Runner, painter, philosopher, author, life coach: Bruce Katlin is all these things and more. Perhaps he is most passionate about running and painting and especially doing those two things – at the same time. “The artistic passion and the pragmatic side link up,” he says.
Katlin spoke at the Pecha Kucha session held at the end of the Paseo art event in September. Pecha Kucha is Japanese for chitchat and refers to an event in which each speaker shows 20 slides for 20 seconds apiece. Those people lucky enough to hear Katlin speak that night know that he has intentionally combined running and painting, while looking for a solution to a life-long struggle with anxiety and depression.
Although he had submitted his 20 slides in advance for Pecha Kucha, he didn’t decide until an hour before the presentation exactly what he would say; he was hesitant to be totally honest about his struggle. As the time came closer, he made the decision to reveal himself and tell the whole story of his search and the solution he has found.
It turns out – unlikely as it seems – long-distance running and creativity can work together perfectly. “I found that when I put these two things together, when the endorphins are firing, when the mandala and the prefrontal cortex are engaged in that kind of Zen zone of creating anything, I don’t have to think about the pragmatic side. I just want to paint … “ he says.
Katlin has been running long distances throughout his life and has had a long-standing interest in art. Growing up in Philadelphia, he wanted to be a painter. He says he was in an awful school district, but had the good fortune to find a great art teacher.
While his parents were supportive of his interest in art, his early efforts were not well received. One of his first artistic endeavors was to paint the Declaration of Independence on the wall, knowing that his parents were planning to put up new wallpaper. He thought they would be impressed. It turns out that they were planning to put up a sheer, see-through wallpaper. They were not amused, and Katlin was punished.
Along with an incident that involved writing on a shower curtain with a Sharpie marker, for which he was also punished, Katlin lost his passion for art.
He pursued his interests in acting, and that eventually led him to do coaching and corporate training, first in New York and then in Chicago. Katlin had wanted to come to Taos for 40 years, since he first saw a Warren Miller film featuring skiing in Taos. When his wife suggested an anniversary trip to Santa Fe, Katlin agreed, as long as they could also go to Taos. He says, when he crossed the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, he fell to his knees in tears and said, “I’m moving here.” A year later, he was here.
While in Taos, he became more interested in trail running and painting. He found himself having to choose between a long run and an afternoon of painting. Then he hit on the idea of doing both together. Running has the effect of calming him and helping him balance the excitement he feels about painting.
His first attempts were anything but successful. He tried to take all the gear he needed to run and paint, and he decided he would film the whole adventure, too. At 50 pounds, his backpack was way too heavy. Katlin says that, by time he had run with a heavy pack up to 11,000 feet, he could barely lift a paint brush, let alone paint.
Not one to give up easily, Katlin says, “I was going to make this work. I was going to run, paint and build brain plasticity, while increasing endorphins and serotonin levels in the brain, and I didn’t get that on the therapist’s couch.”
Over time, he experimented with new approaches to lighten the pack. He left water jars at home and constructed a paint box made of foam core and a lightweight easel that lessened the load by 10 pounds. He became increasingly flexible to accommodate the chaotic elements of nature.
His first painting done on Yerba Trail was complete with insects that dive-bombed the canvas and forever became part of the painting.
Katlin’s running adventures have taken him on a 22-mile round-trip route that included summiting Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the state. From that run, he painted “Massive Mini-me,” which shows the contrast between how small he is in comparison with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
There are dangers to combining these two passions. Katlin says one time he was overcome by turpentine fumes and almost fell off a ledge. Recently, he visited Chaco Canyon. While ascending the trail to Pueblo Alto, above the ruin of the Kin Kletso great house, he had to pass through a narrow passage high up in the rock cliffs. He became stuck in the passage, hung up by his 48-by-36-inch-tall canvas. Katlin had to stop, remove his canvas from the pack and turn it vertically so he could pass through the opening.
Even during the winter, Katlin pursues his twin passions. He has been experimenting with snowshoes made especially for running and also backcountry skis to take him up to Williams Lake. He says one of the biggest challenges of winter painting is keeping his fingers warm and dealing with the wind that can scatter sparkling snow into the still-wet oil paints on his canvas.
Extreme conditions and difficult challenges don’t stop Katlin. He says, “The more intense the run, the more intense the creativity.”
As always, his goal is to be present, calm and focused.
In addition to painting, Katlin is a life coach, working with adults and teenagers. He still occasionally travels to New York to hold corporate trainings on giving presentations and other skills. While in Taos, Katlin volunteers as a mentor with SOMOS and at the Adult Learning Center.
His book, titled “Birds Like Us, The Pi Phillecroix Story,” was published in 2014 and tells the story of a bird that is unable to fly due to her handicap. She walks from her home in Paris to the shores of England to find a doctor who may know the cure for her dying father. Katlin intends for the book to be a message of hope to all of those who feel inadequate and different at times, encouraging their journey.
Like the bird in his story, Katlin thinks he has found what he has been seeking. He says, “Color is exploding from the inside out, and I do believe that I finally found the peace and wellness I’ve been looking for.”