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Hidden Talent: Wild Walls manager Todd Mires expresses true self through painting

Editor’s note: Welcome to Hidden Talents, an occasional series profiling local residents who are known for one thing, but also really good at something else. If you know of someone who fits that bill, reach out to Azaria Podplesky at azariap@spokesman.com.

Weekdays, it’s likely Todd Mires can be found at Wild Walls.

At the front desk, there are climbers to check in and rental shoes and harnesses to put away, and, though he’s the general manager of the climbing gym, he cleans the bathrooms, too.

If he’s not on the gym floor, there’s a good chance Mires is in the office, where he takes care of payroll, orders supplies and works on plans to expand the gym.

Being the general manager requires a lot of precise, detail-oriented work that feeds into Mires’ methodical side.

“He’s very thoughtful and thorough to waste as little time as possible at the gym,” Wild Walls head instructor Phil Sanders, Mires’ longtime friend and former roommate, said. “Whether we’re dealing with a literal, physical problem at the gym or taking care of an issue, he stops, weighs the factors and figures out the smoothest, simplest path of least resistance.”

Even on his days off, Mires can often be found at the gym, only with a different goal in mind.

Upstairs, past a set of lockers and in a vacant room in the Armory Building, which houses Wild Walls, half a dozen of Mires’ paintings are propped on paint-splattered plastic cups.

Dozens more of varying sizes lean against the walls.

With the sounds of Wild Walls seemingly worlds away, it’s here that Mires can focus on putting the finishing touches on his paintings, applying a matte finish and painting the edges of each canvas.

Mires paints in his home studio but finds it easier to finish multiple pieces simultaneously in the space at the Armory.

For Mires, painting is a practice in spontaneity that allows him to let out a side of himself that he doesn’t always feel comfortable sharing.

“Like everyone else, I have a lot of defenses … being stoic and being methodical and being rigid, but I don’t think my true self is really that way,” he said. “Painting is the one avenue I can use to express my true self.”

Mires studied fashion design at the Art Institute in Seattle from 2001 to 2003, and it was while in Seattle that he started experimenting with painting.

But he’s only been painting consistently for the past five or six years, thanks in part to yoga.

During one class, specifically while in half pigeon pose, it was like a light switch had been flipped in Mires’ head.

“When I was practicing yoga, I would be thinking about colors and composition and it would pop in my head for no apparent reason,” he said. “I think yoga does spur some real openness in people on all levels that, for me, at least, led to getting back to consistently being creative.”

After class, with a head full of color, texture and composition, Mires goes home and paints. He’s converted a bedroom into his studio and said he can easily have 10 pieces in the works at any given time.

Mires mostly works with acrylic paint, and each piece varies wildly from the last.

The piece called “11.08.16,” for instance, features a smooth, smoky brown upper half while jagged layers of icy blues and whites dominate the lower half of the canvas.

In comparison, “06.20.17” features a central mass of layers of whites, oranges, browns and blacks, its edges blurred in a way that makes it appear as if the textured mass is bursting forth from the solid gray background.

The title of each piece is the date it was completed. Mires, a self-taught artist, doesn’t give his paintings standard names because he doesn’t want to lead viewers to believe that there is an idea behind the painting. Becausehe works spontaneously, there is none.

“I don’t want to seem pretentious and put something on there that makes it seem like there’s this deeper meaning to it,” he said. “I go with the date because I feel like it’s a nice way to record where I was at in that time and that space. This is a very concrete aesthetic reflection of my headspace at that time.”

In this way, he leaves each piece open to the interpretation of the viewer, though he doesn’t think it’s necessary to read too much into his work.

People have told Mires they see images in his paintings, but he doesn’t want viewers to feel like they have to justify liking a piece by developing a perceived meaning behind it.

“I have this saying that I like that really applies to how I view art and view my work, ‘Beauty is a feeling,’” he said. “I think that’s all you need to think about is ‘Do I feel a sense of beauty from looking at it?’ It doesn’t need to necessarily mean anything more than that, and that’s what I want from my work is to elicit that feeling.”

Though he’s inspired by landscapes and images of space, Mires doesn’t set out to replicate those inspirations in his paintings.

For Mires, the process of painting is a therapy in spontaneity so he approaches each canvas without a game plan. It feels to Mires like a treasure hunt.

“You start painting and it’s almost like you’re digging and eventually as you’re applying the paint, or digging, then you’re going to reveal this treasure,” he said. “I think all painting or forms of art are a way to achieve what I call significant form. Once you find that significant form, or treasure, then you have to stop.”

But knowing when to stop working on a painting is the hardest part for Mires, who said he has ruined a lot of paintings because his ego chimed in.

