one of my favorite trails. I’ve never really had the full-time dirtbag experience, I guess. Because I’m so excited about writing, my climbing and biking actually tends to suffer, just like anyone with a career they’re super wrapped up with, I guess.
2. You strike me as a community-oriented writer. Meaning, much of what you write is meant, in some way, to uplift and enliven the outdoor community. What is it in you that leans toward community-based storytelling? Is it ever a struggle to meld your adventures or someone else’s adventure that you’re trying to capture into a universal, communally uplifting narrative?
Actually, I think sometimes I might be taking the lazy way out. I’d like to think that my own adventures are exciting enough, or that my writing is amazing enough to capture people’s attention and draw them through a story. But I’m pretty sure they usually aren’t. (Well, I’m working on that part!) I really enjoy talking with friends about the deeper issues and funny things about our outdoor lives, but I didn’t see a lot of women’s voices talking about those things online or in print so I just started putting those ideas out there. Sometimes I think all I’m doing is typing down the words that a lot of us are collectively thinking, and if people respond well, it certainly feels nice. I’m working on some longer-term projects that are less community oriented, but on my blog I really like asking questions and starting discussions for now.
3. To be a creative person you have to create. That seems like the most banal statement ever, but I reckon you’ll understand. A great idea doesn’t just arrive out of thin air and scoop chocolate ice cream into your mouth as it gives you a neck massage. You’re a fairly prolific writer and adventurer. How do you come up with ideas that click? How do you force the good stuff to rise to the top?
As you’ve probably noticed, the ideas don’t usually come when you’re sitting in front of a computer screen. Usually, they come when I’m talking with a friend on the way down from a climb, driving back from a mountain bike ride alone or in the middle of a run. Lots of the stuff I write about on my blog is inspired from either things I observe through social media or discuss with friends. And when we’re both home, Brendan and I are usually sitting across the kitchen table from each other through the work day, so we’re constantly bantering and running thoughts by each other.
4. You began your writing career as a magazine health and beauty editor. Now, this is the story I envision. Outdoor Person envisions big career in magazine editing, maybe NYC. Outdoor Person discovers rock climbing. Rock climbing destroys all NYC bigwig dreams for Outdoor Person. Outdoor Person scuttles NYC dreams for outdoor writing/editing dreams. Close?
Kind of! I went to college at Colorado State (from a small town in western Nebraska) because I wanted to be near the mountains. I got into mountain biking and camping while I was studying journalism and political science. I dreamed of writing for Outside Magazine…of course. When I got a job offer at a natural foods magazine in Boulder (after year of freelancing and a season working in Antarctic), I jumped at it—and worked my way up to health and beauty editor over three years before I was laid off along with most of the rest of the staff in 2009.
After working a couple of dead-end jobs, I met Brendan and was really impressed by how he was making a living writing mostly online—I had never imagined you could make money if it wasn’t for magazines! He let me move into the van with him, which helped me afford to quit my office job and throw myself back into writing and editing again. Oh, and I picked up climbing—and he picked up mountain biking, thankfully. It still feels tenuous sometimes, but it feels wonderful every time I get a check for something I wrote—especially something I wrote from the heart.
5. Give me five people or places that have inspired and informed your writing over the years. Why? As a final addendum, drop the name of the one person you’d reorganize a year’s worth of plans for, just to nab an exclusive interview. Why?
I met Diane French, who edits the Patagonia catalog, on a press trip a couple of years ago, and every time I get to chat with her or read something she’s written, I get inspired. She has a delicate, sensitive writing style, and inspires me to push myself beyond the typical outdoor industry style and write the best I can write.
Also, my friend Anna Brones in Paris, who writes the blog Foodie Underground and published the books The Culinary Cyclist and Fika, has been a great example of what someone can do with a great idea and some hustle. She’s worked on award-winning films, consistently produces great content on her own blog and has published two books! Whenever I get down about the freelance life, I look at her and get pumped up about the things I can do or make if I put some elbow grease into it!
And…a place. Moab. Well, the American desert as a whole, really. I’ve always loved it, but didn’t spend much extended time there until I was living in the van. (It’s way easier to live out of a van in Utah than anywhere else I’ve found!) The red rock desert of southern Utah and the Colorado River have come to feel like comforting arms, and a home. And they’ve inspired lots of work that I’m really proud of.
On that note, I’m also a fan of Terry Tempest Williams and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and books like Red and Women Who Run With The Wolves pull my head out of my typical outdoor-industry viewpoint to think about larger issues of humanity and environment.
And I would rearrange anything I could to get an interview with Katie Lee. I’m not the rebellious type, so her kind of brash tactics and personality are super intriguing to me. But the way she writes about the desert (I had read an essay by her before I saw DamNation) really speaks to me. And I’m so fascinated by how her love for Glen Canyon made such a huge impact in her life. I really hope to talk with her some time!
Andy and Jess Wickstrom
Passionate climbers, community oriented non-profit warriors, photographers, artists, graphic designers, entrepreneurs. Literally, these two are probably the busiest full-time road dogs churning rubber on the American highways.
Years Climbing: 19/12
Hometown: Hudson, WI/Viroqua, WI
Current Town: Road…
Company Name: Wickstrom Design, DesignEgg, Wickstrom Photo
1. For me, part of your artistry is in the way that you live. Your website title page says, “100% CAGE-FREE SINCE 2014.” What culminated in your “former” lives that led you to buy the Scamp and find a way to live full-time on the road?
From 2003 to 2014, we lived and worked full-time jobs in Chicago. Jess ran a ceramics gallery, I was a graphic designer for a local coffee roaster called Intelligentsia. After 11 years, we had grown increasingly tired of city life—commuting to work, cost of living, crime…. As wild as it sounds, we actually lost most of our belongings to arson in 2012 when an upstairs neighbor set our condo building ablaze in a desperate suicide attempt. We were displaced for a year after the fire and during that time we made it a goal to find a way to leave Chicago and break from the stresses we had been feeling. We had good jobs and terrific friends, but we wanted more freedom, better access to the outdoors, and a simpler way of life.
Among climbers there is, of course, a long history of people who aspire to live on the road. We too wanted to travel the country and climb as much as possible, but we also had ambitions of starting our own nonprofit, furthering our careers, and sustaining our mobile lifestyle through creative work. In the months leading up to our departure, I came across a Jack Kerouac quote and wrote it on the white board at our gym—I think it summed up our feelings at the time: “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
2. DesignEgg is a charitable initiative, funded by Kickstarter, donations and yourselves, that delivers thousands of dollars of mostly artistic services to non-profit organizations, artists and entrepreneurs who need a little help. In a less cynical world we might call that an altruistic endeavor. I know that you want to further your own careers, but it seems this is a circuitous route in doing so. Why does helping other artists speak to you so powerfully when you’re in the meat and potatoes of your own creative lives?
DesignEgg was conceived as both a way to help others and a path to personal and professional fulfillment. It utilizes our creative skills, builds upon our freelance experience, and leverages our connections in the art and nonprofit worlds. The project provides an exciting environment in which to hone our crafts. It challenges us, inspires us, and gives us a mission as we travel. We’ve been able to refine skills like project management, photography, client relations, writing/blogging, social media, etc., while visiting the nation’s best climbing destinations, cities, and parks.
DesignEgg also provides a source of income (albeit supplemental, we still operate as freelancers outside of the nonprofit work), a fresh story that generates interest amongst a variety of communities, and moreover, a sense of purpose—we are able to live our life of adventure while having a meaningful impact on artists and nonprofit organizations. Everybody wins: Donors feel good about supporting the project and enjoy following our adventures; we expand our portfolios and get to feel great about our work; and the recipients get much needed creative services at no cost.
3. Using Kickstarter as a funding mechanism for creative projects seems to be a part of our current artistic landscape. I’m not sure a lot of people know exactly how this works, what it takes, the stresses, etc. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with and utilization of Kickstarter?
Fundraising is difficult and time-consuming work. Kickstarter was a great tool to get us started because it provides a ready-made platform and familiar interface for donors. The company has figured out how to harness the excitement of time-sensitive goals and use internal and external promotions to help you get the word out. However, we’ve seen more than one campaign come up short and there was certainly no guarantee for us, either. We put a lot of time and effort into our video, graphics, website, marketing, incentives, thank-you notes…. We also did a lot of grassroots donor cultivation, reaching out directly to friends, family, and colleagues with a clear explanation of our project and a carefully worded request for support. Launching and running a Kickstarter campaign is a very active process and not until you meet your goal can you begin to relax your efforts.
