The second act 

Whistler's deep artistic roots flourish as the WFF turns 15 years old

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  • Story by Feet Banks
  • The Second Act: Whistler's deep artistic roots flourish as the WFF turns 15 years old

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up"

- Pablo Picasso

Picasso would have loved Whistler, a Peter-Pan paradise valley built on powder, pleasure and the pursuit of adventure. A Neverland filled with rich, natural beauty and populated with children, both young and old, united in their desire to step off the beaten path and find a better way.

In any culture, the arts provoke awareness, question the status quo and provide a community with beauty and insight. So why has it taken almost half a century for Whistler to understand that art is not only woven deep into the fabric of who we are, but is also integral to our future?

"The first 30 years we were busy building ski lifts, and condos and golf courses," says longtime resident and recently named community cultural officer Anne Popma. "It's only in the past decade we have understood the importance of arts and culture to the community and the tourism economy."

Arts, culture and the economy — in their purest forms the first two exist utterly separate from the third, but in the real world, lines are blurred and colours blended — especially in a town built to require constant infusions of cash and global attention just to keep afloat. So on the 15th birthday of the Whistler Film Festival, one of the most important and successful artistic endeavours in our community's history, we're taking a look back at the journey of the arts in Whistler in hopes of catching a glimpse of what kind of a future we are painting ourselves into.

In The Beginning...

Certainly the Lil'wat and Squamish First Nations both have rich and incredible artistic histories, and a trip to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) proves it. The centre "a marvel of glass and history built for the 2010 Winter Olympics," is utterly world class. From the exhibits themselves to the student/youth training programs to the food in the café, (venison chili on bannock is one of Whistler's top five best lunches) the spirit and art of the Sea to Sky's original locals truly shines.

The museum displaying Whistler's next wave of local history didn't get quite as glamourous digs, but those old portable trailers next to the Whistler Public Library support the idea that Alta Lake pioneers Myrtle and Alex Philip always had room for song, dance and painting at their Rainbow Lodge fishing camp. Once the ski lifts began turning in the mid 1960s, however, it seems the arts were left without a lift ticket, as Whistler's main focus became progress, economics, survival and improving "the visitor experience." For most of Whistler's early contemporary history, the arts lived with the freaks and the hippies.

"I came in '72," says Whistler local Charlie Doyle. "I was a painter but there was no place to sell a painting. It was a town of 600 people — basically Creekside and the Boot pub. There wasn't much going on, certainly not enough to support an arts scene."

When his construction boss mentioned he needed to go to Vancouver to get his company letters put on his truck, Doyle's artistic entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

"I told him 'I know how to do that' even though I didn't," he says. "But I had seen it done once, so I went and bought the necessary brushes and a career in the arts was born."

In 1977 Doyle founded The Whistler Answer, an alternative newspaper that spoke for the ski-bum culture and featured plenty of drugs, nudity and pure mountain spirit. "That was more of an art installation than a business," he admits. "It was a volatile crew, and there was always craziness, and eventually either my interest or my publishing skills waned. I've always been wary of the gigs where the cheques going out are big and the ones coming in are small."

The Answer folded in 1981, a bleak time artistically: there were no filmmakers in town, the professional dance scene was strictly exotic, and Whistler's visual art community consisted mostly of photographic prints, stickers and clever T-shirts. Yet the spirit of the artist grew in Whistler, even if the town lacked the space to house it. "As an artist you just want to create," explains potter Vincent Massey, who grew up skiing Whistler and moved here full-time in 1985, building his own studio next to his home.

"In most small communities there is a legion or a cultural centre," Massey says. "We didn't have any of those, so things like plays or theatre were very sporadic. There were galleries in the Village though — Greg Griffiths had his photography gallery right from the get-go, and there was a Russian guy with an art gallery in the Delta who sold my work and would also send clients to my home-studio. That was rare for a gallery to do that."

