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Arne Gutmann; Seeing the world as artistic playground

"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
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"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious."

- Albert Einstein

Where do I start? How do I tackle this story? Do I begin by introducing Alta States readers to Arne Gutmann's passion for all things mountain-related? His deep and abiding love for sliding on snow? His many years of snowboard teaching at Whistler/Blackcomb?

Or do I go straight to his groundbreaking work on the poo font? I mean, this guy should have a doctorate in scatology. After all, who else but Gutmann would meticulously photograph his own biological emissions over a 20-year period until he had every letter in the alphabet covered (as well as the numbers) — and then boldly posts his results on the Internet for all to appreciate? See for yourself. Go to poofont.com — for $4.99 you can even download your own copy...

And discover all sorts of fascinating factoids on the font's creator. "None of these individually butt-crafted letters were photoshopped, molded, prodded, or forced into their shape," insists artist/photographer/provocateur Gutmann on his eponymous website. "It's pretty much the most natural font you could ever hope to find on the Interweb. For real! No prodding, or poking my poop with anything, because then I would call it "Poo Poked With A Stick Font", and I do have some, albeit crappy, standards."

Say what? I can already see some of you shaking your heads in disgust. This is supposed to be a column on mountain life. Isn't it? So why the heck is Beaudry writing about a guy taking pictures of his own poop?

Simple — because irreverent, boundary-pushing artists like Arne Gutmann should be celebrated more often around here. Whistler is changing fast. Increasingly dominated by conformists and anal-retentive types (who would never photograph their own poo), our town's "culture" is now mostly defined by the production of big-name entertainment. Forget nurturing local-focused festivals. Or just-for-fun parties. Now it's all about profit. Numbers. Money. Money. Money.

Which is why it's even more vital that we pay attention to those living on the fringes of our ever-greedier community. More than ever we need to celebrate those artists and thinkers and eccentrics who refuse to let the current ideology crush their hopes and dreams. Why? Because it's in those very dreams and hopes that our true destiny lies.

Remember the old days? When Whistler was still celebrated for being slightly loopy? When clothing was optional in summer and the gangela earned its moniker honestly? I know. I know. Those heady years are gone forever. Still, it's worth reminding ourselves just how far we've come since then. And just how much we've betrayed our own roots...

Fortunately, artists like Arne Gutmann still call this place home. I mean the guy never stops producing! Whether it's a new photography exhibition or another crazy, off-the-wall art party, Gutmann has so many different projects in mind that he can barely keep them in order.

And all of them — no matter how weird or absurd or other-wordly they may appear — push the boundaries of the possible (and the acceptable). Which, if I'm not mistaken, is the true role of the artist in modern society. Meaning? Art isn't about being "safe." It's about parking your prejudices at the door. Being able to laugh at yourself and your community. In other words, you're never going to "get" Gutmann's art if you have no sense of humor. Just like poo font. It's supposed to be funny. Supposed to be a gentle jibe at our own bathroom neuroses. Now do you get it?

But forgive me; I've let the story get away from me again. "I was born in Germany," recounts the 47-year old Gutmann. "Lived on the German-Belgian border for the first three years of my life." Then came the big life change. "My family immigrated to Toronto in 1968. I eventually went to CW Jeffries High School — it had a great arts program — where I focused on photography and sports."

He says he was fortunate to have a good photography teacher at school, which in turn motivated him to keep exploring his passion for camera work. "I just shot and shot and shot," he explains. "You know, I was pursing this gritty urban style; equal parts photojournalist and paparazzi..."

Graduation hardly slowed him down. In fact, it spurred him on to work at his craft even harder. He was developing his photos at a small Queen Street laboratory one day, when he felt a stranger looking over his shoulder. "I asked him if he wanted anything," says Gutmann. "He said: 'No. No. I just thought you captured the essence of that subject well.' And then he gave me his card."

Turned out the interested stranger was celebrated fashion photographer, Struan Campbell Smith. "He was the only fashion photographer listed in the national archives of Ottawa at the time," says Gutmann. "He was a seriously big-time shooter. And I was a 21-year old looking to get involved in the business." He stops. Smiles. "I phoned him up and started work for him the very next day."

It was the late 1980s and the Toronto art scene was booming. "I worked with Smith for a couple of years," says Arne, "which got me affiliated with a bunch of other top shooters."

But Gutmann was still restless. "I was racing road bikes at the time," he says. "So I decided to go back to school and take a mechanical engineering CAD course. You know, so that I could build bikes and such." He lasted in the program for less than a year. "That was a really bad decision," he says. And laughs. "Sometimes you just have to face what you're good at."

So he went back to photography. His next big break came when he landed a job with Toronto's Silver Shock, "the city's premiere shop for developing black-and-white photos," he explains. It's at Silver Shock that Gutmann first got involved in organizing art shows. "I had so much fun doing that," he says. "For me, it was always about producing art." Another big smile. "I also did a lot of DJ'ing. And I did pretty well at that too."

Meanwhile, Arne had fallen hard for snowboarding. "I started skiing at a relatively young age," he explains. "I was from the school of point-'em-straight-down-the hill. But by the time I was 25, I was ready for something new. So I taught myself how to snowboard." He admits it was pretty much a case of love at first glide.

And Whistler? "I took my first trip out west in the spring of 1995," he says. "Oh my god! I was blown away. West Van, the Sunshine Coast, Whistler — it was all so beautiful!"

This is what he remembers from his first trip up Blackcomb Glacier. "I was riding on an old Look board," he tells me, "And I probably hadn't gone more than a hundred metres down the glacier when I hit some loose snow and was pitched forward over my board." Suddenly he realized his front binding was no longer attached to his board. "It was a foam core board," he explains, "and the screws had totally ripped out. So I knew there was no way to reconnect the two..."

He also realized just how far he had to go. "So I tried to signal a patroller for help. No dice. The guy simply told me to sit on my board and ride it back to the lifts that way." He stops. Shrugs. Laughs some more. "So that's what I did — I sat on my board and rode it all the way back to Eccelerator."

He reluctantly returned to Toronto. But his heart remained in Whistler. And though he didn't quite know how he'd make it happen yet, Arne knew he'd be back. Remembers Gutmann: "On December 24th of that year, my girlfriend at the time said to me, 'You'd better check your lottery ticket because I think you might have won something.' And she was right, I had won $1,500! Which was just enough to bankroll my next trip west."

He also managed to pass his Level 1 snowboarding instructor's course that winter. "So that spring, I decided to apply for a job with the Whistler Mountain snowboard school." Another booming laugh. "I came down from Vancouver for the interview, which was scheduled for the next day. I'd already stayed at the Ski Boot the year before, so I asked around for a more interesting place. The director of the school, Bruce Irving, suggested I go stay at Seppo's."

Gutmann knew nothing about the legendary Finn or his just-as-legendary home for young mountain freaks. But he was up for any adventure. "What a trip," he says. "There was nobody else staying there that day so I spent an amazing afternoon at the house — just me and Seppo." It must have been quite the afternoon, because he missed his next day's interview with Irving and the Whistler snowboard staff by nearly two hours. "So I went back to Vancouver with my tail between my legs. I just assumed they'd never want to hire a guy who couldn't show up for his own interview on time..." But he was wrong.

Next Week: Gutmann finally lands a teaching job with Whistler Mountain, falls in love with a beautiful Japanese ski instructor and becomes a fixture on the local arts scene.