Peak Dancers Donna Elliot and Neil Jenkins at their booth in Art in the Park.
Photo by Holly Parsons

Idyllwild working artists Donna Elliot and Neil Jenkins bring a unique purview to life. Both global travelers, mountain climbers and ardent hikers, this dynamic duo now direct their broad-spectrum imagination and focus to include multi-medium art. Elliot is originally from St. Louis, and Jenkins hails from Wales. They originally settled in Idyllwild to be close to one of their favorite climbing destinations.

A lot of their life is about adventures and their art is no different. They met in the UK and both ended up in Singapore. Jenkins returned to the UK, then they ended up together in Hong Kong. Looking for the new and challenging has defined their relationship, and they hope that never changes.

“We might be considered unlikely artists,” muses Jenkins. “While sitting in our Bohemian house in Hong Kong, we decided to stop working and go full-time climbing. But we knew we couldn’t climb every day, so I said to Donna, ‘I think I’ll become an artist!’” To which she replied, “Don’t you need talent for that?

“In the beginning, art was just used to fill the time when I couldn’t climb,” said Jenkins, who added, “It taught me more colorful or varied ways to express myself, and the artistic population of Idyllwild has had a profound effect as a metaphor for the kaleidoscope of life. I’ve also learned that I don’t really appreciate how hard something is to do until I try to do it myself, then the difficulty becomes obvious to me.”

How has becoming artists changed him? Jenkins responds, “My background was in math, military ballistics and the similar field of life insurance marketing, so professionally, I was far away from the arts. One thing I notice is I see colors better, and one time when we were climbing the Pennine mountain range which runs up the spine of England, I could see in the distance smoke hanging low above tall chimney stacks and I said to Donna, ‘Oh look, there’s an inversion layer.’ So, Donna immediately quotes something from Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times.’ ‘It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled.’

“Today,” states Jenkins, “I would have seen the serpents.”

Elliot’s vivid eye also noticed a change in Jenkins. “As an art lover from an early age, when we got together and toured galleries, Neil kind of acknowledged the art while breezing through,” she said. “Now he stops, studies details, observes techniques and brush strokes, and truly appreciates art.”

Elliot’s background, while decidedly more creative, dovetails with Jenkins in several ways. “I’ve always been somewhat creative from an early age — making art, photography, writing, creating posters. When I began creating art after retirement to sell, it takes one to a whole different level. Joining the Art Alliance challenged me to up my game, and competitions pushed the envelope. I started designing mixed-media greeting cards, mixed-media art — alcohol ink paintings led to textile art followed by digital art.”

How has art changed her? “My jobs had been office based, and I used the outdoors to provide balance,” said Elliot. “When I retired, I was mostly outdoors for my life focus and art offered the balance. The photos I was taking became more texture-based versus landscape-based. My quest for quality meant I always strove to learn from the best, appreciating other artists’ developing journey. I use writing as a creative outlet. Reading the classics and award-winning novels for decades gave me a feel for what good writing looks like and informed my own creative writing journey.”

When Peak Dancers first began selling their art in 2015, they were completely unaware of what a professional stall should look like. What resulted was implausibly makeshift. The Lilac Festival was their first foray into showing their work and they employed very basic displays which included garden trellises.

What has becoming an artist taught them? Jenkins replied, “Nobody’s perfect, not even me. The great thing about art is there is a medium that fits whatever extreme of mood I’m in and everything in between. If I was in any school now, I would’ve been diagnosed as ADHD; I was precocious and healthily energetic. I phoned my sister today and neither of us could get a word in edgewise; it’s a family thing. Dad was the artist with lots of man caves — he did acrylic painting, glass engraving, marketry. He could turn his hand to anything; Mom was the math whiz.”

Elliot shared when asked about her climbing history, “I first began climbing in Idyllwild in the early ’70s with the hot shot climbers, then we moved onto Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas. I was 18 when I first backpacked through and climbed the Grand Canyon, and it became a solo annual spiritual retreat that I still seek out. Even as a working adult in the UK, I would come alone to Idyllwild first and climb San Jacinto and follow that with a three- to five-day camping trip in the Grand Canyon. The exquisite beauty of remote locations gave me an inner strength and peace I would take back into my life each year. The grandeur provided a perspective on the insignificance of so much of life’s standard fare.”

Regarding involvement with smARTS, Jenkins confessed, “I’ve never done anything as worthwhile and rewarding as the teaching we do with young children. I’m not a volunteer by nature but I come out of the smARTS sessions more exhausted than I am after I’ve climbed a mountain, and the smile on my face is immovable.

“I think the joy of teaching in the smARTS program lies in the transaction. We bring in the media and the concept, and the kids introduce us to an unforeseen world filled with joy. Because there are no rules outside of the basic physics of the medium, and because no inhibitions exist, they knock the socks off conventional approaches.

“Artistry can’t be taught and we can’t teach imagination, but they don’t need that. They’re already artists with creative imaginations. What we do for one hour a week is set them free and in so doing set ourselves free. The children light up for smARTS and carry us into their unlimited imagination. With no inhibitions they help one another, together entering the effervescent world of color. “

Peak Dancers Art is available monthly at Art in the Park fairs, Higher Grounds Gallery, La Casita Restaurant and Art Alliance of Idyllwild events. For frequently updated images of their most recent work, check out Peakdancers.com or Peakdancersart Facebook page.

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