Interview: Explore life, business, and climbing with Leslie of Dynamite Starfish

9 min read.

Leslie Kim of Dynamite Starfish
Photos from Leslie Kim, Dynamite Starfish

Leslie is an artist, designer, and climber. In 2015, she launched Dynamite Starfish, a climbing lifestyle brand with tees that show awesome climbing experiences and encourages exploration. All artwork is made by Leslie and inspired by “places that are near and dear to any California climber’s heart.”

In this interview, we explore Leslie’s business, her climbing adventures, and overcoming fear. Enjoy!


You’ve written on your blog that you grew up in a family of post-war trauma survivors. I admire this because my parents were also refugees of war and I think there’s a lot of life lessons to be learned from them directly or indirectly. What’s the best lesson your parents ever taught you?

Haha wow. Way to hit it hard right out of the gates! Yes, that’s absolutely true, and it’s been a process learning from them and also learning to think differently from them. There is so much I could say about this topic, I could probably talk for days… but if I had to condense it into one lesson, I guess it’d be this: Don’t give up. I think I’ve always been pushed to work out certain situations, no matter how impossible. My family is actually very prone to keep working out situations even though they are irreparable, so I try hard to be able to gauge when something is a dud. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my own life is how to let things go. So there is always this push and pull of tenacity and surrender, and also of history and present/future. Ha! That went a little abstract. I hope that’s okay. Indirectly, I think I also learned things like how to be resourceful, how to entertain myself without expensive toys, and what it looks like to live with a heavy past.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my own life is how to let things go.

Leslie Kim Dynamite Starfish

What hooked you onto climbing? Why do you keep doing it?

I think I was hooked the first time I tried it, although I couldn’t really put my finger on why. Now, I’m pretty sure the reason I keep climbing is because I learn best through physical experiences. As a child I did gymnastics, martial arts, swam, danced, played the piano and violin, and created a lot of random arts and crafts projects. I must have just wired my brain to pick up information by doing a wide range of things. For a while, when I wasn’t doing much of those things, I really lost myself. I hit a long dark phase pretty hard. Climbing brought me back from that. It gave me a means to learn new things through movement, physics, momentum, timing — all the things I knew how to learn from. It also got me outside again, and I had forgotten how much I loved that. Now, it gives me a reason to travel to new places and meet new people. It’s also my favorite way to spend time with friends. We’re all so supportive of each other and I love it so much.

What’s one of the best memories you’ve had from climbing?

I’m glad I procrastinated on writing this interview, because I had such a great climbing day just recently!

When I first started climbing regularly, I might have done it for reasons like “exercise” or “recreation”. I’ve found, however, that climbing has the capacity to form this incredible bond between people. You learn a lot about someone by climbing with them, and you learn a lot about yourself too. Inevitably you tackle things like trust, ego, ambition, how to treat another person… and you do all that with your partner within minutes of climbing with them.

I met my partner for the day at a women’s climbing festival a couple years back. I was bouldering with a group of friends from Los Angeles, and this tiny person walks up with a crash pad saying “Straggler! Mind if I climb with you?” She did, and that was cool. I think I admire that kind of bravery. This most recent trip is actually the only time we’ve climbed together, intentionally, outside.

We had some great conversations bookending Angel’s Fright (5.6) in Tahquitz. We talked about waking up at 5am to be creative, bringing ethnic food to the outdoors, honesty, boldness, complicated family dynamics, why we should make art, and what it means to lead. The climbing was great too. We hit some problems, but things just work out well when you have a good vibe with your partner. I don’t think it mattered at all what route we climbed. It was a beautiful day. Our timing was well synced. We wrote summit haikus and put them into the register.

An overall good day beats climbing any hard route for me. I like discussing hard beta on things I’m working on too, but that’s more like momentary fun. I’m a big softie. Whatever.

I’ve found, however, that climbing has the capacity to form this incredible bond between people. You learn a lot about someone by climbing with them, and you learn a lot about yourself too.

Leslie Kim Dynamite Starfish

How do you overcome fear while climbing? What does your internal self-talk sound like? What do you say to yourself?