“Often times, underneath whatever painting you see, there were four other paintings where I got to a stopping point … and my ego stepped in and said ‘You can make it better,’ ” he said. “I did this one thing and ruined it and then I realized I ruined it then I go ‘OK, I have to start over again.’ ”

Once Mires decides a painting is ruined, he takes off all the paint and begins working on a new piece. He doesn’t try to recreate the previous piece as he knows it was coming to him in the moment and that any attempt to repeat the work would feel contrived.

In the past several years, Mires has shown his work at the Bozzi Collection Gallery, the Liberty Building, Nectar Tasting Room, the Kress Gallery in River Park Square, LeftBank Wine Bar and the downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library.

He’s also shown at Studio 107 in Coeur d’Alene and AXIS Pioneer Square in Seattle.

Last year, Seattle-based musician Dreissk used one of Mires’ paintings as the cover art for his third album “to nowhere,” and in a full-circle moment, Mires’ work is currently hanging at Yarrow Hot Yoga and Wellness Studio.

For the last three years, Mires’ paintings have also been featured in Terrain, an annual juried art show in Spokane.

Terrain co-founder Luke Baumgarten said the jurors, a panel of working artists and academics that changes every year, never have to debate for too long about whether to include Mires in the show.

Rather, the group’s only struggle is deciding how many of Mires’ pieces to accept.

“Sometimes the jury conversation with other artists that work in those sorts of milieus are like ‘We should put one of these in,’ ” he said, referring to forms of non-representational art. “With Todd, it’s like ‘We can’t have all these in, guys. There’s a big show. There’s a lot of artists. We can’t put every piece in.’ ”

But this boost in creativity has come at a price.

Over the last few years, painting has absorbed much of the passion Mires once had for climbing.

“I used to, on my days off, want to go climb or do something like that and now I just want to work on my art,” he said.

Movies like “K2” and “Cliffhanger” sparked his interest in climbing around the same time a 12-year-old Mires found his father’s climbing gear in the basement.

He and his father first went rappelling at Minnehaha Park, then the pair started climbing together.

He was a competitive climber for about five years, traveling to competitions in Washington, Oregon, California, Montana and Colorado and competed at nationals in Seattle and Denver.

During a trip to Mountain Gear, employees pointed Mires toward Wild Walls, and the gym has been a part of his life ever since.

He started working at Wild Walls at 15 (he cleaned the bathrooms then, too) and has been the gym’s general manager for the past six years.

“I like working here and taking care of the gym because it helped me so much when I was a kid,” he said. “It was kind of life changing in that way so I think I owe the gym that. That’s why I’m pretty dedicated to always trying to improve it and keep it going.”

Mires still works out, but he no longer sees climbing, something he used to do about five days a week, as an addiction.

He wonders if that’s partially due to the sport not being as stimulating after 23 years, but he also knows he’s not the type of person to spread himself too thin between passions.

“I have a pretty addictive personality so if I like to do something, I like to do it a lot,” he said. “I’m definitely not one of those people who enjoys lots of different things.”

With climbing on the back burner, Mires has turned his attention toward painting, the only thing he’s found thus far that allows him to release his creative energy.

“It’s pretty messy, pretty frustrating sometimes but it’s also very satisfying when you do get to those moments where you’ve created something that you’re proud of,” he said.

Over time, Mires feels like his work has gotten more refined, while still following a similar thread.

“I don’t even necessarily consciously know what it is I’m going for but I always go back to that same style,” he said. “It’s always getting refined the more I paint. I think I’ve always been working in that direction from the beginning.”

After several years of featuring Mires’ work in Terrain, Baumgarten has noticed that refinement too.

“It’s less variation, in a good way,” he said. “He’s honing in on what his personal vision is and making pieces around that… He’s becoming more confident and sure of his artistic vision in a way that’s really, really awesome to see.”

Mires agrees that he’s gaining more confidence in himself as an artist, but he feels like he has more work to do before he reaches his goal of creating pieces that are “less busy, more focused, more concise,” work that more closely resembles the primarily black and white work of Japanese mixed-media artist Takesada Matsutani.

“That minimalist work takes a lot of confidence because I feel like when you’re not as confident, you put in a lot of distraction,” he said. “I do feel like I’m tipping over a little bit more towards getting confident and removing all these distractions to get more focused on what I feel like is the significance of the painting, but I feel like I have a lot more work to do for that.”

While he works to find a more minimalist style in his art, Mires also hopes to one day regain the excitement he once felt toward climbing.

No matter how he divides his time between the two, he appreciates the way both outlets have impacted his life.

“At the gym, I have to remember a lot of things and be as organized as I can be and be really focused all the time and methodical,” he said. “My creative side is the opposite of that so it creates a nice balance.”


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