Art of Climbing: Shelly Hocknell Zentner

Posted by Alex Messenger on 02/04/2008
Shelly Hocknell. Photo: Taylor Boots Zentner.

Shelley Hocknell Zentner has been painting and drawing since the age of twelve. Talent and an early commitment led to a degree, then setting up a studio in North Wales. A fascination with the human form, and inspirations from Michaelangelo and Rodin, led to a phase of paintings that sought to express the movement of climbers, resulting in muscular and dynamic oil paintings.

Since then Shelley has moved on both physically and artistically. For the last two years she has lived in Canada and the US, where she has continued to paint
the human form, as well as to explore the rocky landscape.

"Last weekend I found myself painting outside in the snow. I had to work as fast as the techno banging in my ears, since the mountains I was trying to capture were rapidly disappearing inside a storm. In my excitement, I didn’t notice my hands freezing into claws until the brush started making its own decisions, and my oil paint turned to glue.

I’m not normally a hardcore outside artist. I’d like to think I could be like Turner, who lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a storm so he could experience firsthand the real power of nature. Alas, I am more of a studio artist – I like warmth and tea. But this weekend was a ‘Plein Air’ competition, a ‘paint-off’ you might say. ‘En plein air’ is a French expression for ‘painting in the open air’. I didn’t realise that meant ‘in the bloody freezing air’. Anyway, I’ve never done anything like this before (or wanted to) but recently I’ve been trying to resurrect my art career over here.

The frisson of competitive excitement soon gave way to embarrassment that this wasn’t really my scene. The realisation that I’d have to hang my bold, slashy canvas with gobs of thick paint in a sea of delicately crafted masterpieces was almost enough to make me pack up and go home. Especially when the wind blew the damn thing into a bush.

But it’s true what they say about the journey, not the destination. Part of what kept me going was experiencing the same thrill as when I painted rock climbers in the UK. I used to get really involved with the dynamic movement and energy when I was working on a big canvas, throwing everything I had into often life-sized drawings.

It’s been over two years since I closed the doors to my studio in North Wales, and flew to Canada with no plan whatsoever. I’d just hit 30, and decided it was now or never. I’d worked hard at being an artist since graduating in 1997, and frankly I was burnt out. A day later in Winnipeg, the flattest, ugliest place I’d ever been, I realised my error. Both art and climbing are in my blood, and the prospect of neither, even temporarily, was terrifying. I knew in my heart that even without a studio I was still an artist, and without a rock I was still a climber – but ten years of total immersion in both had defined a big part of my identity.

At the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, I had an epiphany. I was sitting on a kerb watching a hundred people dancing barefoot to African drums. I was at foot level, watching their pounding feet cast long shadows through the orange of the streetlights. I realised now that I had the rare opportunity to build myself a new life, and that the possibilities were endless. I mentally shook the Etch a Sketch, and prepared myself to start living a better, more positive life, resolving to listen better and look longer.
The next day I booked a flight to Calgary, and began a road trip. I bought a 1976 Dodge Camper van, called her Matilda, and started living. I climbed in Squamish, Smith Rock, Bishop, Hueco Tanks, and Joshua Tree. I tried to learn to surf in Santa Cruz. I visited art galleries and museums in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Vancouver and Philadelphia. I drove coast-to-coast and border-to-border in America, sketching in my journal, taking pictures and writing.

I met Taylor in Squamish early in the trip, slacklining in the park. We’re happily married now, live in Lake Tahoe, and I have a studio in our cabin. I don’t paint climbers right now, too much else compels me; spawning salmon, vineyards, Amish people, sandstone towers, petroglyphs, yellow aspens and of course, snowy landscapes.

Although new beginnings are a little frightening, I would definitely recommend shaking the Etch a Sketch at least once in your time. It has made me a little stronger and braver, broadened my view of the world, and made me less attached to material things. Although painting in the snow feels like treading the fine line between bravery and stupidity, my experiences have made me realise that with an open mind you can make almost anything happen in your life. "



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