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The Perfect Space

Utah-based photographer and climber Nikki Smith finds new freedom in her artwork that depicts the places where she finds a tangible connection to landscape across the West.

Words and Art by NIKKI SMITH

It may sound strange, but my path to photography was drawing. My teen years were focused on putting pencil to paper. Photography was just a side interest. I spent hours focusing on a single drawing, enagaged in nothing outside my colored pencils, markers, or the occasional paints. In high school, I had two fantastic art teachers who encouraged me to go deeper. Their classrooms were spaces where I could escape my life, focus on a gift, and hear encouragement and praise for my work.

Over time, the tasks of daily living and photography took over, and I stopped drawing or painting. Here and there, I’d try again, only to be discouraged by the result. Then, years would pass without me creating drawings. In 2018, I decided that rather than try to produce art similar to my younger work, I’d try something new: pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic, and linocut. Even with the change in medium, I still couldn’t fully let go. I still have unfinished work I was too afraid to finish.

All of what I create is focused on places I’ve visited, and I often start the outline or painting while on a trip. Sometimes I can fill a whole canvas while I’m outside, sitting in a beautiful alpine meadow or on a warm sandstone slab in the desert. I’m watching the sunset, the horizon and peaks painted with light, yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples taking over the sky.

The scenes I choose are typically scenic, filled with rock and ice climbing routes I’ve climbed that I want to capture differently than I do with my camera. With my photography, everything I create has a machine between me and what I make. With drawing and painting, there is less separation. It’s my hands directly on the final medium, where I can feel the texture of the paper. I get to choose how I represent what I see, from shapes to colors. Playing with lines and angles, I have a different freedom from my photography, which is an exact snapshot of any scene. I get to play around more with interpretations of what I see, not an accurate representation. At first, this scared me, as my drawings were always photorealistic. Over time, I’ve started to let go and embrace the interpretations, mistakes, and change of scale when I don’t get the shapes precisely right. It’s perfectly imperfect, just like everything else in our lives.

Nikki Smith is an artist, writer, photographer, guidebook author, runner, and climber based in Salt Lake City. She started climbing in the early ’90s and has worked in the outdoor industry and climbing world since 1998. Smith’s photography has been featured in many outdoor publications, and she is a National Geographic Adventure photo contributor. She’s authored five climbing guidebooks and has written many feature articles for climbing magazines. She’s done over 200 first ascents throughout the West and has traveled the world to climb. Nikki is also an athlete representing Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, REI Protect Our Winters, Grivel, and more.

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