As art galleries began popping up with the construction of Whistler Village and as more international guests began arriving to spend, buy and be merry, Whistler began eking out a small arts and music scene. By the 1990s, teenagers like painter Chili Thom, drawn to the mountains for sport but brimming with creative spirit, began arriving to snowboard or ski. Fuelled by a healthy economy, some epic snow years and the first whisperings of a digital revolution, the arts began to snowball and an independent scene started coming together in a uniquely Whistler way — a local fusion of the alternative/hippie spirit of '60s-'70s era mixed with the underground punk rockedness of a ski town inundated with skateboarders, snowboarders all chasing an endless childhood. Self expression was part of the package.

Painting a new canvas

Whistler's next phase for art was more homegrown than what the Village galleries offered, and it started with the Toad Hall art shows held in 1998 at a new nightclub called Maxx Fish. Named after the infamous Whistler poster of naked ski bums posing in front of their soon-to-be-demolished home, Toad Hall was a print and design studio that also housed Whistler's hardest working visual artists.

"I don't remember ever going to an art show before we started those shows," says Pete Malaschitz, a.k.a. Golfinger, who along with fellow Toad Hall artists Dave "Pepe" Petko, Stu Mackay-Smith, Sheree Blanch and Pilar Alvarez brought Whistler's underground art scene into the light by using the only public space available, a bar managed by Toad Hall owner Jorge Alvarez.

"Being an artist is hard in this town, I think it's always been hard," Malaschitz says. "But those shows were exciting and new. My work would sell out and people were into it. Guys were coming into the bar with bags of weed wanting to trade for art."

As art became more accessible for the locals and the blood of creativity hit the waters of visibility, the feeding frenzy began. But it was Whistler's film scene that caught on first as ski/snowboarder filmmakers like Christian Begin, Treetop Films and Heavy Hitting began pushing on the boundaries of expectation and sneaking animation and narrative elements into their "snow porn" action sports films. When Shauna Hardy and Kasi Lubin launched the Whistler Film Festival (WFF) in 2001, the opening feature was Ski Bums, a National Film Board documentary chock full of local talent on both sides of the camera.

The next year the World Ski & Snowboard Festival complemented its successful Pro Photo Showdown event with the 72-hour Filmmaker Showdown and, just as digital camera and editing technology made filmmaking affordable, Whistler suddenly had an innovative new contest that gave free-reign to any idea filmmakers could come up with. That contest inspired the Heavy Hitting B-Grade HorrorFest, and by the time WFF introduced its funded "Whistler Stories" short-film program in 2005, the scene was well on its way.

"I grew up attending the Whistler Film Festival," says born-and-raised local Peter Harvey. "It fostered my connection with the filmmaking that was happening within my own country and around the world."

Harvey made his first film with Whistler Stories funding; he worked on super low-budget B-grade Horror and 72-Hour entries and, after moving to Toronto to pursue his filmmaking dreams, returned to the WFF as the producer of Picture Day, his first feature. It won the WFF Borsos Award for Best Canadian Feature. "I'm living proof of the value of this festival," Harvey says. "Being from a small town could have meant isolation from my passion, but the WFF became my resource to remain connected to a world I always dreamed of being a part of."

Though the WFF gained notoriety in the industry and provided new paths for local filmmakers, it was the World Ski & Snowboard Festival that bulldozed out enough space for everyone else. Starting in 2003, organizers added a spoken word/writing event, followed by a collective novel experiment, fashion, theatre and multimedia components to an ever-growing hedonistic orgy of live music, loud parties and mind-blowing athletics. The most notable addition occurred in 2005 when BraveART showcased street or underground artists from across North America in a massive, free, high-profile art exhibit that ran throughout the 10-day festival. Now rebranded as State of the Art, those massive art shows remain one of the best ways for local visual artists to get noticed, and hang beside established artists from near and far. While many still criticize the show's proclivities towards snow, landscape and sport-oriented art, there are very few visual artists in town who haven't benefited from some early exposure at the BraveART or State of the Art shows.

These homegrown festivals allowed local artists, directors, writers, actors, musicians and DJs to incubate a scene rich enough that Whistler's creativity could stand alongside its natural beauty and golden athleticism at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"Before the Olympics I don't think many people in town really valued what we had to offer creatively and artistically," says Whistler Arts Council executive director Doti Niedermayer. "The Games were a game changer."