Haha, fear. I have a lot of that. I think the thing that helps manage my fear the most is my desire for efficiency. If you think about it, fear is a waste of time. You either do a thing or you don’t do a thing — fear is merely a hindrance to progress or retreat.

I’d like to think when I’m at my best, and comfortable with the route, I have no self-talk, I just go. That’s not to say I never get scared. I think I’m usually at least a little scared, but as long as your gear, rope and belayer are good, there’s no need to be. After assessing the situation, I try to breathe, sink into my position, and tell myself that full commitment will get me there more effectively than partial commitment. It’s all for effectiveness, you know? Or I just yell “TAKE” and laugh uncontrollably if all of that fails. It’s good not to stay too serious for too long.

For a while, when I wasn’t doing much of those things, I really lost myself. I hit a long dark phase pretty hard. Climbing brought me back from that.

 

It gave me a means to learn new things through movement, physics, momentum, timing — all the things I knew how to learn from. It also got me outside again, and I had forgotten how much I loved that. Now, it gives me a reason to travel to new places and meet new people.

Any tips for people who wants to start climbing? How did you start?

Some friends took me to a gym (Rockreation Costa Mesa) in 2003 or 2004. At the time I was much too involved in practicing martial arts, swimming, writing, being in college and trying to figure myself out to dedicate any time to it. I went back to climbing again after a six year hiatus, then again after about four years, and I finally committed to it wholly around three years ago.

Tips? Be willing to learn new things. Find your people — if you don’t have them yet, don’t stop looking. You will find them. It’s a lovely thing to climb (and learn) with people who are stoked on the same things as you are.

Dynamite Starfish Tank

Why did you start Dynamite Starfish? Was there a particular moment that influenced you?

I’m honestly not too sure how it all happened. I’ve always doodled, made art. Around the time I was making a lot of personal work, I started climbing outdoors and was just intrigued by the experience. So I made doodles about that, and some friends said “Hey that’d look great on a shirt,” and I knew printmaking and branding already, so there it is!

What mental barriers, if any, did you have to overcome to start Dynamite Starfish?

So many! I had a lot of personal insecurity about it all, since I wasn’t a very strong climber, nor did I consider myself a “good artist” when I started it. I wondered what right I had to be making anything for climbers or anyone at all. But just like creating anything, I learned that perspective is valuable, and ultimately people want and need to hear your voice. I still think I’m a mediocre climber at best and an improving but not-so-great artist, but I am learning that what I think about myself is kind of irrelevant and needs to stay independent of what I do.

Outside of climbing, what other outdoor activities motivates you?

Ironically, walking the streets of the city. I’m fascinated by what humans have done to the world, how nature bounces back, primitive interactions, signs of expression… it’s a beautiful thing.

Outside of Dynamite Starfish, do you have any other ventures or side projects you’re working on?

Absolutely. I still make personal work — illustrations that condense some aspect of human experience into simple images and words. I write a lot, although most of it remains in dozens of notebooks in boxes and bookshelves around my apartment. I started writing a book sixteen years ago that maybe one day I’ll actually finish. I’m 32 now, so that’s half a lifetime ago! Goodness. I also want to design a vending machine and all of the products in it.

What future plans do you have for Dynamite Starfish and yourself personally?

To be honest, goals give me a lot of anxiety when I think about them too much. So I have some loose plans, like overall business growth, making the art better, getting it to more people… getting my products into retailers would be great too. I kind of just put in as much time and love as I can and see what organic growth looks like. I’m working on 100 Drawings about Climbing, with no time constraint. Personally? I’d love to be the most honest person I can be, live fearlessly, do important work, learn everything about everything, find true and lasting love, be a positive force for the young and hungry. Hm. It’s a totally weird thing to talk about yourself.

If you think about it, fear is a waste of time. You either do a thing or you don’t do a thing — fear is merely a hindrance to progress or retreat.

Leslie Kim Dynamite Starfish


You can find Leslie on Instagram @godynamitestarfish and check out her climbing inspired designs at Dynamite Starfish.

I'm many things, one of them is being the founder of Blisters & Bliss. I write stories with photography, get dirty with hiking and camping, explore by traveling, and share experiences with design.
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