The top of a mountain offers the best view in the world, but it might be the loneliest place on Earth. Denali Schmidt and his father died trying to reach the summit of the Ketu/Kechu mountain (K2) and take in that view.
Schmidt was only 25 years old, but he knew the risks. His father, Marty, 53, was an internationally renowned mountain climber who had tried to reach the K2 peak three times before. An estimated 1 in 4 climbers dies on its cliffs. Worse, a close friend had recently died in a hang-gliding accident. Friends and family say the loss of a friend he idolized had shocked Denali Schmidt, making him re-examine his life. His girlfriend, Larisa Minerva, called it a “shaping moment.”
So why did he go?
Clues may be found in “Peak Inspirations,” a show of Schmidt’s artwork now open at the White Walls Gallery. Schmidt had graduated in the top of his class at the California College of the Arts shortly before he left for Pakistan, and his professors say he had an extraordinary eye for the new and innovative that holds up now, two years after his death.
“He was a curious experimenter who was interested in pushing boundaries as part of his practice,” said Jordan Kantor, a professor of Schmidt’s at CCA and one of the show’s curators. “His work is still very cutting edge.”
The view from Schmidt’s work might be similar to what he witnessed in the last days of his life, as these pieces take mountains and mountaineering as their inspiration. Sometime stark, sometimes breathtaking and lonely, they attempt to move the viewer out of the realm of the ordinary — just where Schmidt wanted to be.
“He was extremely gifted athletically, and I think the ordinary challenges that face you and me were not really enough for him — and I think that’s as true in his art as in his climbing,” Minerva, 24, said.
But the idea of a solitary artist seeking the isolated places in the world to draw inspiration from doesn’t really fit Schmidt, who friends and loved ones described as passionate about community.
“Hosting dinners and sharing meals was really important to him,” Minerva said. “While we were in school, we would have potluck dinners once a week, and have people talk about art or read poetry, just be with each other outside of school.”
He was a leader in school as well. “In his life as a student, he was as much a kind of resource for his peer students as many teachers were,” Kantor said. “Very much a team player.”
The Schmidt family moved around the world during his childhood, so Schmidt learned to make community where he could, and hold on to it. That is one of the two themes emerging out of his young life.
The other is the need to conquer fear. At age 17, he was trying to teach himself how not to be afraid when jumping off cliffs. It was the subject of his senior paper at a Steiner school in New Zealand. That thesis is now a short book, “Zen and the Art of Skiing,” published by the family.
In it he wrote, “By relaxing and letting your thoughts fly by like fireflies you are clearing and relaxing your mind. It gets a little more complicated when feelings and thoughts such as doubt and fear start entering your mind. I have not experienced this yet but will as soon as I go up to the mountain and start putting my ideas to work.”
In a way, he had been training for this moment for years.
In a way, it worked. “I don’t think I ever saw Denali scared, ever,” Minerva said.
Looking at his art, you might see the world obscured; you might see people in climbing masks huddling together. But you will never think “this artist was afraid.” Or “this artist didn’t know what to do with his life.”
On the contrary: You’ll see a mountain peak covered in painted smiley faces. That painting is called “K2.”
Perhaps that’s appropriate, because for all that his trip cut his life short, Schmidt didn’t climb to be alone; he did it to be with his father.
Knowing life is short, he decided to spend more time with someone he loved, and try to achieve something extraordinary. While Schmidt’s art may be leading edge, his motives were classic — even eternal.
Now we have what he left behind, and can only hope to catch a glimpse of an amazing world through his young, fearless eyes.