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Earth As Canvas: Interview With Artist-Climber Jeremy Collins

Filed under: Adventure  Climbing  Travel 

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We asked Jeremy Collins to sum up his career in one sentence: ‘I started drawing in kindergarten and never stopped.’ Today, he is the most recognized illustrator in the outdoors game.

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Artist, storyteller, director, and climber, Jeremy Collins is a fixture and a force in the outdoors world. From short films to the cover of National Geographic, his art is lush and playful at a glance, but look close and you see hard lines and details culled from his decades climbing, exploring, and collaborating with athletes, adventurers, and artists around the globe.

We caught up with Collins via a project with KEEN. He worked with the brand on imagery around their Live Monumental campaign as well as their new shoe, the Versatrail. He serves as a tester and ambassador for the company. Collins gave GearJunkie an update on life and a look ahead at goals and adventures to come..


Interview: Artist Jeremy Collins

Thanks for catching up. What’s new?
Honestly, 2016 has been spent primarily in airports. Supposedly, the Drawn book and film events were over in 2015, but after the Banff award, it had some new life breathed into it. I also have been doing a fair amount of fitness training after I had this sudden realization I was turning 40 this year. How did THAT happen? I hope to nail a few random climbs on my bucket list leading up to a birthday challenge in the fall. Looking back over the past couple months, I think the most fun things happened with my buddy Chris Macnamara. We did a winter ascent of “The Incredible Hulk” in the Eastern Sierra in February. That was some fun-suffering.

What’s ahead for the summer?
Constant travel to balance work and play, plus a few family adventures. The things I am working on with Meridian Line are so exciting I can hardly stand it. You know, I like to say “we are a conversation, not a brand” and I am trying to put together what that really means. Part of that has been developing products for telling your own stories — sketchbooks, journals, and writing and drawing utensils. There are a few speaking engagements, too, that are fun and interesting ways to share my stories. This week I did a TED talk and next week I will be at a festival for Smithsonian Magazine.

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Instagram: @jercollins_com

How did you find success as an “outdoors artist”? Or, is that how you see yourself?
I think just like any kind of passion-driven career choice, I just believed and stuck to that belief. I also had a solid support system with my wife. She believed too. As for “outdoors artist,” I honestly don’t know my job title anymore. Someone recently suggested I am a CEA (Chief Escape Artist), and I kind of like that. I like to blur the lines, from getting involved in activist-type initiatives, commercial or film projects that are random but challenging, and expedition journeys that ask the question, “How can art help here?”

This is way different than the questions I was asking at the beginning, which were much more like, “How can I pay my rent by drawing stuff and still climb my brains out?” Well, maybe I still ask that question.

What were some big stepping stones toward success as a commercial artist?
You know, I illustrated literally hundreds of other peoples’ stories for all the climbing magazines, and created maps of those journeys. I’d always ask editors “Is there budget to send me on location to create this map?” to which the answer was always “nope.” I think one of the biggest steps for me was coming to this realization that I had to become my own story, to follow my own map, and live that.

That was a major moment for me. It’s not like I was sitting around waiting. I was constantly traveling and climbing, I just hadn’t realized that as artists, we are capable of so much more than just telling everyone else’s stories. The best writers, photographers, and filmmakers realize this, too.

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With so many artists, how do you distinguish your work? What makes it get noticed?
I think one thing that I do is to fully immerse myself into my work. I live the life I celebrate. I sleep in the dirt… or the airport… or the bus-stop… or my van. I mean, I travel and go climb unclimbed big walls, not just theorize or fantasize about it. I hear that Nepal has an epic earthquake and I respond artistically, or emotionally at home I guess, but then I go and see it firsthand to see how art can help. And maybe that’s how it’s distinct. My work isn’t about the aesthetics so much as it is about the application of it. I don’t go to the drawing board and try to come up with imagery for the sake of style or catching a trend.

My intent is to live and share stories, and thus, invite others to join me. And I know that is by default inviting copycats, and I have to be okay with that. After cutting away all the fat from my work I have come to a place where the work is what I refer to as “simply complex.” Someone told me recently I was a lifestyle evangelist and I guess that’s fair. I have found something that fulfills life for me and I want others to enjoy it, too. 
If anything, my work is noticed because of its inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. I think the most effective art does that.

What advice do you have for burgeoning artists hoping to make a career of their passion?
Don’t be different simply for the sake of being different. Be different because you are different. Be unique because your voice is unique. How can we develop our voices? By experience. Travel, like, seriously travel. Make friends with people who aren’t just like you. Think bigger than yourself, and develop a voice that is so obviously you that it couldn’t be anyone else. It’s okay to be influenced, but try to avoid being infected by others’ work. And maybe lastly, don’t be in a big hurry to be “successful” if your only measure of success is financial. Learning is success. Screwing up is success. Trying is success. So… try.

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Instagram: @jercollins_com

What in life has you psyched right now?
Oh man, this is a heavy question. I have so much firing me up right now. I’m super stoked to watch my kids this summer. They’re the best. I’m stoked to explore a little book series idea I have been playing with. I don’t want to say too much about it, but the germ of the idea is cool, purposeful activity books that are made as a supplement for school counselors.

