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Climbing In The Abstract

The UK-based artist Ali Mulroy became a climber literally by accident—she stumbled into a rock gym, sparking a passion now at the core of her art.

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The climber and artist Ali Mulroy (@ART_OF_CLIMBING_) graduated from the University of Westminster in London in 2005 with a bachelor’s of art in illustration. For the past 13 years, she’s specialized in fine-art portraiture, working primarily in oils, and has exhibited with several galleries throughout London. In 2006, Mulroy won the Winsor and Newton Young Artist of the Year, awarded by the Society of Women Artists. She’s since become a committee member of the same society.

A few years after graduating, Mulroy was delivering a painting of hers to a warehouse to enter in a competition. Serendipitously, she went into the wrong building, and instead found herself in a climbing gym. “The wall was so chilled out, the staff was friendly, there were loads of people sitting around listening to music, going outside for a smoke—it felt like art school!” she says. Mulroy returned the next day, and has been climbing regularly ever since.

The sport soon became a source of inspiration for Mulroy. “By the time I’d started climbing, I’d been a professional artist for many years,” she says. “I forgot the hours of learning, the micro-adjustments, the endless flow of analysis that goes into art. I was almost on autopilot.” Climbing reminded her to be more present in the process, and to be unafraid of experimentation. “Climbing is pretty much the art of learning from your mistakes,” she says.

Missing the immediacy of drawing and illustration from her earlier years, Mulroy wanted to try something new to reignite her creativity. Basing a side project on her other passion seemed like a natural course of action, and, in 2019, The Art of Climbing was born. “I find creating these works so enjoyable—this project awards such freedom for expression,” she says. “I hope—and on a good day, I can see—that this project is helping me grow as an artist. I definitely feel far more confident and energized within the creative process.”

Via pen, pencil, paint, ink, paper, and wood, Mulroy’s multimedia exhibition captures the soul of our sport.  —Delaney Miller

Xian via pen and pencil on ink and paper

Mulroy’s friend Xian climbs The Shield (7b/V8) in Chironico, Switzerland. “Xian managed to balance trying hard and pushing her limits with fun and lightness,” says Mulroy. “I used the powerful yet playful colors to demonstrate the balance I see in her as a person and climber.” In this work, the repetition of pattern and lines—the ink blotches and pencil markings beyond the boulder—create movement and energy. Mulroy first prepared the ink background and then drew over it, taking two days to complete the piece.

Night Sessions via pen and pencil on ink and paper

“This was inspired by a quiet, chilled night session … ” says Mulroy. After a COVID-19 lockdown, she and friends drove to Southern Sandstone, a bouldering and toprope zone in southeastern England. “We wanted to stay outside climbing together for as long as possible into the night,” she says. The dark and the light in this piece separate the climber and the rock from all else, creating a temporary escape from a world that was (and still is) in the grips of a horrific viral pandemic.

Board climbing via pen and pencil on ink and paper

Spray walls straddle the intersection of tension and dynamism, power and subtlety, which is what makes them so difficult: You can neither 100 percent power through nor 100 percent finesse a board problem, but instead need a strong dose of both. The end result is the appearance of weightlessness, as the climber glides upward through seeming impossibilities, limbs flying, teeth clenching, fingers squeezing. The ink blotches used here magnify the surreality found in the moments when the training comes together and the move somehow goes. Mulroy took about two days to complete this piece.

Mountains via pen and pencil on ink and paper

An unspecified range in Switzerland—a piece commissioned by a friend of Mulroy’s who’d recently moved to the country and was awestruck by its Alpine majesty. Working with a sense of magical realism that she saw in her friend’s response to the Swiss Alps, Mulroy layered the jagged peaks in blankets of snow to create depth as well as height, with just a splash of warmth to draw the viewer’s gaze.