Just Natural Looking: The Artworks of Kate Rutherford
The human hand: what an unbelievably capable and prolific appendage!Hands are able to do all number of things, from the most intense rough and tumble, callousing work to the most delicate, nimble, and precise maneuverings possible. It is even more remarkable when the same pair of hands masters an especially wide range of tasks; great talent in seemingly opposing realms. So is the case with Kate Rutherford, a professional rock and mountain climber as well as artist and jewelry maker. Between her home and studio in Redmond, Oregon and the great cliffs and mountains of the world, Kate manages to create beautiful, simple, and elegant jewelry while also climbing some of the most demanding and cutting edge routes on earth. Her hands--those amazingly intricate networks of bone, muscle, tendon, and ligament--are tough and sinewed enough to jam into cracks for thousands of feet and swinging steel ax points into ice for hours on end, yet are able to retain the sensitivity of the artist's touch; to select the perfect beach stones, to twist fine wire and tinker with material.
A juxtaposition? Maybe not; seems like it could be the perfect combination. Knowing rock, knowing rocks, learning granite and beach stone intimately. Might be the reason she's so good at jewelry and climbing and making an art of both.
I was lucky to go climbing with Kate recently at Smith Rocks--the wild, glorious, gothic sculpture in central Oregon's high desert. Yet another outstanding graduate of the Colorado College, I remember Kate from those days long ago in the dry, sunny Front Range air. It had been some time since we'd left those educational pastures and all I knew of Kate was what I saw in the Patagonia catalogues and in climbing magazines. Clearly she was accomplishing big things--both literally and figuratively--and I wasn't surprised.
I got in touch with her recently thinking she might like to try out some of my friend's product, Trail Butter, on some of her epic adventures. I wanted to climb and still hadn't ever been to Smith Rocks and I also wanted to visit Kate, so I figured I could do both with a just short drive over the mountains to the east side of the Cascades. It was a no-brainer; I pitched her the idea and she agreed.I took Highway 26 up and over to the dry side, marveling at the vistas, picking out distant volcanoes, watching the sun slowly sink. After navigating some dusty backroads out of Terrebonne I neared her property, though I had trouble spotting her actual house as I drove up. It was tucked behind huge piles of gnarly, lichened rocks all colored in the burnt, sage-twinged tones of the desert--like an alien inhabited lunar-scape crossed with the cowboy Wild West. I finally came over a little rise and saw brightly colored active wear hanging on a clothesline and some old ropes coiled up and in a pile beside a modest, rustic building and I knew I was in the right place. I parked, got out, knocked; she opened the door. It was great to see her again, nice to be present in her gorgeous home base, her jumping off point to the rest of the world. She gave me the tour, showed me her jewelry, the array of beach stones for future pieces all laid out in a pile on the dining room table--her temporary studio until the real one outside gets finished. There were pictures from adventures on the walls--of hers, of her partner Mikey's, of the ascents they've done together--as well as other art she'd done, paintings and drawing of peaks and wild lands.With tea made, art supplies in tow, snacks packed and ready to go, Kate grabbed the rope and the rock gear: we were going climbing. It was a cold, sunny day and seeing the laden pack and rope bag filled me with a bit of nervous excitement; it had been years since I'd gone full blown rock climbing, especially with someone so crazily accomplished. We drove the few miles straight north to the parking area, across the scrubby landscape, over train tracks. When we pulled up I immediately felt foolish for never having been before; it was absolutely stunning. I mean, Goddamn, what a place!We hiked down from the car, across the river, to the base of the cliff. There were climbers around, bundled in puffy jackets, happily absorbing the gracious rays. Most of the people seemed to know her and it was obvious people knew of her achievements.The temperature in the sun was actually quite nice given the recent cold snap. Kate opened up the rope bag and spread it out at the base of one of the climbs, a nice line of chalked pockets extending into the sky, bolts placed here and there for protection. I tried to stay calm; I'll be fine, like riding a bike. I put on my harness and readied to belay. Kate set off, upwards, her hands moving across the textures of the rock, instinctually. She climbed, like that was what she was meant to do. It was almost anti-climatic because it looked so effortless, somehow strangely ordinary in its completely extraordinary nature. It seemed like climbing was meant to look like: just a being--a body, an animal--moving in pure confidence, in simple, mindful execution. I imagined her making jewelry--sitting at her wood table, beach stones and wire and cord strewn about, sun coming in the windows--and figured it would be much the same, just natural looking, an artist at work.She led three routes, each one without a hint of difficulty. It was beautiful. I followed and was overall pretty happy with myself though by the last climb my forearms had turned to Jell-O and I could hardly grip anything. I started to get embarrassed, frustrated, impatient--hanging on the sheer face, 90 feet off the ground--but managed to keep it in check, and cut myself some slack. I finally tagged the anchors and lowered off. Kate was kind and patient, too.We decided to go for a hike to end the day and brought our small packs and art supplies with but stashed the rope bag conspicuously in the trees. While scrambling up over Asterisk Pass in the golden light of late afternoon a Bald Eagle soared into our air space with its landing gear out and eased into its perch in a snag nearby; just natural looking, an artist at work. Its stark, white head was an arresting beacon, a persistent reminder to be where we were, at Smith Rocks on a beautiful day, making art, climbing cliffs, sharing the holy place with gleaming, soaring creatures, all of us absorbing what sunshine we could.
