By Cindy Filipenko
The logo on the door of Chili Thom’s studio space suggests that Creation Station may not be just another warehouse space in Function Junction. The studio’s name, spelled out in a ’60s-style balloon font, is wrapped around another iconic hippie-era symbol, a daisy. But wait, that’s no seed pod in the middle of the flower, it’s a stylized skull recognizable to anyone who’s feet have ever hit the deck of a board. Now meets then.
Inside the lofted warehouse, the theme of dual cultures continues, in large part due to the Whistler artist’s visual imagery that adorns everything from high-end snowboards to canvasses in progress.
Thom’s surreal landscapes take the familiar and elevate them to the otherworldly through his dramatic use of colour and an aesthetic that owes as much to Dr. Seuss as it does to ’60s pop art. Whether breathing life into sedimentary stones jostling for position in a river bead or capturing the frenetic energy of a packed dance floor, Thom’s work is startlingly original.
Sporting a set of impressive mutton chop sideburns and unruly hair, he’s got a sexy boyishness that suggests casting him as Wolverine’s younger brother should the X-Men franchise run out of ideas.
What should come across as a culture clash, presents itself as an amalgamation of complementary cultures, as complex and open and — well, friendly — as Chili Thom himself. His philosophy is simple: stay positive and keep your eye on the prize.
“When I decided to be an artist instead of a waiter who painted everything changed,” he says, with a tone verging on awe.
A big part of the change was acquiring Creation Station.
The primary sitting space in the studio consists of a couple of long, orange sofas, covered in their original fabric, a substance so inorganic and indestructible that it seems strikingly at odds with mountains visible from windows along the top of the loft’s roll-up metal door. Against that door is a futuristic banquet that looks like it could be Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter’s dining nook. Consisting of indigo, orange and purple seating, the back of the banquet climbs six or seven feet before protectively hooking over. Above the top of the banquet a twentysomething–foot long fabric and feather dragon looks down from the ceiling, a slightly menacing expression on its face as if to say, “Who are you asking to have a ‘Gung Hay Fat Choy’, white girl?”
Workspace competes with DJ space in the warehouse’s primary loft, which features some great superhero elements. A quick offside conversation with his assistant ends with her zipping off to do some errands, hitting the floor below with the help of a fireman’s pole.
The turntables and stacks of vinyl are the tools of one of Thom’s numerous sidelines. As DJ Mr. Fister, he has hosted club nights around the village for years. With his partner, Kelsey Nash, he hosts the quirky TuTu Tuesdays — a chance for Whistler’s young and fun to fulfill their ballerina fantasies by donning one of the dozens of tutus that hang above Nash’s sewing workspace. (The tutus are a collection of vintage pieces Nash has acquired over the years and her own creations.)
Creation Station is the best playhouse in Whistler. Full stop.
The environment fits. After all, Thom is the best example of playing to live the town has to offer. His secret: he loves his work, the breadth and diversity. While he has the easygoing nature of a Generation Y slacker, he’s an exceptionally hard working artist, employing mediums ranging from music to film to express himself. He can keep up with the pace and the demands of his evolving career mostly because he loves it. He loves it so much that it begs the question: what would have happened if the onetime air cadet had followed another path.
“After high school I had a scholarship for aerospace engineering,” explains Thom.
When he discovered that becoming a pilot was not an option, he decided that pursuing a BA in fine arts would be the way to go. After all, the idea of riding shotgun as a navigator or “being the guy who decided where to drop the bombs” was not very appealing.
A scholarship to UBC helped determine his educational destination. Half a year in, Thom discovered that the university’s fine arts program was not what he expected it to be. Dropping out, he went traveling. Seven months later, after touring Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, he returned home.
“I came up to Whistler to visit a friend who was living here. I came up for a weekend and I stayed… 11 years,” says Thom, a story shared by so many.
Part of the appeal for the committed outdoorsman was obviously Whistler’s dynamic natural environment. Becoming a guide was also an economic practicality; he could get into the backcountry and make a living at the same time. It was also a career opportunity that played to his existing skill set.
“I started an outdoors club in high school. I was in air cadets, I did survival training and taught it to everyone. I did rock climbing. My parents were always into the outdoors. We did canoe trips. We had a cabin in the interior,” says Thom, adding: “I also had some experience teaching leadership in a summer camp in the Howe Sound.”
