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Joe Iurato’s Little Climbers

Joe Iurato is a sommelier (some-mel-yay), French for an accredited wine expert, a former editor for Urban Climber, an artist, a father and our first partner in the Alpinist Artist Series. Recently Alpinist got a chance to interview Iurato about The Climbers Series, his latest climbing-related art project, where he leaves painted stones and cutouts around an urban environment for strangers to find and keep.

Alpinist: We’ve been following your latest project online, where did this come from?

Joe Iurato: The Climbers Series. I’m trying to think of the best way to explain it. I got laid off in 2008 and fell back on my art pretty hard. It picked me up. In a sense I found myself falling out of climbing and I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was because of everything that had gone on. But it comes full circle. When you love something enough it never goes away and you have to motivate yourself to find a way back to it. So, I started painting these figures on rocks, and I left them places where people could find them and take them home. Then I started doing these cutouts and leaving them around the city interacting with their environment. Climbing on the sides of buildings up cracks and signs and what I found was that I was motivating myself to get back to the heart of climbing, something that I love. It [The Climbers Series] has been inspiring me. It’s one of those projects that is really personal. I’m not doing this for any other reason but myself. I think I needed to step back from everything.

It started with a cutout of John Bachar, who is one of my heroes, climbing Midnight Lightning. That was the first one that I started painting around. I’d paint it on rocks and leave them in New York City, then post on Instagram with hints for someone to come and take it home. So they were all small pieces, then I started thinking, I should do different climbers, in different positions.

I started looking at the city the same way I’d looked at it when I was skateboarding, like I look at rock. You see things other people don’t see. You learn to look at things differently. I’ve been really enjoying running around with these climbers. I’ll see something that was meant for one of these pieces, just like a natural line in the city for this little climber. Its been really rewarding, and I’m looking forward to getting back outside, climbing this fall. My art has really just led me back to climbing.

What is the process for making these? You use stencils, but how do you make them?

Basically, the process is the same as in all the art I’ve done whether it involves a big wall or a canvas piece. It starts with a photograph, and then I print out multiple copies that I draw on and cut out to make each layer. It’s an old form of printing. What’s nice for me is I have no shortage of photographs. I have a ton of photographer friends, a bunch of cats who’ll let me use their pictures. I print them out small, like six inches, spray-paint onto cardboard and then put them up with an adhesive. Sometimes I put them outside in a more natural environment. But what I’d like to make known, is that when I do that I’ll never destroy a piece of nature. And, I make sure that when I put these up everything is biodegradable and very temporary. So maybe it’s about the interaction with the object, or the photograph or just me getting out, but it is all very temporary.

You’re a sommelier, street artist and a climber. How did you get into all these different things?

I don’t know if it’s cause I can’t sit still or I like to learn, but I’ll tell you what: I find solitude in so many things. I can go to the mountains and find peace there or I can go to NYC and find peace there. I can go out and surf. One of the things I fell in love with while studying art is wine. I was working in a restaurant paying my way through school, and I just fell in love with wine. To me it was an art unto itself. I went out to California, toured some vineyards, came back and said, You know what, I’m going to do the art thing on my own and I’m going to study wine. So I went off to New York City and I studied wine and became a sommelier that is only a fancy word for a wine guy. Well I am accredited by an organization that basically says I know what I’m talking about. And from there I…

Sorry, today [September 11th] is always tough. In 2001, just before the trade center and everything happened, I was studying wine and I was working in Windows on the World volunteering in a wine class there. I became a sommelier, started working in the field, traveling to Italy bringing wines back for a portfolio. My career was on a roll. Then in 2004, I met the publisher-to-be of Urban Climber, and I don’t know. I did a career change. I strayed from the question there but these are all things that are really important to me. I like to express myself through my art. Climbing is also a form of expression. There’s the wine thing. I have two kids at home and love doing the family thing, being a daddy. I need all these different things. I couldn’t just do one. I think it is important to branch out and have different experiences. You know if you just climb all the time, and that’s all you do, I think you miss out on a lot. Or if I just sat here and painted all day long I would miss out on a lot.

I try to keep a balance. And everything that is important to me I try to keep in my life.

How’d you get into street art?

I’ve been drawing for a long time. Street art came about while working at the magazine. It was my first job really in NYC and on my lunch break I would go out and be inspired by Shepard Fairey, Banksy and all those guys. And I would see their work up close, and watch it change. I’d go to the same spots and see what was there yesterday and what’s there today. And I got to point where I decided I was going to go out and start doing my own small pieces. Insignificant, but getting my hands wet. And then once I got laid off all I could do was sit down and paint. And I started cutting different stencils, trying different inks, getting on bigger walls and it was a lot like climbing. It caught me like a bug. I couldn’t stop.

I would never have thought that you could go out and make art a career, which is why I left art school. It just either happens or it doesn’t and lately, for me, I’m fortunate that people have taken notice of the work and I do a lot of gallery shows, commissions and walls.

When you were in art school is this what you thought your art would be like?

Oh, no no no no. There are no art classes that are going to teach you graffiti and street art. But I did study graphic design for a little while. I went to work for Movado watches doing billboards while I was in school. I couldn’t deal with sitting there taking someone else’s creative direction the whole time. I just can’t do it if it doesn’t feel right. Or maybe you just have to climb that ladder but I wasn’t prepared to do that at the time. I was studying graphic design, and I went through 3 1/2 years. After the magazine I contemplated going back to get my degree and teaching art but that didn’t happen.

How’d you start climbing?

I’m from Jersey. And I came from being a skater, doing some partying. And my wife, then girlfriend, and I were looking for something else. So we went indoors. We went to the New Jersey Rock Gym and toproped our first day. One of the route setters there was Matt Stark and we fell to talking that first night and by the weekend I was with him in the Gunks bouldering and embarrassing myself. No exciting stories. I went to the gym once, then went outside with Matt, and have never stopped. I started making climbing videos under the name “IndeVisual” back in the day. Just short videos of me and my friends and our travels. I started traveling to festivals with these things. That’s how I wound up with Urban Climber. The publisher saw one of my videos and was like, Hey you ever write before? And I was like, No but I can try.

You got into climbing in your mid-twenties. It seems like most people get into the sport in high school or college. Do you have any advice for people just getting into the after those times?

Yeah. As far as I am concerned, I came into climbing at the right time. But, I don’t want to speak for all teenagers. But you know, you go through phases as a teenager, something strikes you, you try it have fun and you move on. Life gets in the way, work, the whole nine yards, and a lot of time you don’t hold onto those things that really were important. Being a little bit older, when you find something that really strikes you, you know it is there to stay. You have a lot of your life in order. And I think you’re in a better frame of mind when you’re older. I was climbing everyday at age twenty-six and I was the oldest in our crew. I was climbing with seventeen-year-olds but it didn’t really matter. I had so much pysche and I still do. If you really like climbing at a latter point in life, and you really fall in love with it, I think it’s a good indication that it will stay in your life.

For more information about Joe Iurato, or to purchase his Alpinist Artist Series Post Card Set, click here.
Find the latest additions to The Climbers Series here.