IN FOCUS: The Universal Climber

DMM Wales 4th July, 2022


Presenting three perspectives on the theme of universality in climbing and how they have been interpreted by artists.

The first is Andy Parkin's sculpture, 'Universal Climber', made on-site at the Llanberis Film Festival in 2011 to pay homage to all climbers, both past and present. The second piece, 'Universal Woman', was made by engineer and artist Alice Dowson in celebration of DMM's 40th anniversary in 2020, with specific focus on a woman's experience of mountaineering. Her reinterpretation of the theme is now on permanent display at the DMM factory in Llanberis.

Both sculptures use recycled materials found on the DMM site to outline the anatomy of different climbers, examining the unique physical experience of rock climbing, our relationship with our bodies and movement. Inspired by Dowson's sculpture, writer and poet Faye Latham wrote 'Invisible Woman' exploring her relationship with the rock and how the landscapes we climb and the people we share these experiences with shape who we are.

Each one inspiring the next, these individual pieces at once reveal how personal and individual our experiences of climbing are, while also being relatable between climbers of different experience levels and backgrounds. In their different ways and through separate artistic mediums, the works present the power of rock climbing and its ability to remove a person's exterior to reveal the feelings and stories which connect us as a community.

Andy Parkin and Alice Dowson's sculptures were showcased at Joe Brown's Llanberis store in 2020. 

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Universal Climber

Tasked with exhibiting at the Llanberis Film Festival in 2010, artist and alpinist Andy Parkin intentionally arrived with no materials and nothing to exhibit. Following his passion to breathe life into discarded objects, he drew inspiration from discarded items in the skips at climbing equipment manufacturer DMM in Llanberis to conjure up a piece in just a handful of hours in the corner of the festival marquee.

You can watch a video of Andy creating his sculpture here:

What was your inspiration for the piece?

The idea was born back in Nepal (winter 2011) where I had spent three months soloing and teaching art to the deaf children of Barhabise school, one that was built by Doug Scott's charity, Community Action Nepal. I had promised to turn up in Llanberis for the film festival and do something rather like I did in the quarries back in 2004, performing the piece on-site as it were. Still, I only had a vague idea as to what it could be, assuming that I could adapt to circumstances and materials once there. I had thought of recycling, but what? I knew that DMM would have an amount of scrap I could use  – so there was the germ of the idea.

What materials did you use?

I enjoy giving new life to old things and in particular old climbing gear. I have a weakness for giving retired pieces a new lease of life and adding credibility to stuff that 'back in the day' I would not have used. By using old bits and pieces I hope that we do not forget how they changed the way we climb.

But these days and as an artist I find certain design features intriguing and re-examining these pieces can give some interesting results. I want to pay homage to the bits that helped me, furthered my career and occasionally saved my life.

How was it made?

As with many of my sculptures, once I have settled on the materials these then dictate the way I work with them, and not against the materials by way of respect. I only had a Leatherman type knife with pliers attached, the same one I used to chase off a rogue Tibetan who tried to rob and kill me that winter whilst climbing in Nepal. I felt at ease with the weapon (I mean…tool).

Why did you choose the title, 'Universal Climber'?

The famous image of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing titled 'The Universal Man' which I used as a child to study proportions later influenced me as a sculptor. I wanted to work the cliché – there's nothing wrong with doing that as long as you bring a new element into it.

Even though the piece does look masculine, I chose the title 'Universal Climber' as I wanted to pay homage to all climbers, both past and present, male and female.

Universal Climber on display at Joe Brown Shop in Llanberis.
Universal Climber on display at Joe Brown Shop in Llanberis.

Why do you use recycled gear to create your sculptures? What is the meaning behind the metal used in your pieces?

It was the already changing climate of the 1980s that introduced me to working with recycled objects. At first they were mere ephemeral subjects designed as statements to attract attention to the ecological problems facing us at the time and continuing to do so now. I began to cast around for materials and found that brass sheeting from the nineteenth century huts on Mont Blanc suited me (the sheets of brass that covered the rooves). I enjoyed cramponing around on the Bossons glacier finding things. The way that the metal was crushed by the forces of the ice really appealed to me. Ever since then I have always tried to respect the material and only intervene if necessary in order to retain its inherent character.

Describe your path into art and why you became an artist.

Drawing and painting began early for me as a child, creating my own fantasy/play world – it is just the same now for the much older child within me! I left school at the age of sixteen and began an apprenticeship with a firm of electrical and mechanical engineers but left to work on building sites in order to earn more money to climb. Pretty soon this led to going to the Alps and from then on I did not stop. It did stop me from going to art college, but I do not regret this as climbing became my real means of expression and travelling opened up my world. An accident forced me to use art as a therapy and painting gave me something to do and push towards as I thought that the rock and ice were things of the past. I put all my energy into this and eventually found the gift of climbing again through art and a dual lifestyle to boot.

Andy Parkin at work.
Andy Parkin at work.

