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Under the sea: Meet the artists behind the jaw-dropping installations at this year’s Whistler Blackcomb Foundation Submerse gala

From Burning Man to the conference centre, it has been a long, strange trip for set designers Mike Tyler, Bob VanEngelsdorp, and their legion of helpers

Several years ago, Mei Madden, the irrepressible executive director of the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation (WBF), caught wind of an intricate float designed by a crew of locals that was headed south for that year’s edition of Burning Man.

“Quite a few years ago, when we first got involved, the (WBF) gala was doing a ’50s diner theme and it just so happened that me and my buddy Bob (VanEngelsdorp) and a few of our friends had built a ’50s diner that we had taken to Burning Man,” recalls local sculptor Mike Tyler. “Mei ended up hearing about it and asked us if we wanted to get involved and we were like, ‘Absolutely not. No way.’ But in Mei’s usual style, she didn’t take no for an answer.”

Staying true to his Burner roots, Tyler says they were initially reluctant to commercialize the float they had built for fun with friends. But, as Tyler has established, Madden can be quite persuasive.

“That first year ended up going really well, and from there she started having us make things every year until eventually we got to the point where we were doing pretty much all the art for the entire event,” Tyler says.

Thus began the long, strange trip from Black Rock City to the Whistler Conference Centre for Tyler and VanEngelsdorp, the brains and brawn behind the stunning, large-scale art installations that have wowed guests at the WBF’s annual Winter Classic fundraising gala for years now.

After years at the Roundhouse—an alpine venue that presented its own logistical challenges—the extravagant Submerse gala was held at the conference centre on March 4, which enabled Tyler, VanEngelsdorp and their legion of helpers to create their most ambitious event yet.

“We can’t help ourselves,” says VanEngelsdorp. “We were so excited to be in the conference centre because we had easier access and a bigger space that we filled right up.”

Featuring multiple, large-scale installations that hewed to the underwater theme, the result was an aquatic dreamworld that immersed guests in the underwater environment from the moment they walked into the room through a corridor of “bubble walls” made to look like an aquarium.

On the opposite side of the room were two interactive installations that wouldn’t feel out of place in Black Rock City: a massive LED turtle which guests enter through the mouth, to find stand-up tables and a tequila bar inside; right next to the “Sea Deeper” installation, a sort of psychedelic coral reef that came to life once you donned a pair of 3D glasses, designed by Angela and Andrea Cooney, sisters best known for their wildly inventive, custom clothing line that blurs the lines between fashion and art.

Closer to the entrance was an installation made to look like the skeleton of a large, humpback whale lit up with dozens of twinkling lights, next to a photobooth (designed by Tyler’s daughter, Garnet) that captured guests—most of whom were decked out in elaborate, marine-themed costumes—with multiple cameras, lending the images a three-dimensional feel that mimicked floating underwater.

The centrepiece of the room was a 10-foot-tall, 360-degree DJ booth that doubled as a cascading waterfall, with rushing water falling over a series of jutting plateaus lit up with LED lights.

“It’s a very interesting and unique piece,” says Tyler. “It was quite a technical challenge to get the look and the feel that we wanted. The technicality became quite difficult.”

Although the hours can be long—Tyler estimates they spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week in his Mount Currie studio in the lead-up to the event—the work has become something of an escape for the pair of tradesmen.

“Just like I would say of any of the many athletes in town, it’s our meditation zone,” says VanEngelsdorp. “Working with our hands and our brains like that is really awesome.”

Fortunately for the two friends, they had plenty of help along the way, with close to 70 people lending a hand wherever it was needed.

“We’ve had hundreds of volunteer hours from our friends, because this gala was so intense with how much work we were doing,” Tyler says. “With the talent pool of our friends and some of these other artists working to help us generally as well as doing individual pieces, it is the only way we were able to get this done.”