The month-long campaign was a special period of bonding and excitement amongst our friends and family and the day we met our $10,000 goal was especially significant. At the very moment when we hit the mark, Jess was at work at the gallery, I was biking home from work. She called me and cried. Even though the campaign had been going well and reaching the goal at this point was looking imminent (we were almost there with a week to go), we both experienced a physical, weak-in-the-knees reaction to the news of our success. Our life was about to change and not only as the result of our wanting it, but because more than 150 other people wanted it for us too. That was a powerful and unforgettable moment.
4. As designers and photographers, there is a certain art to the hustle. You have to juggle logo design with selling photos and DesignEgg work with branding and packaging and…on and on. How have you both embraced the hustle while finding a way to tame and bridle it (if you have)?
This is something we struggle with. Staying on top of client relations (new and old), keeping the website up-to-date, engaging followers on social media, blogging, soliciting donations, invoicing, garnering interest amongst potential applicants…there are a lot of moving pieces. And that doesn’t even cover the actual task of the creative work, which somehow ends up taking less time than all the “hustle.”
All the competing tasks that you feel compelled to keep up with when you’re running your own business (or in our case, really three businesses—DesignEgg, Wickstrom Design, and Wickstrom Photo) can be overwhelming and the best strategy we’ve found is just to do a little each day. On any given Tuesday we are climbing, crafting a newsletter, checking in with our current projects, writing a thank-you to a donor or asking someone new for support, posting on Instagram, and catching an episode of Last Week Tonight. Our life is a continuum of work and play and most often we are just going back and forth between the two. Some days, we’re not sure if it’s all quite necessary (is anyone even reading that blog post?) but I think you need to keep things going as much as you can, despite the temptation to let them slip. There’s a saying that “your reach will exceed your grasp” and I think that we’ll never fully be able to know the impact of the work and “hustle” that we are doing. We look at what metrics we can, try to put our resources in the right places, and hope that we’ll be able to keep everything going to maintain this lifestyle.
5. What most inspires and drives you both as artists, business owners and climbers? Have your inspirations evolved since you first picked up a camera, a paintbrush or a digital stylus?
I’ve always been into drawing. All my youth was spent drawing comics and different cartoons and stuff. Though I sketch less than I used to, I still employ these skills in my design work. For inspiration, I scour the internet for new artists to follow. It’s a great way to get a little dose of inspiration each day. Over the last five years, I’ve also been interested in letterers and the subculture that exists around typography and hand-lettering. I know only the basics of it, but it’s fascinating.
I’m also interested in things like the Tiny House movement and living small. The concept of extracting ourselves from personal debt is appealing—especially since Jess and I don’t have much interest in accumulating “stuff” as much as we’d like to just see the world.
As for photographic inspiration, I look at outdoor photos, but also research masterworks. Currently, I’m reading a short book about portraiture and what makes certain classic portraits excellent. I think understanding the history of the medium as well as looking to current trends is important. Getting this perspective helps you develop your own style and allows you recognize moments that might have meaning or significance. I like to challenge myself to try and take photos that don’t feel conventional or formulaic – or to document some thing or place or person in a new or interesting way. I also like spontaneity, so most of my photos are unrehearsed or staged. I think the fun part of photography is being ready with your camera to click the shutter when the moment happens, versus asking your subject to hold a particular pose. In general, my artistic influences are always changing. I often find myself looking at images by new photographers, then later drooling over an illustrator’s line work or textures, or watching a tutorial about typography. I love all forms of art.
Climbing inspiration… I could go on and on. I’ve always had a love for rocks. When I was a kid, I used to collect rocks near our house. Our garage had a bunch of plastic bins that I’d fill with different rocks I thought might look cool polished. I had a small rock tumbler and I’d place all sorts of stones inside and polish them with these little pouches of gritty powders. It was a slow process, taking many days. But it was always neat to open up the tumbler and see what the formerly mundane rocks would turn into after polishing. I would spend countless hours looking down at the earth trying to find hidden colors or fossil-type impressions in rocks. Looking back on this time of my life, I feel like climbing was an extension of this early fascination. Even now, I still enjoy going out to the crag and looking around for bits of rock that have unique characteristics. Although I didn’t get to try climbing until I was about 16, I’ve been obsessed ever since and I can’t imagine my life without it.
This year we’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the nation’s finest areas and all the different rock types they are known for, including Rifle Mountain Park, Maple Canyon, Moe’s Valley, Joe’s Valley, Kollob Canyon, Zion National Park, Bishop, Priest’s Draw, Red Rocks, Hueco Tanks, the Red River Gorge, and Squamish, to name a few. Being able to experience these places in such a unique and intimate way is always refreshing and keeps me psyched on the sport.
Longtime climber, fine artist, college professor, writer, author, cranky fellow probably wittier than you and electric guitar noob.
Years Climbing: Almost 40.
Hometown: South Portland, ME
Current Town: Boulder, CO
1. You are a fine artist, an art history and humanities professor at Front Range Community College, a writer for magazines like the Alpinist and the author of a book on bouldering. When did you first realize you were of an artistic bent? How did climbing intrude upon or inform your artistic sensibilities, from your first creative endeavors to finally publishing a book that folks can buy at just about any Barnes and Noble in the country?
My artistic aptitude first showed up as a child, probably, but I discovered climbing around the age of 12 and pretty much put everything else on hold. To some extent I wrote about climbing from early on but not in a serious sense until I was out of college. Climbing has always been for me a pursuit of sharpened awareness and perception, especially of the forms of vertical terrain and a recognition of the forces that shaped those forms. Climbing is a particularly aesthetic pursuit, its beauty enhanced to some extent by the risks and hardship encountered along the way.
2. I think I can fairly use the word “cantankerous” when exploring your online persona, apropos to climbing media and “breaking” news. You are not afraid to challenge people publically – sometimes powerful folks in the climbing community – when you disagree with them, albeit with educated and mostly funny-as-hell riffs. To you that may seem like a mundane observation, but many folks would be horrified if asked to put themselves in the role of provocateur. You seem to relish it. Why?
I don’t know about “safe” but, yes, I am impatient with bogus or self-celebratory rhetoric in climbing, especially in the pursuit of climbing rocks. Even more specially when climbers are celebrating their “realness” and “authenticity” in contrast to an imagined middle-America average lifestyle. Climbing has always been rooted in privilege, though its typically white upper-middle class practitioners mask over their bourgeois lifestyles, leisure and resources with the usual deceptive references to “dirtbagging” and carefully grubby Patagonia-oriented costumes. The fact is that the United States is a very oppressive nation when it comes to labor practices, practices that are coupled with horrendous inequality of access to leisure and recreation. Climbers pride themselves on escaping the horrors of “nine-to-five” life while mysteriously being able to afford owning real estate in Boulder, CO and taking trips abroad for weeks or even months at a time and so on. I rarely see any of these Houdini’s explain the secret for how the rest of us can live this kind of life, even as we are told this is the only authentic way of living. There is a deep inconsistency in the heart of the “adventure lifestyle” which lies in the fact that most of us can’t afford it and never will. So, if I point this out and it makes those fortunate few uncomfortable, so be it. I am old enough not to care too much about that.
I have worked pretty consistently since I was thirteen, out of financial need and often in dead-end jobs and have very rarely been able to get away for more than a week or two at a time to just about anywhere. I don’t see this so much anymore in the world of climbing, especially at the upper end, and I think it’s reflective of the deepening social stratification and income inequality in this country.
The other ways in which climbers are inconsistent in their ideas and rhetoric are far too numerous to list here. The above example is merely the most egregious.
3. Climbing history deeply informs your writing and interests. What sort of inspiration and lessons do you draw from rock climbing’s rich history? Do you think climbing history is being given its just due by today’s crop of climbers? Is that even important?
The main inspiration I draw from climbing history is its complexity and incompleteness. The real stories will never be told completely and objectively. Climbers, being mostly adolescent young men, crave heroes and are more than willing to overlook the profound flaws in their heroes’ lives and characters to vicariously relive those adventures. Writers and publishers have a vested interest in maintaining and retelling those myths even though the people who were there know better. It is remarkable how unreflective and unsophisticated climbing history is at this point, for the most part.