Where are your favourite places to climb? Do you find they inspire your artwork? If so, how?

I love rock climbing in Britain and still reckon that it is some of the best anywhere. Chamonix obviously as I set up home there and wider areas like Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego – these landscapes influenced my sculptures enormously. There is also the Karakorum and the Himalaya ranges where the scope for new routes, exotic locations, cultural intrigue and adventure is great. I enjoy being alone there (whilst climbing) and then rediscovering the meaning of communities where one is rarely alone.

Art was always my emotional barometer on a trip anywhere. I would first paint and when I was in sync with myself and the landscape, I would go climbing. I work all the time it seems, one work feeding off another rather like climbing. I still enjoy painting in the hills (or sculpting) – it's as if having nothing but sky above one's head opens up the possibilities, and they are boundless.

Andy Parkin is an artist and sculptor living in Chamonix. His work uses found objects to explore the ways in which climbing is not about conquering or domination but adaptation. You can find links to Andy's work on his website: Andy Parkin, artist & climber

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Universal Woman

Created to pay homage to Andy Parkin's original sculpture, engineer and artist Alice Dowson created Universal Woman over three months in between working full time at DMM as their Softgoods Engineer. Every item has been re-used from DMM scrap or product seconds, with the artwork eventually going on permanent display at the DMM manufacturing facility. The artwork celebrates the strength of equality and sustainability in climbing in all its forms: bouldering, sport, trad, indoor, competition, mountaineering and expeditions.

Universal Woman by Alice Dowson.
Universal Woman by Alice Dowson.

What was your inspiration for the piece?

Andy Parkin's Universal Climber is an inspiring 3D sculpture of a climber made from DMM recycled scrap metal.

To express how climbing is growing and being enjoyed by such a wide variety of people we decided to create 'Universal Woman', similarly using only recycled materials.

The design was created on a computer and used to make laser-cut stencil.
The design was created on a computer and used to make laser-cut stencil.

What materials did you use?

All hardware and pallet wood was repurposed from the DMM scrap bins including:

Wooden pallets

Cam lobes

Carabiner gates

Nuts

Ice picks

Micro Vault backs

Forging clippings

Alice with a stencil outline of the Universal Woman.
Alice with a stencil outline of the Universal Woman.

Why did you choose the materials used?

The hardware at the top of the artwork is mostly raw metal to depict the monochrome, rugged nature of our local rocky crags.

Colourful anodised parts at the bottom of the artwork are to highlight the beauty of the flora and fauna in places that climbers often find themselves in.

The climber is made of a mixture of light and dark anodised parts to create contrasting outlines and highlights so that the profile can be identified.

How was it made?

A stencil of the climber and background was laser cut and then sprayed onto the wood.

Hardware was either screwed onto the wood or fixed on with wire.

Attaching scrap hardware to the stencil outline.
Attaching scrap hardware to the stencil outline.

What does it mean to you?

During the making the strength of the climber felt like the focus.

However, the bigger picture is an expression of thankfulness to the universal effort in the development of climbing safety equipment. Climbing industry products have created opportunities and helped many to achieve things they didn't think they ever could. It is inspiring to be a part of an industry where so many people love to share their passions with others and who are continually trying to make climbing accessible to all.

What was your path to engineering?

At school my favourite subjects were Art and Maths and I went on to study Product Design (BSc) at university. Now I am one of the Product Designers of DMM soft goods. We work closely with the hardware design engineers and the larger team of skilled people running the sewing and metal work factories on site.

Alice Dowson is an engineer and artist living in North Wales. In her free time she enjoys running and carving lino prints.

***

Invisible Woman

Faye Latham's poem, 'Invisible Woman', is inspired by Alice Dowson's 'Universal Woman', made to celebrate DMM's 40th anniversary and in tribute to Andy Parkin's 'Universal Climber'. Just as Dowson's art piece depicts the outline of a woman made from metal, this poem draws parallels between the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd – a woman made from flowers and the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes – to the poets' own experience as a climber. Extending the theme of universality in the artworks outlined, this poem explores relationships, fear, strength and rock climbing on a personal level, to show the different ways we might experience our time on rock.

Faye Latham is a poet, writer and rock climber. Her debut poetry collection, British Mountaineers, will be published by Little Peak Press in September 2022. You can find links to her work on twitter, @lathamfaye

Invisible Woman

Summer

WITH A BRANCH LIGHTING UP

It all happened so quickly in the end

the sound of my voice at breaking point
rising out of two weak links in the rope –
a small shock came

held
snapped in mid-air

RHYOLITE, REDHOT AND RHYME

the rock was incredibly hot that day. As we
slipped our bags onto the floor
I searched for something to say
anything really

and suddenly I remembered the old story of
a woman made from flowers
made perfect

made to marry a man. I looked up at the sun and said
she loved the light, refused to go against her nature
and stretched out her arms to reach for anything worth
holding onto.

