Torn between art and engineering, Mike Parris jumped into the study of architecture, a happy medium, as a student at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1990s. He enrolled in a robotic art studio course, which led to a part in developing a remote-controlled Mars lunar rover prototype. Faced again with two diverging paths—skiing or robotics?—Parris chose the mountains halfway through college. He left Pennsylvania and put his skills to work building sticks that could rip his adopted home of Jackson Hole better than anything else. Thus, in 1993, Igneous Skis was born, and Parris now crafts by hand some 100 skis per year.
In partnership with handmade ski purveyor NeverGroomed.com, filmmaker Galen Knowles, of WZRD production company in Salt Lake City, captured Parris' story in a six-minute-long documentary that won the 2016 Wyoming Short Film Contest this week. WZRD netted $25,000 for best answering the contest's prompt, "WY am I here?" and Knowles plans to use the prize money to fund future projects.
The contest, sponsored by the Wyoming Film Office, seeks to showcase Wyoming's quirky and adventurous spirit, according to WFO’s Film Production Senior Coordinator Colin Stricklin.
"Mike is the smartest ski bum on the mountain. He’s an engineer, a geek, and an explorer,” Knowles, a lifelong skier, said. “He has a very analytic mind and doesn’t search for the greater meaning in what he does, he just does it. As Mike grew into a successful robotics engineer at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he found himself without skiing, mountains, and working on projects with his hands… the theme is definitely stick with your passion."
Through college, Parris took every opportunity to sneak away from Pittsburgh to visit Wyoming. He'd grown up a skier, and he knew that this place made him happiest. As the demands of academia built up, Parris' professor told him that he’d have to give up the mountains if he wanted to get serious about his studies. So Parris bid a career in robotics adieu.
At first, he thought he'd apply what he'd learned about automation to ski manufacturing. He imagined a system where he could send a machine ski specs from his smartphone, and robots would begin cutting and sawing away in the quiet workshop.
"Knowing Mike, he could’ve built the thing, but realized that he would spend more time in front of a computer than out skiing and testing designs himself. So instead of falling back into a life like he had at the Robotics Institute, he threw out the idea and continues to build each pair, start to finish, by hand," Knowles said. "That's another example of when Mike knew when to pivot away from a life that would not bring him happiness, and that's admirable by any standard."
When Parris builds a pair of handmade custom skis, which he sells for $1,600, he starts by conducting a detailed interview with the customer. That helps nail down the perfect shape, camber profile, and flex pattern for their ski style and playground, be it Jackson Hole or elsewhere. At the end of the three to five week process, he refrains from stamping a logo on the simple hardwood topsheet, preferring to fly below the radar and keep his brand word-of-mouth.
Past winners of this contest, now in its ninth year, have tackled diverse subjects including water rights, cowboys, and Bob Dylan. And though niche ski stories don't always appeal to the mainstream, Knowles was convinced from the start that Parris' has just as much to offer any viewer.
"He could be making skis, snowboards, golf clubs, or toy cars. It doesn’t matter. It’s a story about someone so focused on their work that the rest of the world just fades away," Knowles said. "I grew up making ski edits, but recently have branched away from that world in search of personal stories—Mike is a perfect blend of the ski world and something greater."