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Gretchen Leggitt Rides the Line Between Art and Adventure

It’s no secret that creation and adventure are intricately linked. Some of the most celebrated artists throughout history have used their experiences in the natural world to guide their work, and similarly, many of the most celebrated action-sport athletes of our time are also consummate artists that seek out adventure to seed their creativity and set a road map to the sublime.

One such artist, 33-year-old Bellingham-based Gretchen Leggitt, has taken her love of wild places and over the years applied it to a variety of artistic disciplines, including painting, water color, drawing and pyrography, which is the art of engraving wood with a heated metallic point.

The Artist

Leggitt goes to work on yet another blank canvas. Gretchen Leggitt photo.

As the daughter of two artists, Leggitt’s childhood in Colorado was full of adventure, so it was only natural for her to combine her love of the outdoors with the serenity she felt when exploring her hereditary skills as a creative.

“Making art has always been a norm in our family,” Leggitt told TGR, “shepherding my brother and I on grandiose adventures, my parents taught us how to deeply respect and admire the natural world and all the humility that comes with it.”

Gretchen Leggitt pyrography.

On top of being an art teacher, painting city murals, burning custom ski designs and other side projects, earlier this summer Leggitt was commissioned to put on an art show in Denver. 

Riding a wave of introspection following the untimely deaths of four of her close friends, Leggitt sought to assemble a show that would honor her fallen friends, and pay homage to the fact that they all died doing what they loved.

“A few friends have recently passed away [two in avalanches, one in a climbing accident, and one base jumping] and I have been toiling with the thought that they passed doing what they loved … We dedicate our lives to this lifestyle in which we are all constantly enduring dynamic hardships … I have gained perspective and growth from each of these experiences and I feel it’s important to contemplate, understand and learn from them, so that’s what birthed the show’s concept.”

To Endure

Fitz Roy. Gretchen Leggitt pyrography.

Leggitt’s show “ENDURE: ART AND STORYTELLING FROM THE WILD” was dedicated to her friends Liz Daley, Adam Roberts, Laurel Fan and Dean Potter, and combined her pyrography with trip reports from around the world to detail the lengths people go to explore the ends of the Earth, and their own physical and psychological limits.

To learn more about the show, and what makes Gretchen tick as an artist and adventurer, we sat down to chat about life, death, art, and what guides her inspiration.

A moment of suffering/bliss while bike touring. Beau Carrillo photo.

TGR: Why do you think art and action-sports go hand in hand so often?

GL: Whether recreating, or creating, it all comes back to the concept of freedom. They are boundless, I can create whatever I want with my own art. I make the choices, and I can go as far or as short as I want. The same goes for recreating. You can go wherever you want, you can ski whatever line you want. Obviously there are rules we follow for safety, but there’s just an unparalleled freedom we don’t get with other activities. So, freedom of expression is freedom of movement.

TGR: Beside the freedom aspect, what else do you think art and action-sport have in common?

GL: Another parallel between art and athletics is pinpoint focus. If you’re mountain biking 30 mph down a mountainside, you need to have pinpoint focus, or else you’re gonna hurt yourself. When I create, it requires the exact same level of focus, especially pyrography. I need to have that precision. I have burnt my permanent marks and am left with my mistakes. It’s controlled chaos.

TGR: What drives you to create?

GL: Creation, especially for me, is medicinal — having control over my life. When I’m my happiest, I don’t feel that inspired to go and create. Some of my darkest hours are the best times to create — in my most melancholy moments, it's when my soul needs to open up.

TGR: You dedicated ENDURE to four of your friends that passed during the last couple years. Was it difficult exploring the “dying doing what you love” concept in this personal context?

GL: Well, they all knew the risks — each and every one of them knew the risks, and they accepted them. Not that anyone is prepared for death, but I felt at peace knowing that each of them died doing what they love and not in a car accident.

I think the hardest part about death is the void that is left with all the people who loved the person who's passed. That void is the hardest part, and that’s kinda where the show was birthed. We are all stuck with the horrible tragic thought of the fact that this person is no longer here. Like when Dean died, the first thing I thought of was his niece, nephew, mom and sister. That’s the hardest part, and we’re all enduring that.

