Nikki Frumkin is easy to recognize in the mountains. She’s the lanky blonde with a giant piece of watercolor paper strapped to her backpack. When she reaches the summit, she takes out a handful of brushes and breath-mint tin full of paint, finds a comfortable rock to sit on, and starts painting furiously. In homage to her family’s European roots, she often packs a baguette instead of a protein bar.
The Seattle-based alpinist knew from a young age that she wanted to make art. “I was always that kid with a pencil in my hand,” she remembers. “When I was growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., my earliest memories were of drawing birthday and Christmas cards. In high school, I would try to skip every class so I could go spend time in the studio.”
At 18, Frumkin enrolled in the State University of New York at New Paltz, in the Hudson River Valley. At college, she initially drew nudes, and at home, “piles of animals—stacks of puppies, puddles of kittens,” that her family fostered as part of a volunteer rescue organization.
Soon, though, her instructors encouraged her to experiment with en plein air—“in fresh air”—the outdoor painting method that arose in popularity alongside field easels during the 19th century and persists to this day.
“There’s a long tradition of outdoor painting in the Hudson River Valley,” she says, nearly understating things. The region—specifically, the Hudson River School art movement—is iconic in American art and integral to pushing the outdoor method forward. “I wasn’t climbing yet, but those lessons had a huge influence on me, even back then. I liked how I was forced to paint quickly, get creative with my tools, and take risks.”
After graduating in 2012 with two bachelor’s degrees—one in art education and one in fine arts in painting—Nikki migrated to the West Coast to teach preschool in Seattle. “I love teaching. The philosophy of the preschool where I taught was, ‘Nothing without joy,’ and I kept thinking: Why don’t we all live like this? They really encouraged students to learn through play, so that mindset was on my mind when I eventually started climbing in the Cascades, too. Because what is climbing, if not learning through play?”
“It’s like that with painting, too.”
After settling into Seattle, Nikki started bouldering. She met her boyfriend Shawn, who introduced her to mountaineering. Quickly realizing there’s a lot of downtime at camp, she started bringing a pencil and notebook to document their shared adventures. She then progressed to watercolors, ink and large sheets of paper that got larger by the trip. She started selling her work, which bought her more time to focus on her technique, craft and artistic vision. She learned more about climbing. She sold more work.
In 2016, she switched to teaching part-time, and by July 2017, she quit teaching altogether to become a full-time artist. “Going full-time freelance is terrifying,” she says. “But I’ve been so lucky to have a community that supports me in every way.” Now she paints outdoors year-round, mixing her paint with cheap vodka in the winter to keep it from freezing.
Nikki also cheerfully acknowledges the influence of generations of previous artists on her work. “Jeremy Collins was hugely inspiring for me as a young painter,” Nikki says. “He has made it clear that art can tell an important story and that it can change lives.”
For inspiration, she looks to artists like Renan Ozturk, Peter Doig, Lindsey Fox, Rachel Pohl and Sarah Uhl. “Social media has been really important for our generation of artists,” she says. “Instagram in particular has let outdoorspeople connect and share enthusiasm about our experience in a whole new way. We all love art, we all love the mountains, we all seek out suffering and beauty and landscape and joy. Art is way of figuring out how all of those experiences come together.”
Nikki’s dedication is paying off: She’s expanding her editorial portfolio, looking forward to a solo exhibition in Seattle and has surpassed 43,000 followers on Instagram. She teaches workshops, both online and in person. Her artwork can be found on chalk bags, backpacks, wallets and insoles. By all imaginable metrics, she’s crushing it.
“Nikki’s success isn’t because of luck—it’s due to talent, discipline and consistent hard work,” says Claire Giordano, a fellow Seattle-based mountain artist. “She’s one of those people who is always dreaming up some huge new ambitious project. Right now, for example, she’s working on a gigantic painting for a gallery show. It’s literally as big as my bed! She knows what she wants to achieve, and she’s working hard to get there.”
Frumkin embraces the challenge of building a career and evolving as an artist, in that in teaches her “both about art and about climbing.”
And indeed it’s both—her pursuit of painting outdoors back in New York, her ascent of boulders and mountains in Seattle—each a testament to maybe her purest ambition: getting outside.