They certainly were, and once Whistler noticed the world noticing us for something other than biking, skiing, golf or hiking, the powers that be started thinking about the business of art.

Art vs. Commerce

Visibility for local art is only one part of the equation. The cliché of the starving artist rings extra true in one of Canada's most expensive places to live. For a local scene to thrive artists need time to create and, more importantly, someone needs to buy the art.

"It's hard to be a professional artist when you're flipping burgers at Splitz," says Petko, who eventually left Toad Hall for a career as a tattoo artist. "I hope it gets easier; the life here is great, but it's still very rare to find a job associated with the arts."

Not everyone had it as hard as the visual artists. The digital revolution saw Whistler become the Canadian epicentre for outdoor and action sport photography with homegrown new talent like Blake Jorgenson, Robin O'Neill and Mason Mashon joining local legends Paul Morrison and Eric Berger as upper-tier lens masters in an increasingly competitive field.

Yet, the very mountain culture that supports one group of artists will also push others away. Bored with the prevalence of landscapes and sports-themed art at the big festivals or Whistler Arts Council offerings, sub-groups like The Jettisons or Blind Mute Productions began organizing underground shows in whatever warehouse space they could find. Local artists like Pepe, Randy "Randoid" Smith, Arne "Poo Font" Gutman, Justin Ormiston and Scott "The Incredible Ameoba" Johnston populated art shows with themes like "Kittens & Bunnies" or the Mexican-wrestler-based show "La Violenta Tormenta de Arte" (The Violent Storm of Art). The Whistler visual scene was suddenly fun, fresh and diverse, if not financially viable.

"The art shows became just a bunch of people going for the party," says Malachitz, who remains at Toad Hall creating artwork, posters and logos for local businesses, bars and clubs. "At the underground shows and the State of the Art shows it's becoming a bunch of posers just drinking and not looking at the art. As an artist you spend a lot of time and energy doing the art and to see it hang as just a backdrop to a social gathering is a turn off. You're lucky if you do sell anything."

The digital era can help artists gain visibility, and sell. Landscape painter and master of colour Chili Thom, perennially voted Whistler's favourite artist in Pique's annual reader survey, was able to amass enough of a following to be able to sell his work through his own online gallery, but for most young artists, getting the right people to see the work is as big a career crux as continuing to improve the work itself.

Whistler's established art galleries make sales though, and while much of those are catering to the "bears and landscapes" tourist market, there are established galleries moving local work. Mark Richards started selling his unique style of "luminous photo impressionisms" at the Whistler Farmers' Market before taking the creative and financial plunge and opening his own gallery in Whistler Village eight years ago. While many local artists complain about the lack of locals hanging in village art galleries, Richards says the reality is that being an artist is just like any other entrepreneurial business — it takes hard work and no one is entitled to anything.

"It has always been a grind to make it as an artist here," Richards says. "It takes commitment and not everyone is willing to sacrifice their kitchen table for a number of years and eat off the coffee table just so they have somewhere to create."

"Affordable space is our weakness," agrees Niedermayer. "Everything is so expensive." But in her 13 years with the Whistler Arts Council Niedermayer says she is finally seeing some improvement. Projects like the month-long summer Artwalk incentivized Whistler businesses to hang and sell local artwork. This past summer the municipality and arts council teamed up to establish a pop-up studio in a vacant retail spot. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is featuring local and gallery artists this holiday season in their "Trees of Hope" charity fundraiser. To Niedermayer, it all adds up to visibility.

"That has been the big change in the last 15 years," she says. "Local art is much more visible. The Olympics gave us momentum to showcase who we are and what makes us unique. Whether it's a painting, or some pottery, or a song, local artists are making and selling something that is unique to this place. That is what cultural tourism is about, but to have cultural tourism you need to have a cultural and artistic community. And, you need people in that community who have the time and can afford to create art."

