Bon voyage, Chili Thom 

Whistler's favourite artist for 13 years running, Thom moves to Montana after a year spent fighting cancer

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRYN ATKINSON - Sold! Chili Thom at his Brackendale studio the day before selling out his entire art stock.
  • Photo by Cathryn Atkinson
  • Sold! Chili Thom at his Brackendale studio the day before selling out his entire art stock.

It took just three hours for artist Chili Thom to sell everything in his studio.

When he announced via social media there would be a Studio Blowout at his Brackendale home last weekend prior to moving to Billings, Mont., there was a rush of interest.

Everything was snapped up by 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 23.

"It was crazy. Traffic was at a standstill on Depot Road and the cops came in to see what was going on. They checked out the art for a little while, too," says Thom, with a big grin on his face.

"Before it even opened, I hadn't taken two bites out of my bagel, and I turned around and there were two people and I let them in... then I walked past the door and looked out. There were 25 people coming down the driveway.

"I'm pretty happy."

He sold 80 to 90 prints and 40 giclées (fine-art digital prints), with 50 online orders coming in afterwards.

Fans of his unique style of curvaceous and colourful landscapes and seascapes had even asked to sneak in early (me included). This is how the small number of original paintings went, sold before the official sale even started.

I dropped by on the Friday night and took home a small giclée-on-canvas copy of a painting of the rich waters of Burnaby Narrows on Haida Gwaii.

The giclée shows starfish, a moon jellyfish and swaying bull kelp in situ, the scene shown beneath the surface, painted with such suggested dizzying action that you half expect the tide to pull the scene back and the jellyfish to be pushed on.

This is Thom's talent, getting inside a scene with his own style — a style that has earned him Best Artist honours in Pique's annual Best of Whistler vote each year for the past 13 years.

The largely self-taught artist came to painting because he was a sea-kayak guide who wanted to capture the wilderness beauty he saw out on the water.

"I did a year at UBC; I got a scholarship to go there and decided not to waste it. I checked out the art program and (I came away thinking) they were a science school," Thom laughs.

"One week you'd be using charcoal, the next week oil pastels. I was spending $300 a month on art supplies I'd use once.

"I was a guide and out seeing these amazing views... (when I started) I did one painting and I thought it was OK.

"I did a second painting and thought it was better. This is how I think and it became the evolution of my style."

Thom moved to Whistler 20 years ago, having grown up in Chilliwack; recently he turned 40.

He has represented himself for most of his 18-year painting career, apart from a few years with the Adele Campbell Gallery. He is grateful to Arts Whistler and other organizations, which provided support.

"I worked at Sushi Village and was a waiter who painted. But I said 'I'm going to become a painter' and people took me seriously after that," he says.

"Half my life I've spent here. I've been riding here since my fifth birthday, so 35 years on the mountains.

"I'm pretty excited to be checking out the other ones in Montana."

The opportunity to move came about when his wife Lauren, a recent medical-school graduate, was offered a position at a Billings hospital."I have mixed emotions because it has been such an amazing community. The sale was an example of the kind of support I've had over the years. It is hard to see that go," Thom says.

"But I'm really excited about the new opportunities in Montana. I already have the places picked out where I am going to go to paint."

They include Devil's Tower, Yellowstone National Park, the Tetons and "a sweet spot" at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, where he will stop on the drive down.

"It's a flat, shallow lake with crazy multi-coloured rocks. I'm going to get in the shallows and do light-reflection pieces and the beautiful mountains in the background. I've wanted to paint that lake for a long time," Thom says.

"The colours down there (in Montana) are spectacular. I've witnessed a couple of pretty much the most impressive sunsets I've seen. It's big-sky country."

All this would be a big enough shift in experience, but the move comes in the middle of a challenging, life-changing year for Thom.

He was diagnosed with cancer last September and has shared everything about the experience — the operations, the chemo, the setbacks and the breakthroughs — with his friends and the public.

He put down his brushes for a few months while focusing on his health and was overjoyed to pick them up again as his health improved.

While spending three-and-a-half months in a Vancouver hospital, Thom says half of his stomach was removed, along with 80 per cent of his esophagus. He has endured pain and frustrations he never thought possible.

"I started with conventional treatments, so I got my ass served to me by chemo. I had the worst side effects... I had the surgery, everything was supposed to be great," he says.

"I ended up with complications, caught pneumonia and ended up with bowel obstructions. Then I had a pulmonary fistula..."

He lists a few other wrenching health challenges, ending with: "It was supposed to be minimally invasive... I hit the bottom. If I could have opened a window I would have jumped out. Absolute torture."

Finally everything was all clear, but two weeks before he left, Thom had another setback.

"They noticed three little spots on the liver," he says.

"It had metastasized into the liver, so I needed a liver biopsy and more CAT scans."

But the guy looks good right now. At this point he is at his normal weight, works out and eats well; he astonishes doctors who are meeting him for the first time.

And his attitude? It's more than impressive.

"I'm totally open about absolutely everything because I've done so much research and taken it into my own hands," Thom says, adding that he has been through genetic testing and is awaiting tests taken at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

"I've systematically gone through everything at a genetic level and a cellular level, what I need to do for my body. And I've done a ton of body work, exercise, meditation, electro-magnetic field therapy...."

He is also taking part in trials for targeted immunotherapy in the U.S.

"I'm at my normal body weight now, my liver tests are completely normal, and the Mayo Clinic is doing pathology tests for 50 different genes and receptors on the tumours.

"I'm actually moving down to the U.S. and getting way better health care, stuff that is not available in Canada."

In the meantime, Thom is focusing on his art. He hasn't given up on the idea of showing his work in Whistler and the Sea to Sky region.

He hopes to be in the 2017 State of the Art show, part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, and his work can be purchased locally — at the Maury Young Arts Centre and Art Junction in Whistler, the Art Garden in Squamish and the Howe Sound Art Gallery in Britannia Beach.

For more information and his online store (reopening in September), visit www.chilithom.com.

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