Climbing history today is virtually a dead letter among top rock climbers today, perhaps because climbing history is basically over. I have argued elsewhere that the first ascent idea is for the most part obsolete, that nobody really cares. I stand by that still. There is no doubt that the athleticization of the sport has encouraged a certain degree of amnesia, combined with a shift in story-telling responsibility from independent writers and publishers to brand marketers and copywriters. The latter are not interested in actual history but in a kind of story that sells their products.
4. You recently took up guitar with a good deal of vigor. It strikes me that your desire to create is bound by neither medium nor age. Most people find what they like and ride that wave forever. A good number of folks just buy a Corvette or pick up golfing. You wrote your first book in your late 30s and began playing guitar around 40. Why is it important to push your creative boundaries as you age?
No idea, I just get bored quickly and am addicted to learning new things, especially fairly difficult things. Most of the typical pursuits of later adult life strike me as a profound waste of time and money and since I have little of either I don’t do them. Driving a Corvette and playing golf seems like a living death to me. I gave up a lot to take up climbing in my teens, especially music and art. I am probably just returning to my teenage self who couldn’t afford both a decent guitar set-up and climbing gear and saying, “Okay, let’s pick up where we left off.” I’m not pretending to be any good but I have learned a great deal about music and art that I should have taken the trouble to try to understand when I was much younger.
5. I can’t imagine painting the landscapes that you do. I don’t understand what’s happening in one’s brain as the brush strokes accumulate. Does the process of painting something so intricate and delicate lend itself at all to the process of climbing and vice versa?
Painting is a complex process that like climbing requires a lot of time and patience to get the hang of. This is similar to guitar as I am finding out roughly 2 plus years in. At some point things become a lot more automatic, especially as you begin to see the underlying rules and principles, most of which are actually very simple but ultimately give rise to extraordinarily complex results. This applies perfectly to climbing, though climbing is much more physical of course. The coordination of eye, hand and mind is central in all three and of course also in photography which I have been very interested in, as well. The aim in visual art and music is much more than technical mastery, of course, and I think this should ultimately apply to climbing, as well. It’s a cliche but climbing should be about more than just a number, but instead an expression of what one thinks is important in life.
George Bruce Wilson
Climber, filmmaker, photographer, entrepreneur, global traveler and super dedicated and disciplined worker.
Years Climbing: 10
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Current Town: Orem, UT
Company Name: Three Peak Films
1. It’s always refreshing to see a company find its feet and then just take off at a dead sprint. I feel like that’s what we’ve seen from your Three Peak Films these last couple years. Can you describe the journey you’ve been on the last 18 or so months?
I’ve been doing this full time for the past 4 years, but the first couple were definitely much slower than the last two. Ever since I started I’ve always tried to be very proactive about getting my work in front of companies and people who I wanted to do work for. A lot of people like to just wait for the work to come to them, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. Every year I set business/career goals and that kind of forms each year. Every year I’ve hit my goals so each year I up them a little bit. The last couple of years I haven’t been quite as proactive and the opportunities keep knocking on the door and I’m typically pretty booked, thankfully.
2. Every creative endeavor costs its creator something in anxiety, sweat, time and planning. Can you talk about the logistics that go into one of your shoots, from the planning stage to the final product?
There is definitely a lot of thought and focus and stress that consumes me while working on a project. I’m married, have a house and a kid, so that’s always in the back of my mind. It kind of makes the stakes a little higher working as a creative.
Each project is totally different depending on if it’s a passion (side) project or for a client, so it’s hard to say what the process is because each one is a little bit different. Generally, though, either I approach someone with an idea of a story/video or vice versa. We then talk business stuff like budget, time frame, deliverables, contracts, etc. Once that’s out of the way I start story boarding. Depending on the project, I’ll work with the athlete to build a story and go over the end vision of the project so it then becomes something that we’re both working toward. The story board will get more and more specific the more I work with the athlete. Once a solid idea and concept is met and the basic structure of the video is there we’ll meet up and start production. The more details I work out before hand the easier it is during and in post-production. One of the most important things while shooting is preparing for the worst outcome. Cause it’ll happen, for sure. Cameras fail, hard drives don’t back up, drones crash, cable cam dies, etc. Learning how to problem solve on the fly is key — Murphy’s law is real in film making — but more often than not if I’m prepared I typically will stop all those things from happening before they even happen.
Once the shoot is over and I’m in post-processing, if I’ve done a good job story boarding and staying organized in pre-production and production, I can get the video turned around pretty quickly. Once a draft is done I’ll send it to the client for review and we’ll go back and forth a couple of times on changes and suggestions and then I’ll deliver the final product. Typically, this involves the main piece and some pics and short 15 second clips for social media. That’s a very general version of how things go…
3. It wasn’t so long ago that you transitioned from fine carpentry into professional filmmaking. With all the lessons you’ve learned surely still fresh in your mind, what strikes you as one or two of the most important characteristics a filmmaker/photographer must exude in order to achieve their goals, be they movies in festivals or a couple shots a year in the ‘zines?
Definitely, I think in every creative career one needs to be passionate about what they are doing. Two, they should also be dedicated if they want it to work as a full time gig and be willing to do whatever they need to do to make it work for them. Those two things combined should create success…eventually there may be other factors at play, depending on the person. Creative careers have no end to learning and the work needs to be ever-changing, progressing and perfecting. There is no end to that cycle and there are ways to get out of ruts or to help with creativity, but that’s a whole other subject, for sure.
4. You see climbing photographers and filmmakers forced to shoot weddings, real estate or other genres in order to pay the bills. The inverse, of course, is never true. Architecture photographers would never don harnesses, hang 2000 feet off the deck and pray that the climbing zines are gonna love their product and thereby pay the bills! Is there a frustration in the artistic/professional climbing community about the funds available for the work you do? Do you have a prediction for the state of the climbing film industry over the next decade?
Great question. I think at times there can be frustration in the creative working side of the climbing industry. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with lack of funds, although that can be the case. I think it has to do with whoever the creative person is not creating value around their work. My personal frustration isn’t the lack of funds, but how long it takes for companies to pay. Some are very professional and organized and are amazing to work with and others who seems to be professional, but when it comes to running payroll to contractors it takes them months. I’ve waited up to one year before getting paid for some work and that’s insane. As you go along you learn who to work for and not to work for.
Oh man, a prediction of the climbing film industry is really hard to say. It’s changed so much in the last few years, even. With technology and everything becoming more and more affordable it’s easier to get a high production value for a low cost so the playing field is more level than ever. I think there is a greater need than ever for content creation and I see that need growing. I think it’ll come down to who can be the most creative in telling a quality story that captures an audience visually and emotionally. If you can get good at those, man, I think you’ll go far.
5. At the end of the day you are a storyteller. What inspires you most as a storyteller? What kinds of stories are you always on the hunt for?
What inspires me most is the cycle of creation. The whole “make something from nothing” paradigm. It’s an emotional cycle that brings a lot of satisfaction when you are finished. You start off with an idea and get into your flow and after it’s all done you have a sort of high or relaxation. And then you start again on the next project, always trying to progress each time in your craft.
I like unique stories or stories that I think I can tell in a visually and emotionally unique way. The story is the most important part and in climbing sometimes the same story gets told a lot and if I’m on a project like that I’ll try to visually tell/show things in a way that hasn’t been done before. It’s better to be different than to try to be better.
Spenser Tang-Smith and Vikki Glinskii
Photographers, graphic designers, filmmakers, writers, storytellers and wandering climbers who, maybe, know every dirtbag in the country.
Years Climbing: 12/6
Hometown: California. Not a town, per se, but let’s just say we’re a pair of Californians.
Current Town: As I type this, I’m in a cafe in Taos, NM, but out bed has been in La Madera, NM.
Company Name: The RV Project
Website: rvproj.com, @thervproject
1. I’ve seen you guys many a night slogging away at the Food Ranch just outside of Joe’s Valley, burning the midnight oil for any number of different creative projects. Next day, you’re both out crushing your bouldering projects. As a creative couple, you guys have to make climbing fuel your artistic endeavors. And, you have to be incredibly disciplined about your work. How do you balance your media and creative work with your absolute need to get out climbing?
