Smith Rock Climbing Live Your Dream Art Project with Meg

words by Meg Kahnle


As I hiked to the base of the wall, I imagined that the gravel and rocks under my feet despised mornings as much as I did. But there was anticipation this morning; so much, in fact, that my palms were sweating and my heart swelled with excitement.

That day was to be my first time climbing in the outdoors.

In my sleepy, stumbling state I walked with my friends into Smith Rock State Park, the volcanic tuff of rock bursting out of the junipers framing the trail. As we approached the rim and hiked down toward the crooked river, Monkey Face — our intended route — loomed above.

The first pitch of the Pioneer Route was trad, and the second was a bolted aid ladder. Upward progress on the ladder was awkward and had me oscillating between frustrated tears and laughter until, with little to hold on to, I belly flopped over the lip of the cave. The final two pitches of the climb were sport climbing with terror-provoking exposure.

My heart beat in my ears as I fought tunnel vision and focused on breathing. The coarse rock felt both foreign and comforting as I made slow methodical upward progress, clipping each bolt until I reached the anchor. A scramble below the summit, I set up the belay for my boyfriend and tried to contain my excitement. Once I made my way to the top of the Monkey Face formation I was in complete awe of the process of multi-pitch climbing, and the places it could take me.

As I grew as a climber over the next decade, Smith Rock became the home of a lot of milestones. Every time I hike in, I am met with the same sense of awe and fluttering in my chest that I felt on that first visit to the park. The place is truly magical.

I think it was the unpredictability of my living situation growing up that fostered a profound appreciation for meaningful connections with places like Smith Rock. Moving was inevitable, so from a young age I made an effort to soak up every ounce of energy from every moment before it was gone.

I became a collector. Rocks, feathers, photos, drawings, and maps connected me to special places as I moved and traveled around the world. Eventually, my value of meaningful connections and my collecting habits led me to develop a thirst for adventure — and my own style of art.

I saw an opportunity to align those two traits when my boyfriend asked what I would do if I received a “Live Your Dream (LYD)” grant from the American Alpine Club. I wanted to create and sell a community-focused art project of Smith Rock State Park and give 100 percent of the profits from an auction of the completed piece back to the park. Doing this, I could promote awareness around the park, aid in the conservation of it, and connect more people to their park and resources. At the same time I was excited about the possibility of giving back to the park that had supported and fostered my growth as an artist and climber for almost a decade.

So I applied.

In April 2015, I was notified that I was one of the LYD grant winners. In connection with my idea, I launched the hashtag “#ConnectWithSmithRock” the following month at the annual Smith Rock “Spring Thing” cleanup and began marketing my project on social media. Using this hashtag, I could make the project searchable on social media to anyone that visited the park, as well as help the community more easily submit their photos if they wanted to get involved. By the end of September, I had a collection of over 1,300 community-submitted images, including donations from the personal archive of guidebook author Alan Watts, who pioneered sport climbing in Smith Rock.

Smith Rock Climbing Live Your Dream Art Project
By October, I began assembling the parts. It was an intricate process involving printing, cutting, arranging, and gluing individual images on three large, prepped wooden boards. The images were then sealed with a transparent matte medium before adding a transparent silicone to build the texture of the iconic Smith Rock park view. Finally, the boards were covered with multiple light washes of acrylic paint that still allowed the community images to still show through.

The result: a four-by-eight foot triptych painting aiming to emphasize the connections and beauty of the Smith Rock climbing community through both the details of each underlying image and the overall picture of Smith Rock State Park.

Creating art is a vulnerable and somewhat terrifying process and I overcame new hurdles through this project. There was an onslaught of irrational fears from the very beginning:

What if I don’t get any photos?
What if I mess it up?
What if no one likes it?
What if no one buys my piece or my prints?

A robust network of support, both from my friends and from the climbing community, helped me as I worked through these fears. I received encouragement from emails, hugs from friends, and moments of laughter from my boyfriend when I might otherwise felt like crying.

Now that the painting is finished, my schedule has shifted from studio time to screen time. Working on outreach and marketing, as well as setting up the auction for my piece, is a new challenge. For me, the difficulty is describing the depth and details of this project, along with my passion for it, and distill it into a professional pitch.

Ultimately I want people to engage with my work. I want them to come away with a new perspective on what it means to connect with a physical place and have a renewed sense of belonging to the climbing community. The wealth of details and stories behind each image creating this mixed-media art piece combines into a massive story of connection.
. . .

View the process of creation in Meg’s video:

Meg’s finished piece is up for auction at 100 percent of the proceeds will go directly to Smith Rock State Park.