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Chili Thom – Creative mind in outgoing body

"A sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world". – Philosopher John Locke (1632 - 1704) Culture. It's a loaded term at Whistler. And it's creating all sorts of disconnects.

"A sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world".

– Philosopher John Locke (1632 - 1704)

Culture. It's a loaded term at Whistler. And it's creating all sorts of disconnects. Does "culture" really mean bringing in big-name musical acts, high-priced media events and Hollywood-like parties — as some of our decision-makers insist? Or does culture simply mean (as the dictionary suggests) "the beliefs, customs, practices and social behavior of a particular people?"

For me, it's a simple equation. The former is "entertainment" — and most of what we get at Whistler has absolutely no cultural connection to this place. Conversely, little of Whistler's true "culture" (as posed in the latter definition) gets sufficiently promoted. It's almost like the powers-that-be here are so focused on making "big things" happen that they can't see the elephant in the room!

Whistler culture is thriving! It's unique and magical and naughty and irreverent. And it continues to thrive (despite — and not because of — the system that's meant to support it). Over the years, this community has attracted and nurtured a slough of talented artists. Painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers, photographers, actors; people with names like Craig and Milner and Vogler and Massey and Morrison. And the list goes on.

But they didn't come here to practice their art. At least that wasn't their primary purpose. They came here to live in the mountains — which, in turn, became reflected in the art that they were inspired to create. And that's Whistler's edge. That's the power of this place.

So why are we so insecure about Whistler's position in the world that we still believe success can only come if we promote big-name entertainment here? Why do we continue to confuse entertainment for culture?

But you don't have to agree with me. I'm just posing the question: Do we really know the difference? I'm also hoping our new council will make this question a public issue. Why? Because I believe we've been barking up the wrong culture-tree since we were seduced by the Olympic hype-train. And it's understandable. Given the global spotlight on Whistler during the last decade, some of us started believing our own press.

Alas the spotlight's been turned off. And now we need to take a long, deep draft of reality. Whistler is a town of 10,000 whose principal raison-d'ètre (until someone can show me different) is hosting people who love mountain-play. Can we be more than that? Of course we can. We can provide a non-urban refuge to the stressed-out multitudes desperate for something different than the 9-5 existential Hell that they suffer through every day of their lives.

And yes, by all means, let's entertain them while they're here. But do they really want to be bombarded by the same brand of "culture" that surrounds them in their city lives? I'm just not convinced. But it goes much farther than that. The more we "import" outside culture to Whistler, the less we establish ourselves as a bona-fide community. To me, there's no upside to this strategy — it's a nasty downward spiral to cultural colonialism.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: we don't need to be that desperate! Whistler's cultural tag should be "Healthy mind in healthy body." After all, what better way to intertwine the power of our Olympic experience with the natural exuberance of our residents? It's a no-brainer. But once again I've gotten carried away with my rhetoric. And this time I almost feel guilty. For I'm holding one of Whistler's most inspiring stories in my back pocket.

He's a young artist who represents the very best of Whistler culture. A man who integrates body and mind in all his pursuits — whether sports, music, painting, party-organizing or filmmaking. He's a walking, talking, smiling celebration of Sea-to-Sky life — in all its manifestation. Ladies and gentlemen: Chili Thom.

"I was born in New Westminster," says the easy-going 35-year old, "but I spent my youth in Chilliwack. And it was a great place to grow up." Surrounded by farmland and lakes and rivers and mountains, the young Chili took full advantage of his Fraser Valley home and its still-wild environment. "We had a really active lifestyle," he continues. "My friends all lived on farms so we had the work-ethic thing down pretty good. But we also had a lot of time to hike and climb and paddle and swim and..."

He remembers making his first pilgrimage to Whistler as a five-year old. "My godparents had a place up here," he explains. "I think that was the first time I got to ski Blackcomb." He was immediately hooked. "Even as a kid, I knew this was a special mountain spot."

Always a high-energy guy, Chili was responsible for launching the Outdoors Club at Chilliwack Senior Secondary and was a hardcore member of the school's ski club. "I still remember our ski days well," he says with a nostalgic sigh. "That was hardcore. Get up at 5:00 a.m., catch the bus to Whistler, then ski your buns off all day until they kick you off the mountain when the lifts close." A smile. "Those were truly great days..."

As much as he enjoyed it, becoming a ski bum was not yet on the radar for the young student. "I wanted to be an aerospace engineer," he says with a straight face. And then in reaction to the look of doubt on my face: "Really. I was totally intent on getting into the Canadian Air Force. Had a full scholarship to Royal Roads University and everything."

Sometimes things don't turn out for a reason. Still, it's hard to swallow your disappointment when you've set your heart on a goal and you don't achieve it. "Exactly," says Chili. And sighs. "In February of 1994 during my last year of high school — I remember that time so well — I flew to Toronto to undergo testing with the Air Force." A pause. Another sigh. "I failed just one of the 25 tests they put me through. And they told me: 'You can't be a pilot — but you can become a navigator or a weapons specialist.' Well, that wasn't for me. Yet when I asked them which test I'd failed, they wouldn't tell me. 'Go back to school for a year,' they said. 'And then you can come back and ask us.'"

That was the last straw. Chili's air force dreams were grounded. "I was so bummed with that trip that I dropped all my advanced science courses," he says. And smiles. "I had this great art teacher at the time, Ms. Maureen Richardson, so I went to see her and she fixed me up with my own personal art class instead. It was exactly what I needed."

His next stop was UBC. "I had a scholarship and I didn't want to waste it," he says. "But I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do." He enrolled in the fine arts program there but found it too academic; he wanted something more hands-on. So he applied to Emily Carr — where he was told he needed to "work" on his painting technique. Chili stops for a breath. A smile begins to play at the edge of his features. "So I said to myself: 'Okay then. I'll do it on my own.'" And that was the end of Chili's academic training. "It's ironic, you know," he adds. "Now Emily Carr students do projects on my work."

Indeed. But at the time, Chili still wasn't sure what he wanted to do. "I took off travelling for half a year," he recounts. "Went to New Zealand, Australia...." But the mountains were calling. Loudly.

Whistler, he says, was the obvious choice. So that's where he went. And suddenly things started clicking again. "That first week is still a bit of a blur," he admits. "But somehow I got lucky and landed a job at Sushi Village, where I immediately fell in with Feet Banks and the guys from the Heavy Hitting crew." No. Don't laugh. It's the truth. Sometimes things do work out.

The year was 1996. Whistler was going off. For many in the fast-expanding world of global snowports, our little mountain town was known as "the crossroads of the New School universe." And Sushi Village was ground zero. "It was an amazing time," marvels Chili. "I mean, everybody who was anybody came through Sushi Village back then — it was like a local hangout! For example, I was a really big fan of Greg Stump in those days. As for Ace Mackay-Smith — I mean, I was in love with her, just like every other twentysomething skier of that era. Well, they'd come in to eat sushi all the time. Man, I was so star-struck..."

He stops. Laughs. "Well, I probably hadn't been working there for more than a week, when I was invited to a house party after work to play charades." Another pause. "Suddenly there I was, hanging out with Stumpie and Ace and Rob Boyd and..." He smiles. It was love at first arrival. Barely 20 and still very wet behind the ears, Chili had managed to find his place in very short order. And now he was ready to give back.

Next week: Chili reveals some of his own opinions on local culture and art