Idyllwild artist Neil Jenkins grew up without much interest in art.
The 64 year-old was born and raised in Wales as part of the United Kingdom’s old grammar school system.
“At 11 years of age we were streamed into groups according to exam results,” he said.
For Jenkins the emphasis was to be on science and math. Art was reserved for those placed onto another path. He spent 24 years in the British Army, rising from the rank of private to major. He worked in ballistics and artillery design while moving to such places as Cyprus, Germany, Canada and Central America.
He and his wife Donna Elliot, also an artist, met over a shared passion for the outdoors and love of learning. Their careers took them to Singapore, Chile, Mexico and Hong Kong, where Jenkins ran operations for Asian Life Insurance Co., a division of AIG Insurance.
Jenkins had been mountain marathoner, which he said typically involved teams of two covering up to 70 miles carrying gear and accumulating up to a 20,000 foot altitude gain in two days. The stress on his body was resulting in injuries, so when a specialist suggested a safer sport, his wife brought up rock climbing. When the couple left Hong Kong, they figured that it would be a good time to begin mountaineering full time.
“That was in 1997, and the combination of my love of the mountains and developing rock climbing skills proved the perfect combination,” Jenkins said. “After this the routes up mountains got more direct and much more vertical.”
Jenkins said rock climbers know they can’t climb every day, week after week, as their fingers wear out. Because he knew that he had to fill the time off from climbing with something, Jenkins decided he would paint. His wife’s asked if that didn’t require talent. Jenkins discovered he had talent, and he has continued to develop it ever since. He was 53 when he began.
“Now it takes equal importance in my life to mountaineering,” he said. “Becoming an artist has made me much more appreciative of everything around me. I seem to see more color, I have a greater appreciation of the setting of the sun over great mountains.”
Jenkins has exhibited throughout Idyllwild, but he particularly loves the mountain community’s monthly Art in the Park that runs during the summer.
“The atmosphere between the artists is amazing and, unlike most galleries, the artists are actually there,” he said. “I think I spend more time discussing techniques and ideas and trading pieces that I do selling my art.”
Jenkins and Elliot began coming to Idyllwild to climb in 1998. Wherever they were in the world, they would return to Idyllwild to vacation.
“It was on one of those climbing trips in 1998 that we bought our house,” he said.
They began living in the community in 2011.
Of all the peaks Jenkins has climbed around the world, he said the greatest memory is the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Though it is normally a very busy mountain, he and Elliot had the summit to themselves.
“I even managed to get down one knee as I proposed to Donna on top of one of the world’s most wonderful places,” he said. “Definitely have bragging rights on that one.”
Jenkins teaches as part of “smARTS,” a volunteer-run program at Idyllwild School. Operating under the auspices of the Idyllwild PTA, it offers weekly art lessons to every elementary school student. The program also provides an elective course for middle-school students.
“Of the many things I have done all over the world, ‘smARTS’ is probably the most rewarding and satisfying,” Jenkins said.
Patrick Brien is executive director of the Riverside Arts Council.
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