We had the good fortune of connecting with Leslie Kim and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leslie, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
When I started Dynamite Starfish, I had no idea that I was starting a business. At the time, I was working full time at a graphic design studio and was craving creative work. After my normal work day at the studio, I would come home and create illustrations with black ink and a tiny brush about things around town that had caught my eye, little epiphanies, and overheard phrases. Around that time, I also started rock climbing. As someone who created artwork using combinations of simple images and words, climbing was huge source of inspiration. The terminology and the humor was endlessly inspiring, and the style I created in wasn’t really around in climbing. At first, I just had a handful of drawings that I posted online for my friends would enjoy. A number of friends asked me put the designs on t-shirts, which at first I was very reluctant to do, but finally obliged. Having learned how to screen print in college, I rolled up my sleeves and printed the first batch of tees in my apartment living room, drying the ink with a tiny handheld heat gun. I hand painted every bloody finger on each tee, too. One of the climbing gyms nearby was nice enough to let a totally unknown climbing artist come and sell her tees at their gym one evening, and that’s how the business was started! I continued to table at climbing gyms and festivals, and eventually traveled all around the country to sell my tees. The tees I create have always had a give-back program, even before I knew that was a trend. I sat with my drawings, wondering if it was okay to create art about climbing and potentially increase traffic to the areas that I loved. Before I sold a single shirt, I started reaching out to local conservation organizations and nonprofits that did work on the ground to maintain trails and access and clean up our climbing areas. Since Day 1, we’ve always donated a portion of our profits to these organizations. My business also does what it can to help increase awareness about outdoor ethics and practices. It’s hard to get people to care a little more about themselves and their environment, but it’s a worthy cause to me. Dynamite Starfish grew organically into what it is today by weaving together the creative aspect of the business – making art about the funny, joyful, and sometimes sad experiences of climbing, and the give-back aspect of the business which gives back to our climbing communities by way of donation and education. Though I had no real intention of starting a business when I first started Dynamite Starfish, I’m proud to say that it has become one, and is one whose practices I can stand behind.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
To me, art has always been my way of processing thoughts and emotions, along with writing. I’ve been journaling and creating art for as long as I can remember. It is often the way I make peace with the world and understand my circumstances. I was always discouraged from being a professional artist by my family, who insisted that there was no living to made as one. In college, I studied biology and although I was a pretty good student, I found myself being much more interested in art and how it has affected our culture throughout time. I made the switch from science student to design student in Australia, where I lived and studied for one year. As it turns out, the school I attended had a great design program and built the foundation for me to have a career in graphic design. Design was my way of compromising with my parents. I could do something that was creative, but it was also a trade, so I’d also be able to find a job. Since I was young, I’ve always known that working in an office wouldn’t be the right path for me, but I did it anyways. I stayed late at the studio to finish up projects and do the best that I possibly could. My mental health was suffering and so was my physical health. I began rock climbing again as a way to remedy my physical health, and I began to create art again to help my mental health. As I began to create more art, I was reminded how much I loved doing it, and was inspired to start showing at group shows and local art walks. The art I created was very unrefined and often came from the deepest and darkest places of my soul. But over time, I learned how to create art that was more graceful than the raw deposits of my emotions, and my mental health also seemed to get better as I learned to do this. Just the act of creating very honest art, showing it, and learning from that experience was what led to greater self-discovery for me. Even though it is difficult to be honest with yourself and put that honest work out into the open, the benefits of doing so were so great, that it drove me to do more of it. Creating art for the climbing community has also been an interesting exercise in controlling my ego. I want to create art that makes people laugh, and in the end, a product that makes people happy. So many times, that means that I need to remove my own ego from the work. I can lead my audience in a general direction that I believe is positive for people, and say “no” to certain ideas and directions that I believe are destructive, but I’ve learned that my own personal opinions and beliefs are often not what’s most important. I still create my own, personal artwork when I feel the desire to, but for the most part, the art I create is primarily about sharing experiences with the people who have supported me on my journey here.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, I’m fairly new to the Denver area, but have traveled here quite a bit. Chautauqua Park and hiking/climbing the Flatirons is one of the first things I did in the area, and is still something I’d recommend to travelers and friends. These days, my partner and I spend a lot of time getting into cold water, so we enjoy Boulder Creek for that, and the alpine lakes up in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to give a shoutout to Kenji Harotounian from Friends of Joshua Tree! When I was first looking for an organization to give back to, the Friends of Joshua Tree was the first organization I found. I sent them an email, and Kenji called me back the next day and we ended up chatting for over an hour. I appreciate his insight and time so much. I don’t think many people out there would be willing to talk on the phone to a complete stranger for that long and just give out free advice. Another shoutout should also go to the community at large. Without their contributions and support, I would not have the confidence or motivation to create the work I do. So everyone who has sent me messages supporting my work, or had conversations with me at my table, and even those who have said not-so-nice things are in many ways appreciated.
Images courtesy of Cody Kaemmerlen, Zach Johnson, and Tia Stark.