Since 2010 the Whistler Arts Council has run the Maury Young Arts Centre (formerly known as Millennium Place) with an upstairs gallery dedicated to local artists and a theatre catering to the local film and theatre crowd. Garfinkel's nightclub hosts live paint-offs where all the artists get paid, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has initiated numerous public art murals, sculptures and projects. In 2009 a group of longtime local artists, including Binty Massey and author/musician Stephen Vogler, established "The Point," an artist-run centre and society based out of a municipal-owned heritage property on the shores of Alta Lake.

"I think the arts are a lot healthier now," Vogler says, "although there's still a ways to go on the local music front. I don't think booking an original act should be considered a risk — I doubt that someone will cut their vacation short and go home if they don't hear 'Sweet Home Alabama.' I think tourists would prefer something original."

To that end, The Point runs musical, theatre, art and film programming all year long, continuing to build Whistler's art scene from the ground up. "You can't just fly stuff in and expect it to stick," says Vogler. "Art has to emerge from within the community for anything to last and have impact. We need to support our local artists because they will build culture in a lasting way."

The Golden Age?

Supporting and building arts and culture is exactly what the official Whistler Community Cultural Plan is in place to do. Initiated by the RMOW and managed by the arts council, the cultural plan was completed in July 2013. It includes 31 recommendations to help Whistler capitalize on, and connect with, the arts scene, while cultivating growth for the future. In the last half decade Whistler has enjoyed a much-better funded arts council while municipal Festivals, Events & Animation (FE&A) money injects millions of dollars into key local events like the Whistler Writers Festival, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and a cultural Village plan that includes everything from street performers and live painting to family après music for kids.

But art and culture are living, fluid components of the community and tricky to nail down with bureaucracy, consultants and years-in-the-making action plans. Just last month municipal council gave first and second readings to a bylaw amendment to allow local artists to advertise and sell work from their home studios. On paper, it all makes sense, a tangential network of recognized artists creating uniquely Whistler offerings to complement the epicentre of arts and culture brewing in the Village.

The only problem is municipal staff recommends the bylaw change be accompanied by a $750 temporary use permit for the first two years, and $300/year after that. That's combined with a $160/year municipal business license, not to mention the optional cost of $300 for Chamber of Commerce dues and property taxes on top.

Whistler's starving artists may be about to get hungrier.

"I doubt there are any artists in Canada that would pay this much, or anything, to be a legal artist," Vincent Massey says in a quickly drafted letter to council. "Why is the RMOW singling out artists when there are over 500 home-based business in Whistler operating and selling their services? If the RMOW desires to actually make positive change towards a more culturally stimulated town then it should help nurture artists to thrive rather than continually suppressing their art."

And there's the rub. Officially Whistler is in love with its arts, but does that love extend to the artists creating them? Is the new cultural plan just a thinly veiled financial grasp at the lowest hanging fruit available, a life raft to ensure we can 'enhance the visitor experience' as things like climate change challenge the old business model?

The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but one thing everyone can agree on is the importance of the Audain Art Museum, a 5,200 sq. m. facility (56,000 sq. ft.) built by Vancouver collector Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa to house some of their extensive and celebrated art collection

"I think a lot of Whistler locals have no idea how huge the Audain Museum is going to be, what a gift Michael Audain has given the town," says Chili Thom. "If those old Toad Hall shows kicked off the second act of Whistler arts, and the Olympics were a sort of climax, then the Audain Museum will be the start of our golden age."

One thing is certain: embraced and accepted or taxed and marginalized, Whistler artists will continue making art. "The lack of space is really just an excuse," says tattoo artist Justin Ormiston. "The only true challenge is time and energy, both are exceptionally valuable." Ormiston started his Whistler art career drawing pictures of his friends on pizza boxes in 2001 and is now one of the Sea to Sky's most sought-after tattoo artists.

"Certainly it feels like there is more talent in town lately, and it feels like there are a lot more venues to gain exposure, but the same distractions are there: the mountains, the parties, the excitement. But if you look at the distractions from a slightly different perspective, they can become inspiration. I would say if you have food — even if it's Kraft Dinner — and you have clothes on your back and some place dry to sit under, then 'Pucker up Buttercup' and start creating artwork. You do not need much and there's no such thing as too much art."


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