That is a very good question, Dave, and I think it’s one that can be answered largely by pointing out that the “big fish” in the climbing media game that we’ve spoken with don’t really do much climbing themselves anymore! It was absolutely a concern for both of us as we began to move into media production more seriously.
In that way, the balance seems to find itself. Unless we feel compelled to write or edit, or are working under deadline, we’ll go out and climb. Also, we don’t view climbing as an itch to scratch so much as a way to experience our world, let our attentions drift and settle and drift again, network, and as you suggested, find inspiration.
2. Well, y’all weren’t born on the road! What recipe of factors saw you drop your jobs and hit the trail full time? Describe what exactly the RV Project is and how you both put your heads together to manifest the project.
Vikki actually kinda was…she left the Ukraine at the age of four and moved progressively westward. Uprooting is not new for her!
The genesis of the RV Project was actually around a campfire long, long ago. Vikki wasn’t even there. Spenser and his friend Byron had dreamed of doing a Rampage-style climbing trip in an RV (hence the name). That was probably 8 years ago, and then about 4 years ago Byron, Vikki, and Spenser decided to take the plunge.
The mission of The RV Project is, in its simplest terms, to explore and report. We began by visiting all of the popular climbing destinations that had always been on our lists, places like Joe’s Valley, Squamish, Horse Pens 40, the Red River Gorge, and Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve since been spending our time a little further off the beaten path, exploring some newer and lesser-known climbing areas.
Always, the goal is to tell stories, and support those with compelling visual accompaniment. If the stories we tell can inspire a few people to spend their money on a trip instead of disposable consumer goods, then we will feel great about our work.
Byron was with us for the first few months, after which he decided to pursue his filmmaking career in Bloomington, IN. Vikki and Spenser traded the big trailer for a tiny one, and are somehow still doing great together after spending 3 years in a 60 square foot box.
3. I’m sure that being a couple and constantly working together presents a unique professional challenge for creative folks. How do you guys handle the critical dismantling of each piece of media you put out, which is necessary before you can present a nice, polished piece? Was that a growing process? In other words, did you have to learn how to give one another constructive, honest criticism?
In the beginning, there was only excitement. We both come from…non-creative backgrounds. Spenser has a BS in Aquatic Biology, and Vikki has a degree in Public Health. When Byron left the team, the two of us didn’t even really intend to turn this into a profession; we’d just set aside 12 months to travel and try the “RV Project thing”, and weren’t going to just go home. Our first video was, let’s just say, one landmark. We were having a hard enough time learning the technical side of things that we didn’t have to worry about any creative insecurities.
As our camera and editing skills improved, we found ourselves really excited to document and share the stories around us that were going undocumented. In Bishop, we filmed the FA of a very scary line on Grandpa Peabody, as well as the first female flash ascent of Luminance by our friend Alex Johnson.
Nowadays, there’s a bit more pressure on us to keep the ball rolling. We’ve been editing progressively bigger projects, and it’s hard not to feel like the whole climbing world is judging our every move. Of course, when we’re just chatting casually, we realize how little we matter…oh, to matter enough to be scrutinized and criticized!
Still, it is very difficult not to take things personally when we give each other feedback. One thing that’s helped has been to realize and understand that we have at least two different relationships: the romantic one and the professional one. It simplifies things, lets us take each others’ comments in one context or another.
Before, I think we were limited in our communication by operating under the false assumption that we had to be professionally courteous, sweet and caring, and silly and goofy all at the same time. Now, we try to give each other a pass when we say abrasive things.
4. Let’s talk about ambition. Any creative presenting their work to a wide audience must harbor ambition, whether they like to talk about it or not. What is the brass ring for you two? What do you envision for your creative lives 5, 10 or 15 years down the road?
I cannot tell a lie, I don’t know what a brass ring refers to. I’m assuming it’s some sort of massage device, like a Hitachi wand. In that case, I have to tell you that all you really need is a lacrosse ball and the floor. And we have about a dozen lacrosse balls laying around our truck and trailer, so we’re all set.
As for what happens many years hence…is this one of those times when they say “throw it out into the universe and it’ll happen”? Trying not to sound full of ourselves, we both think that we have skills, tools, and perspectives beyond most people. We can put ourselves and our cameras in hard-to-reach places; we can live in conditions that most people wouldn’t; we can tell stories through text, stills, and moving pictures.
If we can use our own excitement about climbing to get some otherwise listless, aimless people engaged in a community and spending time outdoors, then we’re psyched. If we can use our appreciation for unspoiled wilderness to help preserve it, then everyone benefits. Basically, we want to tell stories that inspire people to change themselves and the world around them for the better.
And, of course, if we can have a calendar full of sweet expeditions, then we’re living the dream!
5. Spenser, you recently experienced a close call with mortality while bouldering. Can you talk about that for a moment? Obviously, sneaking away from such an experience unharmed teaches us lessons about life, love, perspective, etc. Is it tough to hold onto those lessons as life slowly returns to normalcy and the experience recedes into the rear view mirror?
Yes. I don’t mean to be flippant, but you pretty much nailed it. I think my first words to Vikki were along the lines of, “Let’s not fight, it’s a stupid waste of time.” I think we had a fight about something totally inane two days later.
New Mexico is real. I’ve been enjoying my time here because the landscapes and the communities that call them home really demand a lot of attention. You learn profound lessons on the importance of being aware of your surroundings. These small towns are not the kind of places you can live in and not know your neighbor, and you’ll never see someone walking down the street with their face in their phone. It’s beautiful out here, but you can easily be killed just by getting lost. Or getting hit by lightning.
I think the biggest lesson I keep learning in New Mexico is how easy it is to lose track of the present, of the here and now. All that deep, truth-y stuff I felt right after the lightning strike should be the predominant influences in my life. Instead, I find myself slipping back into an anxiety-driven struggle to live up to the expectations of others.
My thunder-buddy Kendo was gifted a piece of fulgurite after the strike. Fulgurite is the silica glass that’s created when lightning strikes sand. Kendo gave myself and William a piece. My chunk stays in the truck next to the steering wheel.
I hope it reminds me to give far fewer fucks.
Five Questions for Six Climbers You May Not Know
Marisa Aragon Ware
Climber, fine artist, writer, journalist and thinker of pretty heavy shit.
Years Climbing: 8
Hometown: Boulder, CO
Current Town: Boulder, CO
1. Did you head into a journalism degree and then an actual journalism career with illustration as more of a personal passion or did you always know you’d want to make a career as a professional illustrator, as well?
It seems so obvious now, that I always wanted to be an artist and that it was just who I naturally was, yet it took me some time to consciously acknowledge that truth. I began my undergraduate degree studying aerospace engineering, partly because my father is a scientist and partly because I wanted to be an astronaut. After two years of math and science, I decided to switch to journalism because I always had a knack for writing, and honestly, because one of my childhood best friends was studying it. I do love to write, but it wasn’t necessarily a driving passion of mine. It just seemed like a practical step to take.
After graduating, I traveled to Thailand with my ex-boyfriend, pro-climber Jonathan Siegrist (who I’ve known since I was 11 years old and have dated off and on for over a decade), and wrote a feature for Climbing on the climbing in Northern Thailand. Upon returning, I worked for what was, at the time, the largest and oldest newspaper in Colorado. I wrote for the business section, writing four weekly columns and compiling two dailies. After a year, the newspaper closed down and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have an obvious path laid out in front of me. I felt like there had always been a societally imposed direction for me to take — high school, college, job — and then suddenly, nothing. I had no idea what I really wanted to do, and I had a front and center seat to witness Jonathan becoming successful doing what he loved.
At that time, 2009, he wasn’t very well-known yet and was barely getting paid to climb, but he began to have climbing breakthroughs that garnered media attention and increased sponsorships. I witnessed how hard he was working to achieve his seemingly far-fetched dream of being a professional athlete, and it simultaneously deeply inspired me while also seriously discouraging me. I felt directionless in comparison to his intense drive, which was only heightened when we broke up not long after.