Once over the pass we followed a trail north until Monkey Face came into view. It was getting later so we stopped there and picked a rock to sit on and draw for awhile, while the temperature would still accommodate that sort of (physical) inactivity. We both pulled out our notebooks and painting and drawing implements--pens, colored pencils, markers, water colors--and set to creating. I took a break from my own work at one point and got up and took a few pictures and watched Kate working away in the rich light. I looked at her hands, the one holding the her pad, the other one gripping the pencil, and thought about all the amazing things those two things (along with her strong, determined mind) have accomplished.
Inspiring! To say the least. So awesome. I just hope they get some much needed rest, for all the hard work they do, for all the beauty and art they create.As I said before: The human hand, what an unbelievably capable and prolific appendage! Don't believe me? Talk to Kate.Here's some Q&A with the woman herself from our day in the high desert… Enjoy!Mountain City: How and when did you start climbing? How and when did you start making jewelry/art?Kate Rutherford: I have always made art, and often that would take shape as jewelry, wearable art seemed so practical. And climbing really started when I was 19, I went to the Colorado College knowing that I could learn to climb there. My current jewelry designs are directly based on climbing, and the need to have something simple, that I can make while on the road climbing.MC: Tell me about where you grew up and how the landscape influenced your development in these areas.KR: I grew up in rural Alaska on a homestead through the woods and across the river and up the hill above a beaver pond. The small log cabin has an incredible view of the eastern Alaska range. The winter months, dog sledding, nordic skiing, snow forts, and dark hours for art influenced me in every way. I think it made me comfortable with almost any environment, comfortable enough outside to enjoy the beauty! It just seemed so normal that all my time would be outside.MC: Is climbing a creative outlet for you? Can be an artistic activity?KR:I think climbing is art. My favorite lines are the prettiest ones like the Moonlight Buttress in Zion, like Cerro Torre. And to be able to interact with a perfect line up a mountain in such an intimate way is like a dance. The puzzle of need, strength, body and mind it pretty exciting when it all falls in to place.MC: When does a sport become art? Can it be?KR: I think it is art as long as it feels beautiful to be in it.MC: Do climbing/art making work interchangeably or does one provide something the other does not?KR:I often wonder if there would be one without the other. At least I know they would each be different. I need something besides climbing, and I also need those epic vistas to inspire my art. Plus it is a wonderful way to be part of the outdoor/climbing community. These necklaces are like a symbol that you are part of the tribe.MC: Your jewelry is made from stones from Vashon Island where you grew up, tell me about the importance of that material and that source to you?KR: The stones are actually from the coast, there is not enough wave action in the Puget Sound to polish the stones enough. The beaches of the wind hammered Olympic peninsula are a wilder version of Vashon where I spend my later youth. It is like a working vacation to go to the coast and spend three 8 hour days lying on my belly picking out each perfect stone. And the wave action naturally polishes the stones so I don't have to, that part is important, they have the sheen of the ocean, they are actually a piece of the PNW.MC: You have a new home in Redmond, a very different climate and landscape from Vashon…how does the dry, high desert of Oregon feed your artistic/creative side?KR: I now live in the desert so I can climb, but it feels good to my soul to go back to the rainforest. It is super comforting to be in that grey, blue, green, damp environment. I'm not sure yet what it will do for my art, but the dry is awesome for my climbing!MC: You travel all over the world climbing…do you ever think about making jewelry using collected from other places? From near your home in Redmond?KR:I find stones everywhere, but the perfection that comes from the beaches here in the North West is unparalleled. The round, smooth, symmetry is what is most important in my current line of art. And it is my home, so there is some practical aspect to that.MC: We talked about risk-taking before…what do you think is the role of the "risk-taker" in society? "Risk-taker" can be applied to many artists and creatives as well…KR: The artist does seem to fill the risk taker roll in some way, it is such a personal expression, not always accepted, and art can really push the boundaries of normal thought. I think it is important for communities to have access to those types of people. I think my climbing might applies more to the' risk taker' role, those stories are more wild then my art.MC: What is the role of the "artist" in society?KR: I feel like I can inspire people to follow their passions through art, wether it is a story about climbing, or a painting of the places I climb or the simple truth that I do support myself through making art. I think people are afraid to try to follow their dreams and creative minds. Afraid of not being good enough maybe? But it is so simple to just start trying. So fulfilling.MC: What do you like about working and creating things with your hands?KR: I might work too much with my hands. They don't get enough rest between the climbing and the jewelry. But it is wonderful to actually craft something tangible. And that is something you can only do with your hands.MC: If you had to give advice to the young-women of this world what would it be?KR: Ask for what you really want. And as the poet Rumi says " Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground."Thanks Kate!Make sure to check out Kate's climbing and art website!Written and photos by: Willie McBride