I also just had this producer reach out recently and say “If there was a show about your life what would it look like?” Oops, maybe I’m not even supposed to talk bout it. The answer was pretty easy. I’d just keep doing what I’m doing but with a camera crew along. So we’ll see where that goes, I guess. It’s a weird thing to be accustomed to, honestly, people filming me draw. But after all the film projects, the Ford commercials, and more altruistic mini-missions, I’ve had to focus on a question of what is it for me? Like, what’s the priority here? And [the answer is] honestly empowering others to find their voice, and chasing stories that inspire via adventure objectives. If I can stay true to that and expand the platform, then I suppose I am for it.

What is the 5-year plan for your work/life?
Well, for the most part I have arrived where I am in life by strictly living in the present, but as Meridian Line grows, I realize I need to plot the trail ahead rather than just follow my nose through it. So, five years? I’d like to be better at Spanish by then. I hope to still be motivated by climbing objectives. I’d like to be farther along in my understanding of what art can do to help change the world. That sounds so ubiquitous and vague but I really do mean it. It’s not just artist hyperbole. How can art fight poaching in South Africa? How can art help tribal groups fighting illegal mining or encroachment? These are the big questions I’m looking for answers to. Hopefully, I can answer a few in my lifetime.

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Tell us about your work with KEEN.
KEEN has been the best partner. They don’t simply seek out “athletes” to partner with; more so change-makers and community voices that pursue adventure, storytelling, and activism. I joined KEEN because I saw what they were doing as a company for humanitarian and environmental efforts. It’s funny; most of our engagement with each other has much more to do with that than shoes. They are doers and so am I, so we make a good team.

Tell us about your work and experience with the new Versatrail shoes.
We are spoiled as ambassadors in that KEEN lets us be part of the product feedback loop. One thing we all agree on is we live diverse lives and need shoes that can do it all. The Versatrail shoes are sweet. I have dragged them all over and they are my go-to shoe for most everything. Approaching into big climbs in the desert or the mountains, just getting out with the kids, driving a rickshaw in Kathmandu, or like, you know, slipping on and off easily in the airport security line. That’s crucial.

How have you been involved with the Live Monumental project?
It has been so exciting to watch the Live Monumental campaign grow and succeed. KEEN came to me to help develop the look and feel for all the collateral for the campaign, so I created five distinct drawings of the individual areas. I was honored to be able to just do what I do — create art that celebrates wild places and have it immediately be applied for impact, not in some abstract day-dreamy way, but in a concrete strategy with a plan.

Tell our readers about the Live Monumental t-shirts.
The KEEN shirts were a cool use of the art, I thought, turning people into walking billboards for the cause. I’m super proud of how they turned out, and love seeing them randomly around the country at events or airports. Especially on people who really care about a specific location near and dear to them. It’s so great to connect with strangers that way. They approach and just say “thank you!” and that’s a great feeling.

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How can drawn or painted art influence differently than other mediums, especially in the outdoors?
I’m not sure exactly, but I do know that we are saturated with adventure media these days. Anyone can make a film now, and anyone can become an overnight social media sensation if given the right platform, and I think that’s exceptional, you know? That the storytellers have become the ones in charge; not necessarily the platform.

Handcrafted art will always have its own voice over captured art from a lens. I don’t think either is better than the other, but I do appreciate things that take time to create and time to ingest. A few years ago there were all these articles and podcasts about the death of illustration, where stock art had come in and taken all the good paying commercial gigs, and I think now the pendulum has swung strongly in the opposite direction. Handcrafted storytelling imagery has never had a broader or more available audience.

What is in your “kit” for drawing in the outdoors?
It’s kind of boring actually, but I do get asked a lot. I carry a waterproof backpack with a waterproof zip-up pouch for my sketchbooks, which can range from a 5×7 repurposed vintage children’s book to my epic 14×17 watercolor Moleskines. Then a smattering of sizes of ink pens, some you can barely even see the tip of. Then a couple pencils, and just because I know people will ask my favorites are the Zebra mini click .7 mm ones. Trust me, they’re awesome.

A couple tubes of watercolor paint, and self-loaded brushes. Then maybe the most important thing of all, my super light pop up chair that stuffs into a bag not much bigger than a water bottle. This is clutch for those epic six-hour drawing sessions. And honestly, that’s about it. I’m also a big backpacking umbrella fan. Everyone makes fun of me until they need it.

Where is the weirdest place you’ve ever drawn a picture?
I’d have to say, lying in a ramshackle abandoned barn during a crazy thunderstorm in The Lofoten Islands in the arctic circle. My brother and I hopped off a ferry from the mainland at like midnight with no plans, and we just wandered around till we found some place to crash in the dark. I lie there and did a little drawing for some reason. That place was pretty weird I guess.

–Connect with Jeremy Collins at Jercollins.comThis article is sponsored by KEEN. See the company’s Versatrail line here.

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