What followed was an intense period of paradigm collapse, where my identity partially disintegrated and everything I held as solid about myself seemed insubstantial. During this time, I attended a month long Buddhist meditation retreat. As always, I brought a sketchbook/journal with me and was drawing during my free time. The other people at the retreat began to notice my drawings, and there was such an outpouring of response to my artwork that it suddenly began to dawn on me that this was something I had to offer the world. Looking back at my life, I saw that I had always loved to create, and I remembered that as a little kid I was always making things, drawing, painting… It should’ve been so clear all along, but for some reason (perhaps a societal conditioning) I had never allowed myself to even consider “being an artist.”
At that point, I had a meeting with the teacher of the retreat, Reginald Ray. I told him that I was feeling very called to be an artist, but that I also had a deep desire to be of service to other beings on this planet, and I couldn’t reconcile those two callings. I couldn’t see how me creating art could in any way help other people. After I said this, he looked at me with the utmost compassion and a hint of amusement, and told me, with a little smile, that I was going to have to get over that. He told me that art is a high form of service, and then he asked me to promise him that I would pursue that path. I shook his hand and promised him, and from that point on it has been my main purpose.
After leaving the retreat, I applied to the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and was accepted into their graduate program. I had never taken an art class in my adult life- the last one I took was probably in 6th grade. I was in classes with people who had studied art their whole lives, in high school and in their undergraduate. It was incredibly intimidating, exhilarating, challenging and exciting.
2. Where do you find inspiration for both your artwork and your writing? How do you cultivate inspiration when the well is dry, you’re in a block or you simply can’t find the passion but know you must work?
Interestingly enough, being a journalist and being an illustrator is quite similar. In both professions, you must be able to activate your creativity on deadline, with or without inspiration. When I don’t have a deadline and am waiting for the perfect conditions to arise for me to feel fully inspired, energetic, and excited to draw, I hardly get anything done. If I have a deadline, I’m capable of drawing for 10 hours a day, for days in a row- however long it takes to get the work done, even if that means staying up until 5 a.m. It really has nothing to do with inspiration. Or to put it another way, my greatest inspiration is the urgent necessity that comes with a deadline.
The same is true with journalism, particularly when working for a newspaper. There’s no time to wait for your muse to show up, or to cultivate the perfect environment for inspiration. You have to be able to generate that creative state on command.
That’s not to say that I don’t respect the more finicky and fleeting state of inspiration that is generally associated with the creative muse. I experience states where images appear to me fully formed and demanding to be brought into existence, and I relish those times. There are many things I can do to induce that state of mind, such as cardiovascular exercise, yoga, meditation, or being in nature. I grew up wandering around the mountains and forests here in Colorado, and nothing inspires me more than witnessing the impermanent and ever-changing beauty of nature. My study of Tibetan Buddhism over the past 12 years has also deeply informed my work, particularly around appreciating the splendor of this human existence, with all of it’s joy, sadness, beauty and impermanence.
There was a podcast I listened to a few months ago on transient hypofrontality, which is apparently the state of mind that allows for maximized creative thinking. You might enjoy it- the show is called “On Being.”
3. How do each of these creative outlets satisfy you in different ways? I guess I want to know if different synapses are firing or you’re receiving disparate levels of personal gratification when working in each medium.
At the moment, creating art seems much more urgent to me than writing, though I do have a deep longing to write a novel one day. What I’d really love to do is combine the two and write and illustrate a novel. I’ve been working on a children’s book about a fox who is an astronaut, and it’s been really fun and rewarding to create some of the illustrations. I have a really sincere love of literature though, and I can feel that somewhere in me is a novel waiting to be unearthed. Someday.
4. Let’s talk about the process of growth and imitation. Illustration seems to me a tricky business because once you zero in on a style, it becomes yours, inimitably. Describe the process you took to find your own style. Did it involve going through phases of imitation of others in your infancy as an illustrator? Also, you have a pretty recognizable style. Have you ever become privy to a contemporary creeping uncomfortably close to your style? Is that something that ever concerns you?
As I mentioned before, I didn’t have any formal training in art until the age of 26 when I began attending the Academy. This lack of instruction actually proved to be a boon to me, in an odd way. Due to the fact that I had no one to teach me, I learned how to draw with pens, just because they were the easiest, most accessible medium for me. I would draw in my free time, while I was in class, or on the phone, or any other casual moment, and the medium that was always on hand was just a simple pen and paper. I spent hours upon hours drawing with pens, and so I developed my line quality, my control of my hand, and my ability to draw fine details.
When I arrived at art school, I was incredibly behind all the other students in many ways. There were so many terms I had never heard of and so many techniques I had never studied. But what I did have was an inkling of a personal style, born completely out of my inability to do anything else. I only drew in pen, and I had very little exposure to other artists. So my isolation and lack of training had allowed me to develop a voice that was undiluted and purely my own. This lack of training also made me all the hungrier to learn. I went way above and beyond for almost every assignment, I wrote down everything my teachers said, I read the entire course book for a class before it even started.
The teachers at my school were really phenomenal, and I feel really lucky that a few in particular gave me some extra attention to nurture my style and artistic voice. It was during my time at the Academy that I developed the style that I’m now working in, though I see it as a work in progress still. Many of the artists that I truly admire have allowed their styles to be fluid and malleable, changing with them as they grow. I aspire to be always growing as an artists, trying new things, and allowing my work to be an honest expression of who I am at that moment, not a solidified monolith of something I’ve created in the past.
Another thing I learned at the Academy is that anyone can learn how to draw. It’s a teachable skill just like anything else. It is, however, a maddeningly frustrating process (for me, at least). I had so many emotional breakdowns while I was in school that I began to realize it’s kind of a part of my process. I also realized that while the technical capability of drawing can absolutely be taught, the same is not true of the ability to imbue a drawing with meaning. I had one friend in particular while in school that was a very good draftsman- he could draw anything and draw it well with relative ease. Yet I never felt moved or touched or shocked or surprised or really anything at all when I would see his work. It was technically good but lacked a certain depth or message. I’m sure that that capacity could also be taught, but I think it is more slippery and difficult to pin down. It has more to do with your inner experience as a human rather than learning a skill with your hands.
My art has always been inspired by that ineffable quality found in dreams, in meditation, in spaciousness, in mystery. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to receive technical training so that I can better portray these inner apparitions, yet I know that without that mysterious meaning, the drawings would be dry, impotent.
As far as seeing my style in other contemporary artists work- absolutely, there are many artists far more skilled than me using pen and ink to draw skulls, flowers, birds, and all the other imagery I often use. When I see quality art, it only fires me up to make more of my own art, and to push my skills further. I was once told that comparison is the death of creativity, and I agree. I daily feed my eyes on scores of immensely skilled artists on social media, but it doesn’t discourage me to see others excelling at image making, it drives me to work harder, to create more.
5. How does a life in the outdoors, and specifically a life spent at the crag, inform your art on a daily basis? Is it tough to balance those two lives; the life of a climber and the desire to spend as much time as possible outside, with your need to create and explore your artistic ambitions?
As I said above, nature is my most prominent inspiration. In my bio on my website it says,
“Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Marisa garnered her deep appreciation of nature from a childhood spent enveloped in the forests and glades of the Rocky Mountains. Those formative experiences heavily influence both her art and outlook, and she strives to depict the beauty of the natural world to help others connect with its abundant primordial magic.”
And yes, it has been very hard to balance the life of a climber with the life of an artist. For my first two years in grad school, art and climbing were my two main priorities, with art just a smidgen higher on the list than climbing. I was dating Jonathan again, and during the summer or any other break, I would fly to wherever he was and accompany him on whatever climbing adventures he was on. During the semester I would spend three hours at the gym training five days a week; being a climber was a huge part of my identity.
In the winter of 2012 I began to experience numbness and pain in my left hand while climbing, which quickly developed into a debilitating nerve impingement. Three years later, I’m still trying to resolve it. I went from the best climbing shape of my life (having made a breakthrough from climbing 12b to 13b in two months) to not being able to climb at all. This began another paradigm collapsing phase of my life, as I lost the ability to do one of the activities that I was most passionate about. It’s amazing how much climbing becomes inextricably interlaced with one’s identity. Climbing is so much more than just a sport; it’s a lifestyle, a community, a way to connect with nature. It was really painful to lose that aspect of myself, yet also it offered me a profound teaching. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within us.”
