“The Michelan­gelo of Snow.”

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By T. Rees Shapiro

James Niehues’ pris­tine, hand-painted im­ages have served as a guide to the steeps, couloirs and cliffs for skiers for the past three decades.

When skiers dis­mount the Swift Cur­rent chair­lift at Mon­tana’s Big Sky re­sort, they en­counter — lodged deep into the snow — a plac­ard bear­ing a panoramic view of Lone Peak from the mind’s eye of James Niehues.

His pris­tine, hand-painted im­ages have served as a guide to the steeps, couloirs and cliffs for skiers dur­ing the past three decades. For his airy and in­tri­cately de­tailed land­scapes de­pict­ing mountain re­sorts, the pro­lific wa­ter­col­orist has earned ac­claim but not broad recog­ni­tion be­yond at­ten­tive skiers who hap­pen to no­tice his sig­na­ture cam­ou­flaged in the pines and spruces of his pictures.

In fact, the work of the artist re­garded as “The Michelan­gelo of Snow” is so ubiq­ui­tous on ski moun­tains across North Amer­ica that most of the ma­jor re­sorts’ maps fea­ture his il­lus­tra­tions: Whistler-Black­comb, Vail, Park City, Sun Val­ley, Taos — among 160 more. Niehues’ maps have wo­ven the artist deeply into the fabric of ski cul­ture.

“His trail maps are as much a part of the sport as snow,” Greg Ditrinco, ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of Ski mag­a­zine, told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 2011.

Niehues — de­scrib­ing him­self mod­estly as an in­ter­me­di­ate skier who prefers cor­duroy groomers — did not be­gin his ca­reer as a map il­lus­tra­tor un­til he was in his 40s. But he had long felt a pas­sion for paint­ing land­scape scenes rem­i­nis­cent of the Colorado mountain vis­tas that sur­rounded him in his youth. Niehues, 70, grew up in Loma, in Mesa County, on a farm where his fa­ther grew al­falfa, corn and pota­toes, and raised cat­tle and hogs.

“I re­mem­ber very well be­cause it was my job ev­ery week­end to scoop all the ma­nure into the ma­nure

spreader and get it out into the fields,” Niehues said. “It was a very dirty job.”

He came by his in­ter­est in the out­doors hon­estly, ac­com­pa­ny­ing his fa­ther on au­tumn deer-hunt­ing trips down the Colorado River by boat. But as a teenager, he was bedrid­den for two months with a bout of nephri­tis and spent the time on his back paint­ing scenery from a mail-or­der kit given to him by his mother.

“I would find a pho­to­graph in a mag­a­zine some­where and paint that,” Niehues said of his in­tro­duc­tory artis­tic train­ing.

He joined the Army in 1965 and served in Ber­lin, where he took a trip to the Alps in Switzer­land and skied for the first time. Upon re­turn­ing home, he vis­ited Pow­der­horn Mountain Re­sort, but learned that his skills didn’t trans­late to the Rocky Moun­tains.

“I ended up walk­ing off the slopes,” Niehues said.

His mil­i­tary ser­vice ended in 1969, and Niehues worked as a press­man, a graphic de­signer and as part­ner at an ad­ver­tis­ing agency be­fore turn­ing full time to il­lus­tra­tions in 1988. His first job was paint­ing a por­tion of the Win­ter Park Re­sort in Colorado. Since then, he has used gouache to paint a to­tal of more than 220 ski maps.

His art­work is renowned for its de­tail. He paints ev­ery tree by hand, and it can be painstak­ing work. For a time he be­came so in de­mand that he got a bad case of ten­nis el­bow and had to use a sling.

When he is com­mis­sioned to paint a mountain, he flies in a small plane to take aerial pho­to­graphs that he later uses for ref­er­ence. Niehues then forms a com­pos­ite of the ter­rain and uses light and shad­ing to em­pha­size points of in­ter­est for skiers. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he’ll even ski the mountain to get a bet­ter feel for its fea­tures, but he ad­mits that he has tried only about 5 per­cent of the re­sorts he has painted. For in­stance, Niehues said that he’s in the process of com­plet­ing a map of Breck­en­ridge — an ex­pan­sive re­sort — de­spite never hav­ing set foot on its peaks.

Greg Ralph, mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for the Monarch Mountain re­sort, told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 2007 that when it came time for a new ski map there was only one choice.

“We never thought of any­one else,” Ralph said. “I mean, it’s like hear­ing Michelan­gelo is avail­able to paint the ceil­ing. You say, ‘Cool, we’ll take him.’ “

The re­sult of­ten is a faith­ful ren­di­tion of a mountain’s natural splen­dor, with its sharp edges, gen­tle folds and lay­ered bedrock.

New York Times art critic Ken John­son once de­scribed Niehues’s work in 2006 as hav­ing “a slightly prim­i­tive lu­cid­ity that calls to mind early Amer­i­can folk art.”

Niehues said that he likes know­ing that skiers take a piece of him in their pock­ets when­ever they ski the moun­tains he has painted.

“One of the more spe­cial things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences and they’re re­view­ing my art,” Niehues said.

Niehues is mostly re­tired and re­cently re­turned home to Love­land, Colo., from a month-long road trip to the East Coast, where he vis­ited Ni­a­gara Falls and Up­state New York. He has an archive of thou­sands of pho­to­graphs from years past of scenes he one day would like to paint.

“Ev­ery scene has some­thing spe­cial about it,” he said.

Dur­ing the trip, he stopped to take a pic­ture of an Amish coun­try barn, where the corn was be­ing har­vested by a horse­drawn wagon. His wife took a par­tic­u­lar lik­ing to it.

“Whether I’ll ever paint it or not I never know,” Niehues said. Then, af­ter a brief pause, “But I think I bet­ter paint it.”

Photo cour­tesy of James Niehues

James Niehues is so ubiq­ui­tous on ski moun­tains across North Amer­ica that most of the ma­jor re­sorts’ maps fea­ture his il­lus­tra­tions: Colorado’s Breck­en­ridge, pic­tured above, and Vail; Utah’s Park City; Idaho’s Sun Val­ley; and New Mex­ico’s Taos are among 160 more.

Photo cour­tesy of James Niehues

James Niehues, paint­ing in the tree shad­ows on the 2016 Alta map im­age.

Nick Van Dame, Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

Niehues knows that aerial pho­to­graphs are in­stru­men­tal in un­der­stand­ing the slopes and get­ting the de­tail right.

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