I told you about the different ways people read her
mainly how she was someone who loved to be loved
but in other versions was as shy as a mouse, saved by a man
who planned to slaughter her husband and make (or sometimes let?)
her watch

and you looked at me like I said something
awful, as if suddenly there were weeds growing out of my lips
and I was the one with my back against the wall
as if right in front of you
I rocked my finger on some lovers blade
watched the ages velum cloud
eclipse the rope around my waist

I could see it written on your –
you didn't need to say it

if only she'd been made from flowers
made perfect
made in some ways
in the dark
made to

either way, it's always a question of agency.
Who is looking at who

and now, after all this time
when I close my eyes and remember (dismember)
details of that day
I see myself watching you as if through trees, see light feather
the surface of your face
as the rope uncoils around your feet

and I come to my own conclusion

that this was an ancient story so recent it's about to start
just another woman being told how much to love and 
how

PEACHES OF SORROW & RELIEF 

now listen here, the most magical thing

I was drinking straight from the can

slurping all the amber-lac
cool in my mouth
and brown stained.

I let the dark blood curdle
on my tongue, the indigestible terpenes honey
baubles. We were sweating like horses in the heat

sleeping on our feet, wearing only water and
bone cherries, blue skin drops

and stopping for a while in the shade
we drank the juice left from the peaches
we bought tinned in the supermarket.

I can still taste the orange segments,
ersatz slices of sun

spilling over my mouth, I cut
my cheek on the corner of the can.
The sweet taste of the fruit still mingles
with my own electric resin

trickles down the label


              Pesche in Scatola

INTERFERENCE, WHITE MIDNIGHT

a voice?
In the dark I feel a voice
the length of a nightmare
its branch reaching out to stop me mid-sentence with
questions like

Get on with it? become a god.

Violence! Memories are eyeless.
Soon enough my hands come up from under the dust
dark, unblinking

ROCKCLIMBING IN TENDER

I took my time, arms
rounding out in figures of eight

fretwork shapes.

For days after I could not step outside its bulging movements,
its halting and upset, perfectly encircling walls.
We were rushing and pressed together

breathing in the sand and out, our strengthless hiccups.

At night time
my roots consider their way

I find a cairn of warm stones

AJAR TO THE

then I made a wrong move, tripped
up said the wrong thing?

it was like the earth had me take everything off
and let go of my hand
told me I was not safe

having my heart cracked open water

spilling through my fingers
no one to catch it

its sickness spinning stars around my
palms' avalanche my
bone melting out into legs my
soul

a vessel not properly closed
ajar to the

THE UNIVERSAL WOMAN

when I type into google "universal" + "meaning" 

I come up with the Latin universalis, "of or belonging to all,"

 universum, forming all or part of it "alone,"

+ versus, vertere  "to turn, turn back; convert or be changed."

It's not that I didn't believe in myself
it's just that you needed me to be everything, run behind you
also stay back

to be both

Orpheus and Euridice
at once part of the walls pressing my hands into the earth
also beautiful, to turn my head and watch myself disappear
like a spider
be regathered into silk.

Tell me, how was I ever supposed to be all that:
a self, selfless and also without loss
have the energy to remake myself
each time you spoke to me like a piece of –

METTLE: THE SPINE IS A FORGED THING

strength licked into shape when it needs to

in a world where even rock is metamorphic, I thought

I can be anything: alive with possibility

            (reaching up for the ledge)

tough: in my mouth cut flowers turned in metal

            (its pockets so big they could devour themselves)

a fossil: roots long as the void of deserted species

            (my finger slotted, a twist)

magnet: vibrating with vigour, rubbed into

(without breaking contact with the rock)

time: falling

time: dripping down the back of my T-shirt
time: its seconds sliding down
nightmare striptease

breathing: a perfect flare in the shaded crack, gorgeous

I thought

I can be anything here
me and the wall, unabsorbing. Like the opposite of a mirror,
it lets me see beneath the world

                                    its past

REACHING UP TO CATCH THE INTENSE

softness of a –

stone
fear (present tense now)
slightly above my head
stepping down
the little black-throated birds
calling down
                 down
                       down
crackle and cackle down the line
o wow o wow
my soul pouring through my fingers
to nothing
feels like the grass leaks through me
deep private venom
feels like a long way
its secret on the underside of knowledge
a friend once said to me
kindness is the highest form of intelligence
its strength bubbling
feels like a leaf with something living beneath
lurking and alive
a little animal jumps out from under the sweep of a blade

            THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

I think that's what killed her in the end,
Blodeuwedd: her refusal to look away from the sun
or shrink herself to fit inside the palm of a man.
Instead she span around and around with her back against the wall

standing there watching her fate coming down fast
having heard it told so many times
in so many different ways

she grinned with her face towards the mountain

and sometimes I think
in my own way and with all the influence in the world
that I could be like that – laugh

            THE WAY BIRDS DO

threatening
my ghost like rain

rock-gripping.

Faye Latham
Faye Latham
© Faye Latham
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