Climber. Director. Painter. Photographer. Renan Ozturk is a man of many talents. His new film Meru premiered at Sundance. The same week, his paintings opened at Salt Lake City’s Gallery MAR. It’s been a big year. He took a few minutes to discuss his art and travels with us before heading off on another adventure.
THE CLYMB: You’ve had some huge artistic successes lately—Your film, “Meru” premiered at Sundance and got some great press including a hit in The LA Times, your paintings at Gallery MAR were excellent—what’s been the best part of all this for you personally?
Renan Ozturk: Just all these things coming together, a lot of different art forms, things that weren’t necessarily planned. I started as a painter, which eventually led to filmmaking so being able to share the film at Sundance and to have my paintings in a gallery on Main Street, that were created on the climb as well, and have that climb be something that was in itself a form of artistic expression, it feels like it’s all really coming together.
I feel lucky that it’s worked out that way—working with incredible people like Conrad and Jimmy, Jimmy’s wife on the film, and then obviously Jimmy and Conrad on the climb.
THE CLYMB: Were these realizations of specific goals or the product of seized opportunities?
Renan Ozturk: I think it’s probably seized opportunities but, also, there are lots of specific goals along the way. I think that Jimmy and I knew that with the film there was a lot of potential just because of how crazy the series of events was that led to the final realization of the climb. We had the goal of getting it into a major festival and speaking to a wider audience.
THE CLYMB: Your time on Meru’s central peak culminated in a successful summit for you, Conrad Anker, and Jimmy Chin. For readers who don’t know what you’ve been up to the last few years, could you give a brief recap of the Meru saga?
Renan Ozturk: So the film, essentially, is about a climb on Mount Meru which is considered the center of the universe in the Hindu and Buddhist religions and it’s at the headwaters of the Ganges River in India. But it’s also this peak that’s extremely beautiful that all these alpinists and climbers over time have tried—it’s become the most tried and failed upon peak in the Himalaya. I was invited to go try it with Jimmy and Conrad.
We tried it twice and had some really hard times and incredible failures. When we were about to go back for the second time, I was in a horrible accident where I almost died and Jimmy was in an avalanche where he almost died all in a four-day period. The film really dives into each of our personal stories and Conrad’s life story—which is really moving—with his family, so in the end, it becomes a story of friendship and loyalty. It’s not exactly about the climb itself.
THE CLYMB: Have the struggles of those expeditions been more of a creative hindrance or inspiration?
Renan Ozturk: Our lives are marked by trying to document what’s happening so I think when those things happened, though at the time it was really hard to think of them as creative building blocks for the film—(you know, I was unconscious for a lot of it as well so there were pretty obvious obstacles that stood in the way of achieving the final goal)—but at the same time, in the end, they comprised some of the most compelling story elements in the film.
When I look back on my life, I’ll be able to draw upon moments like that—the lowest points that we’ve struggled through—and be able to use that to further my creativity in the future.
THE CLYMB: That seems to be the way with life.
Renan Ozturk: Yeah, there’s no real separation for me—it’s all molded into the same thing—nothing’s perfect and every human on the planet has some sort of struggle they’re going through. That’s stuff they can use to craft their own narrative or shift into their own creativity, whether it’s through filmmaking or whatever they’re passionate about.
THE CLYMB: With so much diversity in your creative mediums, is one more satisfying than the others?
Renan Ozturk: No, I think they’ve all grown organically out of each other. I went to school for biology but I was really inspired by climbing—the community and the lifestyle of it. So, after school, I gave away all my belongings and hit the road without a car and just fell into the climbing community. I slowly worked my way up doing artwork side-by-side with the climbing and that artwork progressed into filmmaking because it could tell a broader story of some of these remote expeditions and the characters that I was surrounded by. So they’re all still contained within each other.
The Meru film’s a good example of that. I would hope that I could do more artwork in the future when some of these film projects aren’t as all-consuming but, at the same time, I do still make some time for it and throughout the year I’ll do at least one personal “soul trip,” as I like to call it, for climbing. On those trips I’m not just going to climb for myself but I’m trying to continue the filmmaking as well so I guess they’re all still connected.
THE CLYMB: It seems like you’ve been making a push lately to get your paintings out to people who know you primarily as an adventurer and a filmmaker. What’s the response been like from your established audience?
Renan Ozturk: It’s been pretty good! I mean those are my roots and people who know me really well know that I spent probably a period of four years traveling around where everything that I made I gave away. It’s always cool to see, when I post that kind of stuff on social media, someone pop up and be like “Hey, I’ve got an original on my wall from when you stayed at my house outside of Joshua Tree!” (or British Columbia or wherever it is), and then also seeing the wider audiences respond so well.
Just as far as the numbers go, some of the artwork that I’ve posted on my Instagram feed have been some of the most popular posts. Not to say that everything should be judged by the numbers, but that’s kind of surprising when you’d expect a pretty sunset shot of the mountains would really be the ones that are the most liked. So the response has been surprisingly good.
Part of it’s that, when I do post the artwork, often times there’s a pretty specific story behind each piece that’s connected to a climb like Meru or some other moment in my life and I’ll take the time to tell those stories. I think that’s probably what makes the difference as far as it being well received or not, rather than it being a thing that’s out of left field.
THE CLYMB: You’ve always pushed the boundaries physically and artistically. Where will you go this year and what do you hope to accomplish?
Renan Ozturk: I’ve got some big climbing goals in Alaska. I’ve got a feature documentary that I’ve been working on with Freddie Wilkinson called Sanctity of Space that incorporates adventure and exploration, and the legacy of Brad Washburn who was one of the great climbers and mountain explorers, photographers, map makers—kind of an unsung hero in the field. I just hope to find the balance between all those things—to keep telling unique stories while balancing the need to put food on the table and all of the other things that we have to do.