I’ve been able to climb a little bit since developing this injury, and I’m definitely getting better as time goes on and as I get treatment. But my days of training for three hours in the gym or going on month long climbing trips to France are for now not possible. The silver lining of this incredibly frustrating injury is that it freed me from my almost obsessive desire to climb and train, and with that newfound time on my hands, I had more energy and space to focus on developing my art. I don’t think I’d be where I am as an artist now if I hadn’t been forced to more or less quit climbing. I still experience mild heart break when I’m out hiking in the Flatirons here in Boulder and come across a route I climbed at one point in the past- I still miss climbing like a phantom limb. Yet I see the wisdom that this injury is speaking with- my gift that I have to offer the world is with my art, not with my climbing. I have every intention of healing and getting back to being a strong climber, but it’s just not a reality right now.
Climber and nature lover, entrepreneur, musician and a tie that binds.
Years Climbing: 12
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Current Town: Boulder, CO
Company Name: Kingflyer Collective
1. You’re obviously a very creative guy, with writing credits, musical ability and now apparel design for an outdoor lifestyle brand on your resume. Can you talk about your creative journey? What creative path saw you finally raise a shingle on your own grassroots company?
I think anyone who finds themselves creating has an intimate, often meandering relationship with convention. I’d call it the push and pull with the way things are, and the way they ought to be. It’s like, “Here we are trying to make things happen, and because of X or Y (various forms of bullshit) I’m having trouble doing that.”
It’s this struggle to become more that has unfailingly led me to pick up the pen, or guitar, or get creative in some other way. For me that has always been the most productive way to turn negative, or otherwise undefined emotions, into something positive and worthwhile.
In the early days, creativity might have been narrowly defined in an elementary-school-art kind of way, but it’s turned into this general mindset — of being able to look at something in a different, out-of-the-box way — which is important because societal convention has wormed it’s way into every aspect of life, and that’s killing creativity. Along with TV and about 96% of the internet.
Anyway, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be okay working for someone else forever, especially after being a cubicle sloth for 18 months under an ex-Wall Street banker, and I decided to bring a dose of creativity to my career. I figured if a person is going to spend most of their time working, they’d better like it, and for me that meant being with the people I love being with. In particular, those who make getting outside with their friends a priority. So, I started Kingflyer Collective and haven’t looked back.
2. You write a lot about how the wilderness, if we’re open to it, can change us and liberate us as outdoor athletes and, really, as humans. How have the wilderness and the outdoors (and climbing, in particular), festooned your growth as a creative?
It comes down to being humble. Because being in the mountains, that makes you feel small, and I think that’s really important to the creative process as it forces you to produce from a place of authenticity.
Put another way, take, for example, pop music. It’s designed to chart for a month, make some cash for the producer, and disappear. I wouldn’t say that’s coming from an authentic place, per se. But that is also a product of a fast-paced, urban environment that lives off rapid and endless consumption.
As an alternative, being outside and surrounding yourself amongst landscapes that are millions of years old makes you extremely aware of the ephemeral nature of us, people. We’re here for a moment, nothing more. But if you can make something that speaks to the real depths of humanity, like what Homer and Beethoven and Emerson and Neil Young have done, that transcends our smallness and brevity as individuals.
So, I think the wilderness can push us to think beyond ourselves. And for me as a climber, I feel most intimately in tune with the earth when I’m holding onto some sedimentary face, high above a river, reaching for a crimp that has all that earthly history wrapped within.
3. What are some of the struggles when helming a fledgling brand? What kind of noise do you have to cut through to make Kingflyer Collective’s voice heard?
With all of us subjected to a constant barrage of people and companies trying to get our attention it’s tough to cut through. I’m often tempted to completely check out to get away from it all. Hence, off-the-grid adventures into the woods.
But, I don’t want to be a complete hermit. I take solace in something one of my professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder said, “Being literate is no longer the ability to read and write, alone, but being able to decipher where a message is coming from and why it’s being sent your way.”
I’m not trying to create the next Patagonia here. Don’t get me wrong, I have so much respect for what Yvon Chouinard has done for our sports, sustainability, and the outdoor industry in general, but that’s not me. And that’s not Kingflyer. If Patagonia and Arc’Teryx and everyone else make stuff for heading out into the shit, I make stuff for the way back. Because what gets me, what inspires me is often the parts of climbing that don’t involve climbing, you know? Hanging out at the base of the crag, cracking open PBRs, being around the campfire…the whole social aspect of it.
I think that social, lifestyle piece separates Kingflyer. I’ve also changed the tune of Kingflyer’s message in the last few weeks and I think it’s made a difference, too. I used to use the proverbial “we” and “our” when talking about the company, and in a sense, this was speaking to the collective aspect of the brand. Ultimately, however, the company is just me and that felt false to speak of the brand like it was a big operation.
I do this because I love being around the people that make it a priority to be outside with their friends, and I think it’s more true to be real about that and let people connect on that level. We’re not making thousands of graphic tees; we’re focused on small-batch runs of custom apparel, because that speaks more to me. And I am really fucking excited for the items we have lined up for the holidays.
4. You have a day job. You have Kingflyer. Is it ever a struggle to find time for play in your busy schedule? How has “time for play” changed for you since you’ve opened Kingflyer’s doors?
Shit, getting outside to mess around has become more important than it ever was before I started the company. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. For one, there’s an authenticity piece. I mean, it would be pretty lame if I talked about climbing as much as I do and never actually went climbing. But second, and maybe more importantly, I need time to disconnect and recharge…to keep the stoke high, you could say.
It took me a while to figure out that just because you’re sitting in front of your computer doesn’t mean you’re being productive. I’d rather spend two hours busting out work with undivided attention and doing it right than four hours half-assing, with some Facebook sessions interspersed in between actual work, and having only mediocre results to show for it.
Plus, playing outside has taught me a lot about living. I’ve learned so much from climbing, and I draw from this all the time. The biggest thing is how to maintain control over your emotions. Because up on the wall, there’s no room for letting your emotions take over. Panic is always going to fuck you. You’ve just got to trust that the path you’ve taken has included some decent protection and if you’ve run it out, take a deep breath and make the damn move. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to draw a comparison to starting a business. Sometimes I need a healthy reminder of it, which only happens on the wall.
5. Obviously, Kingflyer is an outlet for your creativity. How would you like to grow the company to reflect your own creative desires? In other words, what is your brass ring?
Ultimately, the whole thing is about community. I would love for my designs to be a medium for people to get together and have a good time. A few folks have told me stories about being at a crag and seeing someone else with a neon CLIMB hat on and ending up hanging out and climbing together all weekend. I mean, that makes me so stoked! The growth of the company means more people connecting on that front, and I can only hope it also means more people being introduced to these outdoor endeavors, getting out there and taking in what the mountains have to offer.
One thing I’m focusing on in the coming season is throwing gatherings. Making clothes is great in an introverted, creative sense, but getting people together is more fun. It’s the social part that gets me off, so I’m going to do my best to get everyone else off, too.
In the end, Kingflyer is about good people. That’s the basis for success, and anything I can do to foster more good people being around and involved in the collective, that’s what I’m going to do.
Jack and Amanda Schuler
Climbers, illustrators, graphic designers, entrepreneurs, soon-to-be daddy and mommy and guitarist in a multi-album indie band that has played venues like Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Years Climbing: 8/6
Hometown: Colorado Springs, CO/Detroit, MI
Current Town: Evergreen, CO
Company Name: Gneiss Apparel Supply Co.
1. Okay. We’ve got a lot of creativity to unpack here. Between the two of you we have a successful indie rock band, climbing and traveling, graphic design, running a fledgling business, a new adventure van to dial in and a baby on the way. I usually ask how one squares their creative endeavors with their climbing obsession. How do you fit…all of that…into two lives? Seriously.
It can be a challenge, but we’ve been doing it for so long that it just seems natural. We both get bored pretty easily, so we feel comfortable packing every last second of the day with something. Besides, in doing all of this, we’re really just following our passions, so it doesn’t always feel as much like a job as you might think. Sometimes it definitely does, of course, but liking what we’re doing makes it easier to make it all work together. Plus, all of these things are really just opportunities to express different sides of ourselves and it’s funny how it all kind of ends up overlapping and feeling like part of the same thing.
