Cheating Death, Shocking Critics and Goading Farmers ...All in a Day's Work for the Prophet of the Mountains; Landscape Is All to Artist-Climber John Redhead. Just Don't Expect Him to Paint Pretty Pictures of It. Jill Tunstall Meets Him

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Byline: Jill Tunstall

WHO is John Redhead?It's not an easy question.

Climber,artist,poet, writer,filmmaker, free spirit, sculptor,thorn in the side of farmers... And you can stick the word controversial in front of any or all of those for good measure.

A prophet perhaps?He looks like one,or, rather,did. The pictures that glare and glower from his polemic book `...and one for the crow',a diary of first ascents of impossibly hard rock climbs, show a wild,messianic stare.

``Redhead's climbing is the greatest form of performance art,''one critic wrote,neatly summing up the man.

The grandson of a Romany,Redhead went to art college, but was thrown out for pursuing his own agenda and came to climbing as, ironically, a way of staying grounded.

``My thing was that I always had to be anchored; I had to bring the work into the world,otherwise I would get totally neurotic,''he says over cups of tea in Pete's Eats, the Llanberis climbers' cafe where he is such a fixture that he has an account.

Today the manic hair is cut short and he almost fades into the scenery in black trousers and grey fleece.

His artwork, whether paint on canvas or words on paper, is controversial and challenging,full of sexual imagery that one critic called `` repulsive in its root misogyny.''

Redhead says this is a matter of interpretation,not his intent.

Vast canvases,meanwhile,are sculpted to mimic the geometry of the rock faces he has climbed on and he encourages everybody to touch the work. ``Kids love this,''he says banging one like a drum.

What there is little doubt over is that Redhead, who moved to North Wales in 1976, was the climber of his generation.

A fearless visionary,he could see routes up rock that others couldn't and spent most of the 1980s seemingly glued to sheer,featureless slabs where one bead of perspiration may have reunited man with his maker.

One,Margins of the Mind,has yet to have a second ascent even after two decades and technological advances in equipment. Was he in the margins of the mind when he did it?

``Yes, there was a spiritual approach to movement on rock,''he says, lam basting the current generation who will work on routes first,practising all the moves with the safety of a rope.

``With meditation, you draw your strength inside and put it out in a different way,''he says of his preferred method.

``But you only know about this kind of stuff if your life depends on it. If your route is safe, you know you can fall and you can practice time and again and know you will climb it without doubt. Whereas to me, that element of doubt was an important ingredient for everything.

``I wanted to get on that route,on my fingertips, where you have to get it together or else you will die. In that margin where things are a bit crazy, a door opens in your head and you can peer inside and work out who you a re. You only find out in adversity.''

He draws a parallel with the quarrymen who created most of the slabs of slate that Redhead climbed in the Llanberis area and who are celebrated in his poem and multimedia presentation Soft Explosive Hard Embrace, which will be premiered at next weekend's Llanberis Film festival,LLAMFF.

Elements of this work, with graphic images of genitalia,Anglo Saxon language and sexual wordplay,has inevitably drawn criticism.

He was once accused of branding the single mothers of Deiniolen as whores,but he insists that was the interpretation of a poem by the local -male -councillors.

``It never mentioned the word whore; that was their reading of it,''he says,explaining that the poem brought the Native American Shaman Kokopelli to the deprived slate town in his painting and poem.

This is challenging stuff but,he smiles, the resulting furore meant he had a huge turn-out for the exhibition then running in Llanberis and many of them people who would never before have visited an art exhibition. …