Whether you knew it or not, you’ve likely experienced firsthand the art of James Niehues — especially if you’ve skied a North American resort since 1987. Niehues, see, has painted trail maps for more than 200 ski areas, from tiny New Hampshire molehills to megaresorts such as Vail or Whistler/Blackcomb.
In all the times you’ve perused a Telluride trail map, perhaps you’ve never before noticed Niehues’ signature in stylized capital print, but there it is, way to the lower right, just beside the artist’s depiction of Lower Galloping Goose.
Niehues — who hand-paints his creations based on aerial photography and, increasingly, Google Maps shots — has understandably lost some business recently to computerized art programs. Yet his work is still revered by skiers and snowboarders — and they’ve recently showed their appreciation in a major way.
A Kickstarter campaign started by Todd Bennett at Open Road Ski Company and intended to fund a book of the resort paintings was begun in November; its stated goal was to raise $8,000 from about 100 supporters for a book titled “James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map.”
Since its launch, however, the book has raised more than a half million — $590,088 to be exact — from 5,156 supporters, in the process becoming the most funded art-illustration book in Kickstarter history.
In a news release issued by Open Road, Niehues said, “I can’t believe that I’ve been able tot have this kind of impression on a whole field of sport. I’ve really been blessed.”
Niehues is traveling this week and could not be reached Tuesday for further comment.
In the past, however, he has told media companies from the New York Times and Washington Post to Ski and Snow Country magazines, that “hundreds of millions of people all over the world” have pored over his work.
The Washington Post called him the “Michelangelo of the snow.” “His trail maps are as much a part of the sport as snow,” Greg Ditrinco, then executive editor of Ski magazine, told the Associated Press in 2011.
For Niehues, the challenge has always been to render in two dimensions a stubbornly three-dimensional subject such as a ski mountain. He has said his ultimate goal is to maintain credibility and not exaggerate. Instead of measuring things like a cartographer, Niehues focuses on the visual differences and how different parts of the mountain relate to one another. A mountain with multiple faces complicates things. In some instances, he must rotate the mountain in order to accurately portray every terrain feature. In the case of mountains with multiple sides reaching to one summit, two total views are sometimes necessary.
“First of all, it’s a map. Second, it’s a piece of art,” Niehues has said. “I try to keep it as it’s skied.”
In other words, he “interprets” the mountain instead of presenting it in a just-the-facts, literal depiction. Happily, most skiers would testify that a Niehues trail map almost always allows you to see which trails connect and how to get to your preferred destination.
Niehues began painting landscapes as a teenager while bedridden with nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). After serving in the military in his early 20s, he returned to his native Colorado and pursued a career in graphic arts. In the ’80s, while working in a Denver print shop, Niehues discovered he had an eye for manipulating and distorting ski mountains so that every run would be easily viewable to skiers. “It’s like a puzzle to get all the slopes showing in a single view,” Niehues has said.
Niehues has said his Telluride Ski Resort map is one of his favorites due to the spectacular scenery of the San Juan Mountains.
Niehues has never been an elite skier, despite growing up on the Western Slope. Niehues, 72, was born in Loma and attended Fruita Monument High School. He learned to ski in Austria while serving in the military in Germany, but found he possessed below-average skills when he returned home and confronted a very Colorado bugaboo: moguls.