Art In Thin Air: Denver’s Lisa Martin Paints Landscapes At 14,000 Feet

Listen Now
(Photo: CPR/Stephanie Wolf)
<p>Denver artist Lisa Martin holds up her almost-finished painting to compare with the views from the summit of Mount Elbert.</p>

Editor's note: This story originally aired in 2014. Lisa Martin plans to complete her mission this week by hiking Mount of the Holy Cross, northwest of Leadville. That will mark the 58th peak exceeding 14,000 feet above sea level. Martin decided to hike both Colorado official and unofficial 14ers. Some don't consider a 14er official unless there is a 3,000-foot elevation gain from trailhead to summit.

On a late autumn day shortly before noon, Denver artist Lisa Martin reaches the summit of Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado, outside of Leadville. The view of the landscape from the top is saturated with fall colors -- vibrant oranges and yellows.

Martin finds a spot on the summit facing east -- Pike’s Peak is visible in the very far distance -- and pulls out containers of paintbrushes and acrylic paints from her backpack. She lays down plastic to prevent paint from getting on the mountain. Then she sits on the ground, one leg folded over the other, and begins to paint on a one-foot-by-two-foot wooden board.

“I started to paint on my lap because I don’t have to carry up an easel,” Martin says as she situates herself.

Most people who climb up Colorado’s 14,000-foot-high mountains and snap photographs from the peaks, but 25-year-old Martin is on a different mission: to paint from the top of every one of those 53 mountains.

Extreme painting

It’s an extreme form of “plein air” painting, which in French means “in the open air.”

“Doing plein air painting is really interesting because you capture what is actually there in the surroundings,” Martin says. “It’s more about the experience and the process of painting.”

As she begins to paint her view of Pike’s Peak, other hikers stop to watch.

“Who are you?” a male hiker asks. “Are you someone special?”

Martin says the people who stop to watch her work are usually respectful, but can sometimes be distracting.

“It’s kind of hard to focus on two things at once,” Martin says. “And I’m in a hurry to get done.”

Challenges of painting in thin air

She wants to move faster than Mother Nature. Clouds can shift without notice, altering the shadows cast below, and dangerous storms can move in quickly.

“I don’t want to be up there longer than I have to,” she says.

Martin spent last winter practicing speed painting. She doesn’t want to spend more than 45 minutes to complete one of her works.

“I learn a lot from having to paint so quickly,” Martin says. “It’s like a brain exercise for me.”

The artist's record for the fastest she’s had to complete a painting is 10 minutes. It began to snow as soon as Martin reached the peak of Mount Yale and she had to work really fast to get the picture finished before heading down the trail to safety.

While winter weather isn’t conducive to painting, Martin is interested in capturing different seasons.

“Paint isn’t supposed to be kept below 50 degrees, but I want to try and figure out a way to make it work,” Martin says. “I’d like to learn how to use crampons and take a few friends who are mountain guys with me to try it.”

After 50 minutes at the top of Elbert, snowflakes start to fall. The change of moisture in the air keeps the paint from drying. Martin must carry the completed painting down the mountain in her arms to let it dry off.

The artist’s clothes are splattered with paint from previous hikes. They resemble something the famous abstract artist Jackson Pollock might have created -- a contrast to her own figurative picture of the mountain landscape.

“Every single time I go, I get more paint on myself,” Martin says.

Art came first, then hiking

As she descends, Martin talks about her life.

A native of Fruita near Grand Junction, Martin says she knew she wanted to be an artist by second grade.

Her love for hiking came later.

“My very first fourteener was Bierstadt and that was in 2011,” Martin says. “I wasn’t acclimated to the altitude very well. So it wasn’t my best fourteener. But I enjoyed it enough to try it again.”

During the that hike, southwest of Mt. Evans in Clear Creek County, Martin got the inspiration for her project.

She says she has since become addicted to painting at 14,000 feet.

“It’s a huge challenge, mentally, physically, artistically too,” Martin says.

As of November, Martin has hiked and painted from the peaks of 13 mountains. She is currently sharing the artwork online. Her goal is to complete all 53 fourteeners by the end of 2016 and show them in an exhibition. She plans to donate a portion of any proceeds to trail conservation.

One of Martin’s fourteener paintings is now being auctioned off to benefit a fellow hiker, Maggie Marzonie, whose 3-year-old son is battling cancer. Bidding is open through a Facebook event page called "Bierstadt Climb for Maggie and Colton," until Nov. 28