2. What paved the way for Gneiss Apparel and Supply Co? Is there a backstory that led to your desire to fire up a grassroots, outdoor lifestyle clothing company? On a similar note, who is responsible for the awesome artwork and design featured on your tees?
Well, I’m kind of a graphic-tee hound, and lately there hasn’t been anything that’s been interesting to me – especially in the climbing/outdoor lifestyle realm. We just felt like there was a need for climbers/outdoor enthusiasts to be able to express that side of their lives, without it being over the top, and to have everything designed well. We also wanted our line to have some “wink and nods” in the work. I think it can be fun feeling like you’re on the “inside,” so some of our designs play off that idea…that you would have to be a climber to “get it.” We both do all of the illustrations and designs ourselves – that’s the fun part!
3. Jack, you have recording and gigging with The Royal, you have a young company, you have climbing. Do you ever find it difficult to compartmentalize these creative endeavors in a way that you can work within each in a focused and unharried manner?
It’s funny that you bring this up – a few of my bandmates have dabbled in climbing and I’m always trying to get them to come out with me. Climbing and music are two of the very few things in my life that demand my mind and body to be completely present in the moment. That’s what I love about them both. They both allow me – demand of me – to shut out everything else that’s in my head and completely focus in on the task that’s at hand. I haven’t found it difficult to stay focused in each, but I do find it difficult to find enough time for each. When we’re in the studio, like we are now, it’s mostly weeknights that we work…freeing up most weekends. Sometimes they do overlap, but it hasn’t been that bad yet. This year for SXSW we planned on having a couple of climbing days down in Austin, but we ended up playing 5 shows in 4 days, and we were all too shot after that to do anything else…
4. A lot of really cool, grassroots clothing companies make an initial splash and, unfortunately, can’t seem to sustain interest or sales for a variety of reasons. How have you guys built Gneiss Apparel to weather the outdoor industry’s storms and gales and survive over the long haul?
The thing that’s been most exciting for us so far is seeing just how much people have connected with our products. We love that seeing a shirt stirs up stories for people – of some epic adventure they found themselves in the midst of or some climb they’ll never forget. It’s like the shirts have become a tiny way to both commemorate some awesome experience and to gin up inspiration for the next go, which is an incredible honor for us and also a huge motivator. You never really know where something’s going to go but this whole thing started out of a desire to create something to share with people who have a similar passion, to celebrate and cheer on those who’re going after it, and to express something that we felt wasn’t being fully expressed. This is what has fueled everything we’ve done so far and what we tap into as we make decisions about where to go next. We have ideas in the works for much more than just t-shirts, but whatever form it all takes, we want to create items that connect with people, that are meaningful to their lives and that maybe even give them a little bit of inspiration next time they need it. Climbing, like anything, can get really competitive and it’s easy to start comparing yourself and lose sight of what it’s all really about – getting out, soaking up nature, putting everything you have into something, and discovering that you can do things you never thought possible. If we can simply spread a little stoke, we’re headed in the right direction.
5. Fast forward five years down the road. The van is tricked out and running like a gem. The little one is bouncing on your knees. What do you envision your creative and climbing lives to look like?
We’ve been really blessed to be where we are now, and we’re excited about the future. We would both love Gneiss Apparel to continue to grow. I mean, the selfish reason for starting this business was to obviously make some money, but ideally really to free us up to climb more, to get outside and travel more. It’ll be great to pack up the van with the little one and hit the road. My Dad gave me some great advice about having children. He told me, “There’s no real limit to what they can do, it’s what you guys can handle doing.” So, she’ll be camping before she can walk or talk for sure! We can’t wait for that time. It’s been awesome starting this whole adventure…it’s allowed us to combine two passions into one. Plus, it’s given us the chance to meet so many awesome people that we never would have run into otherwise, and we’re excited about all that lies ahead. If you see us rolling around town in the van, be sure and say hi!
Former road-tripping dirtbag climber, teacher, marathon/ultra runner, triathlete, bookworm and master brewer.
Years Climbing: 20
Hometown: Buffalo, NY
Current Town: Buffalo, NY
1. Life is a funny, ever-evolving bear that you just have to kind of chase through the woods. You’ve been a road warrior dirtbag climber, a high school teacher, owner of a dog fitness company, and now Head Brewer at 12 Gates Brewing Company. I know, through all the dips and weaves of your life, you’ve yearned to exploit your creativity in any way you could. Talk about the long path you’ve taken to finally nab a career in which you feel you can fully explore your creative side.
It’s interesting thinking about a life and career as someone considered a “creative” person. Ten years of teaching in the machinery of the public education system was less than inspiring, especially in science education. I could relate it to something like a lobotomy. I never quite “jived” with the public education system; I was always asking questions, trying to push the envelope, and honestly the education system doesn’t really seem to lend itself to people trying to look outside the box too often.
Since middle school I was always very interested in art and literature – I was a total bookworm and it did me few favors with the opposite sex, for sure. Books were a way for me to explore things I couldn’t experience firsthand. They were stories of wild adventures, incredible places, and they made me curious about everything. As my education progressed from middle school to high school and into college I started trying to create my own stories, my own adventures. I was always searching for an outlet for expression. I delved into music, climbing, travel, photography, writing, and eventually brewing when I returned to the “normal” life after years of dirtbagging.
I was working in a warehousing job, while finishing off a graduate degree in education when a co-worker and longtime friend had the idea of learning how to brew. We both loved good beer and whiskey, and wanted to give brewing our own a shot. For the next year we explored some pretty poorly made homebrews, but I continued to push forward and learn more about the science and art of brewing. I began sharing my beers at homebrewing club meetings, forcing some mediocre swill upon my friends and family, and eventually the stuff started getting to a point where people asked for seconds. I won’t lie though, I made some seriously bad shit that even the thirstiest dirtbag wouldn’t touch. This was the first time something of my own creation was on show, and learning to accept criticism for my creativity was a new experience.
I continued getting involved in the beer community, as a beer geek, homebrewer, and being involved in the local brewing clubs, associations, and networking with brewers, brewery personnel, and the like everywhere I went. Honestly, I never thought I would end up making this surreal career come to fruition, but it was because of this networking that I got a phone call one day while teaching biology class, inquiring if I would be interested in interviewing for my current position at 12 Gates. That was just about one year ago today.
2. I ask the following because I greatly enjoy drinking the suds and don’t know the first thing about creating them. How did you first get into home brewing and why did it so pique your creative interest? How did you finally secure a job at a large brewery being a relative noob to the professional “Brewing Sciences”?
See previous for some of this answer.
I guess it’s just my striking good looks and boyish nature that landed a non-pro a big time pro gig. In all honesty, though, many people get daunted by the size and scale of an operation like mine, which is a 30-barrel system and the largest capacity brewery in 75 miles, but it’s not the actual size that counts (and yes, being an Irishman, I use this a lot). What should be most daunting for any pro brewer is the science and math involved in creating a solid quality management and quality control system. Recipe formulation and the “art” of science is important, but it’s only half of it. This is where my special suite of experience and education (science degree with an artsy, creative brewing background) helped me secure my first step going pro.
3. You live in Buffalo, New York, not exactly a hot bed of climbing. Have you struggled living in a place in order to bring a dream to fruition, while having to sacrifice your climbing a bit? Does that bring into focus the attention you give brewing, knowing what you’re sacrificing?
When I first moved back to Buffalo I tried to keep dedicated to climbing through a couple local gyms, going over the border to boulder at a local spot, the Niagara Glen, making small trips out to Pawtuckaway, NH, the Gunks in New Paltz, NY, New River Gorge, and other short destinations. I kind of knew in the back of my mind when I moved from Squamish, BC in 2004 that I would likely grow pretty bored with the local climbing scene here in Buffalo, but I also wanted to pursue graduate school and teaching. Being from NY, getting my degree in education from NY seemed like a sensible move.
In knowing that I would grow bored with the NY climbing scene I started to dedicate my focus and energy to marathon, ultra-running, and triathlon. I knew I needed something to focus my physical and mental energy, while continuing to push my personal boundaries. Climbing filled that void for the longest time, and running has done a pretty good job as a substitute.