TGR: What is your general creative process? What do you think the act of creation does for people, and you specifically?

GL: My creative process relies on a balance of meditation, movement and solitude. I sink into deep realms of creativity early in the morning. Waking up with 45 minutes of yoga, then make a french press of sludge-like coffee, throw on a podcast (Ira Glass, RadioLab, How I Built This), and sit at my desk to paint or burn wood for six hours until I need to pry myself away to go for a run, mountain bike, or eat.

Concerning my subjects, I find inspiration for my work every time I step out of my doorstep. I love the natural world and study it intensely, ranging from the intricate cracks and topography of specific mountain ranges, to the delicate lines and patterns of plants as discovered through scientific illustration.

But generally, I think the act of creating makes you feel alive. It gets people out of their comfort zone and back to the state of consciousness they were in as a child — discovering, exploring and playing, with moments of delight and surprise. In their adulthood, people take themselves and their lives too seriously.

The Northwest shred. Gretchen Leggitt photo.

TGR: What relationship does your art have with your affinity for being outside and action sports?

GL: I create and recreate to feel whole. To feel balanced and alive. I am the daughter of two artists and the sister to two artists — making art has always been a norm in our family. When I do not make art for a few days, I feel just as empty and unsatisfied as if I haven’t exercised. Ultimately, movement, recreation and art allow you to break the rules and explore yourself. That’s what I live for — pushing the boundaries and challenging myself as best I can.

Avellanos. Gretchen Leggitt pyrography.

TGR: As a talented artist in multiple disciplines, why/how did you come to wood burning?

GL: As a hobby, I love playing around with different mediums, for example, I paint with water colors when I am traveling (I filled an entire notebook during my month floating down the Grand Canyon and another on my international bike tours). Concerning my fine art, I live in Bellingham, Washington in the heart of the Northwest. I am surrounded by loggers and wood workers and became enamored with the trade of manipulating wood that is so specific to our plentiful forested region. … I wanted my marks to be entangled within the wood, versus sitting on top of it, and discovered that pyrography and staining did this exact thing. Wood burning created a highly illustrative, branding effect that had a mysterious depth that I had never seen before. I fell in love with that medium and haven’t looked back.

Turret Island. Gretchen Leggitt water color.

TGR: What lessons have you learned from the outdoors?

GL: Humility is the greatest lesson I have learned. I had not known my true self until I bike-toured solo, 1,800 miles deep into British Columbia and down the spine of the Canadian Rockies. It was in that solitude that I faced my deepest fears and suffering, and while enduring those, emerged with a joy that I had never known existed — a pure happiness that needs no other human and no ego to recognize. It was in this place that I learned how to be alone, silent and content. This was my first lesson.

A fusion of illustration and gear planning. Gretchen Leggitt doodles.

TGR: You’ve mentioned that joy comes with suffering. How so?

GL: Every athlete should be able to answer this. Why are my hands covered in callouses, my knees and shins torn open and my feet covered in blisters? Why do I have frostbitten fingers and tendonitis in my elbows? Because I LOVE the exhalations of challenging myself and feel ALIVE. Suffering and pain bring clarity and summon endorphins. Scars tell the tales of adventure.

TGR: What parallels would you draw between your snowboarding/climbing and your pyrography practice? Is it similar, or different? How?

GL: Well, Just as a climber moves with meditation, precision and commitment to their actions, pyrography is a tedious and unforgiving process, in which heat and pressure permanently scar my canvases, resulting in unique depth and textures. I prefer using a chisel tip on my wood-burning tool, which burns and cuts into the wood in a manner that is very similar to snowboarding. I find many of my concentric lines take on the fluid aesthetic of my snowboarding. The difference is, I am sitting in one place breathing in smoke, whereas I would rather be hanging from a cliff or gliding through white smoke in a forest, however, we make our sacrifices to maintain stability.

About The Author

stash member Sam Morse

TGR Editor-at-Large. author of The Ski Town Fairytale and creative behind The Bumion. Lover of steep-and-deep lines, long trails—and hot springs waiting in the distance.