I recognize everyday that I have given up the mountains, the beauty of the west coast, the outdoors at my fingertips by living in this wasteland of snow, ice, and flatlands, but the flip side is that I get to walk into my brewery every morning and create some delicious beers for a living. My affinity for heights and climbing has also been quite a benefit in my career. Daily I find myself scrambling atop a 16-foot fermentor to fix a valve, clean a hatch, or sitting atop a 14-foot high kettle. My assistants want nothing to do with it, so maybe climbing served an ulterior purpose in my life.
4. Many, many people cool off from their climbing mania later in life, to the consternation and amazement of their partners. From the partner perspective – the lifer – they can’t understand how someone could let loose the dream of climbing all the time, everywhere. I am kind of one of those people, having seen oodles of friends come and go from the lifestyle and just shaking my head, not understanding how they could ever untie and walk away. Explain how you feel about rock climbing from the opposite perspective.
I never look at it as if I gave up climbing, or untied, at least for good. There are other things occupying my time, keeping my mental game in check, as well as my physical game. I still get into some ice climbing trips when I can in the winter, get over to my old gym and still pull out some pretty worthy sends off the couch, but I am just not living the dirtbag lifestyle anymore. Honestly, it’s the dirtbagging that I miss more than anything. That feeling of living minimally, your focus entirely on something outside the norm, beyond what most Americans could ever begin to understand. It’s not untying from climbing that leaves a whole in me, it’s giving up the life of a climber that truly leaves me empty in a way.
5. I think I know what many writers, artists, photographers and filmmakers want out of their careers. It’s quantifiable stuff and it can make you a rock star (John Long, Jeremy Collins, Jimmy Chin, Peter Mortimer – in order). What is the golden goose for a Head Brewer at a fledgling brewery? How would you love to make this a successful career and leave your mark?
I’m not sure if there is a real golden goose in brewing that all brewers can subscribe to. For me personally it would be having my own place, owned entirely by me and in my own vision. It’s kind of narcissistic, I guess, but so be it. Being able to design and sell a beer that people line up for, search out, write about as an iconic beer in that style is also on the list. There are brewers out there in the US and the world that are rock stars, and for good reason – they have consistently made incredible beers for decades, without fail – but they also run their business with a vision that separated themselves from everyone else. In my mind, that is how you leave your mark. It’s about believing that your way is the way, then absolutely bringing it with everything you’ve got.
Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk
All-around climber and former Yosemite denizen, road warrior, fine artist, graphic designer and logo maestro, climbing magazine contributor, guitar/banjo strummer and expert karaoke instigator.
Years Climbing: 8
Hometown: Detroit, MI
Current Town: On the road…currently in Bishop, CA.
1. You’ve lived in a number of wildly different places, including but not limited to Detroit, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver and Yosemite National Park. Obviously, location affects your climbing. How does location affect your artistic style, your inspiration and your impetus to create new pieces?
My style is my personal preference, in which case it is not necessarily affected by locations. However, content, mood, and inspiration are definitely derived from the locations I find myself in. I am inspired by the recurring themes of loneliness which can be drawn from the desert and isolated areas as well as the area I grew up in, Detroit. I’m insanely inspired by concepts/subjects that are unique and unconventional and making them beautiful (something that I’m trying to exhibit in my newest group of work). I love the topics of the underground, countercultures, and things that aren’t cookie cutter trends. The scenery and haunting landscapes and the Wild West give me great pleasure. In the locations I am at, I can find a lot of these things while climbing and they intrigue and excite me; they are the way of my life, and I find great beauty in these things that are not necessarily enticing to most people. I feel like exploration of these different landscapes helps one delve into the subconscious and underneath the superficial layers of existence, and creates interesting content for artistic explorations. This year I plan on working on more landscape paintings, which is beneficial as I live in these majestic arenas. However, portraits and paintings of people are more of my jam, and I am constantly inspired by the people I meet climbing, as well.
2. As an artist, you need discipline to complete a project from inception to finished piece. However, as a dedicated climber, you have to be chomping at the bit when the season rolls around (wherever you might be in the US). How does your art life intersect, both positively and negatively, with your desire to climb as much as possible?
Both ebb and flow, and not always concurrently. For years art was on the back burner, especially when I first started living the climbing lifestyle. I clearly remember the moment that I swapped art for climbing. It was winter in Detroit and I was spending it visiting family, working on my art portfolio, and working at a climbing gym. I had a call back from an agent asking me to create more portfolio pieces for them. But I had another call back on a job working concessions in Yosemite Valley. And so I swapped one dream for another, painting on canvas for climbing big walls.
The past year my goal was to balance climbing with freelance, and I was fully dedicated to climbing as much as possible while making as many illustrations as possible. It was fairly successful. I pushed milestones in my climbing, and have sent the hardest and proudest projects I have ever climbed. Also, I was able to push my limits with illustration, doing a lot of freelance, creating a larger bulk of quality work, and having pieces appear in Ascent and Rock and Ice.
For me, I’ve learned that striking a healthy balance and trying to maintain that is crucial in my mental well-being as a climber and as an artist, and the more freedom I have with both, the happier I am.
3. You have lived on the road for a number of years now, traveling the country and climbing. As a fine artist, what challenges does living out of an SUV and pull-behind camper present, especially in terms of space, materials and privacy? Does life on the road dictate medium, technique and opportunity?
Well, I have no space in the trailer and little privacy in the local coffee shops, so larger format paintings are out of the question. My alone time is few and far between. These are the two largest drawbacks. However, I’ve adapted by switching to a digital painting format. This allows me to work in a clean space without having to worry about my pieces being exposed to the elements (dirt, dust, cold, etc) that don’t lend well to making art.
I’ve learned to be okay with people watching me draw and work at coffee shops, something that my time as a caricature artist this summer has helped. I’ve also learned to have a sense of urgency in completing work, more so than I’ve had in the past.
The ability to differentiate between play time and work time is a necessity within this lifestyle. Because we live in a community of fellow dirtbags, many of whom only work seasonally and are not working when climbing, it is a must to be able to step away from the fun and keep my brain on the prize. Which is ultimately to be able to continue living like this, traveling, and creating interesting, inspiring and consistent work.
4. You’ve been trad climbing big routes from Colorado to the Valley for years. You’ve also been pursuing an artistic and creative life for decades. What kind of mindset does an artist in today’s creative industry need to really employ to not only get the work done but also find a home for it that turns a buck or two for the artist? Do you see any correlation between a climber’s discipline and that of an artist? Do they inform one another in a positive and useful way?
My motto is, “Too dumb to quit!” You definitely have to have a thick skin, not get discouraged, and to stay motivated even though it can feel at times like everything is trying to push back at you. That fighting drive is important to me. And those are the exact same factors involved in climbing, albeit more physical than internal. It’s almost that yin and yang, the physical pursuit of challenge in climbing and the psychic struggle in making it as an artist that drives me. If it were easy to do, I wouldn’t do it. But that duality helps balance me out. In regards to climbing, to me, it’s about building the confidence to successfully top out a problem or route by rehearsing moves, training for strength, and preparing my mind for whatever roadblocks I may encounter. It’s all very similar to learning a musical instrument as a child; rehearsing, training the ear, the final showing at a concert or recital.
With art, the way I operate, I start with a concept. That is always my main crux. To me, if you have a weak idea, then there’s really no point in putting it out there because it ultimately holds less value than something you truly believe in. So, the weight of a project for me is hashing out the concept. Unfortunately, around 75 percent of the time, the concept has to move on without me because of deadlines, and this creates an existential crisis. The crux then becomes maintaining my technique and stoke even though I’m not fully into the concept. Once again, there is the yin and yang between my pursuit of climbing and my pursuit of art, but both do end up being a mental pursuit in an entirely similar way.
5. You’ve published artwork in the climbing mags, held gallery shows in San Francisco, and done a great deal of logo/corporate design. What is the brass ring for you? Would you like to focus on any certain aspect of your career or, alternatively, would you like to marry your different disciplines and keep doing a number of different projects in different mediums?
I would like to pursue gallery art again and I would love to become more well-established as a freelance illustrator. I want to really hash out my editorial style so it’s easier to work quickly and confidently. Also, a part of me thought by this point in my life I would be a part of academia. Teaching at a university level. I was going to get my masters right out of school, but decided to wait because that was a lot of money to put into something, and, like everything I do, it would have to be a major I truly stood behind. As long as I can do the work I love and am able to have a reasonably comfortable existence, then that is a great success to me.