While doing a first aid re-certification he met up with Bruce Wilson, who had a company in North Vancouver hosting kayak training in the summer and avalanche safety in the winter. Through his relationship with Wilson’s adventure company, he gained his guiding certification, a piece of paper that has been his passport to further adventure.
While there’s been a few close calls out in the wilds for Thom, so far he hasn’t come up against anything that he couldn’t handle. “I’ve been excessively cold or had to drag an injured friend out of the woods… and I’ve had about 20 black bear encounters.”
So far, he’s managed to elude the one thing that appears to make him a little nervous — grizzlies.
“Sometimes you’ll hear a ‘crack’ in the bush every now and then, look around and think, ‘I know there’s something out here.’”
What’s out there?
Finding out what’s out there is an important theme of Thom’s latest venture, hosting the 13-part documentary series, Wild at Heart . The production, which takes non-outdoors types on recreation adventures in provincial parks throughout B.C., is the Knowledge Network’s most ambitious project. As such, the program has been sold to broadcasters across the country and strong international sales seem likely given Europe’s affinity for B.C.’s landscape.
Having worked previously with the series producer, David Gullason, on the Life Network’s series, Whistler Stories , Thom was determined to win the hosting job when the idea was first presented to him.
Thom, accompanied by Heavy Hitting Films partner Feet Banks, went down to the Knowledge Network’s studio for his on-camera test. After the test, they showed the producers their Whistler film festival funded movie, High on the Mountain . That cinched the deal.
“We showed it to them and they were like, well their jaws practically dropped and they said 'Yeah, this is what we’re looking for.’”
A few months later Thom was engaged in a five-month shooting schedule. From 5,000 applicants, Thom led 65 people — in groups of four or five — to realize their adventures. While many of the participants were justifiably nervous at first, their enthusiasm impressed Thom.
“They were pretty excited. Really stoked.”
Thom, too, was stoked, albeit for different reasons. With the series ready to debut next week (Wednesday, March 28 on Knowledge) his optimism is reaching a fever pitch.
“It was absolutely incredible. It was an amazing, amazing opportunity. Publicity wise, I have a feeling it will do wonders for my artwork. It was fascinating; I got to do things I’d always wanted to do.”
One of those things was repelling deep inside the earth. For more than 14 hours Thom, the film crew and the participants found themselves deep inside Horne Lake.
“Horne Lake caves are mind blowing. In this one chamber, Achilles Pot, there’s this 90-foot stalactite crystal coming down to this bluey-green crystal clear little pond, and there’s bubbly calcite flowstone all over the walls — sparkling.”
He also got to don a cowboy hat, six-shooters and ride into the Rockies, fulfilling a childhood dream that left a grin etched on his face through the entire shoot. It also got him to forget an unfortunate equine incident as a kid.
“Horses can always tell if you’re afraid. They look at you a little shifty,” he explains, indicating that horseback riding probably still comes a distinct second to mountain biking.
Wild at Heart’s mountain biking adventure on Babine Mountain proved the series’ most challenging episode for Thom. It was a far cry from the show’s comparitively gentle Myra Canyon ride that showcases the trestle bridges replaced after 2003’s devastating forest fires.
“I did a 18-km uphill ride with a 35-pound pack on my back. It was exhausting. As the host and guide I had a lot of responsibilities… there’s a lot of metaphorical weight as well,” says Thom.
The real payoff for the host was sharing in the triumphs of the show's participants, who ranged from couples trying to revitalize their relationships and families trying to escape their sedentary ruts to breast cancer survivors reclaiming their lives. Seeing people push themselves and succeed was incredibly empowering for the longtime guide.
“That was one of the reasons when I started guiding that I really enjoyed it. You can live vicariously through these people and their first experiences.
“The first time you see a whale when you’re kayaking is incredible. You just see the little child in them.”
Another thing he brought back from the experience he describes as “an honour and privilege” is a brain bursting with inspiration — inspiration that will have to wait. His participation in Wild at Heart has meant that as he returns to the studio this month he’s looking at a backlog of commissions. (A problem he recognizes that a lot of artists would like to have.) He expects that any new work will have to wait until the summer or fall.
Of course, that will also depend on how many other projects come to fruition along the way. In addition to painting and guiding and DJing, he’s committed to completing the third part of the horror film trilogy he and Banks have been working on, and there’s also the day-to-day of the company he runs with Nash.
The couple operate their own production decorating company, called Shits ’N’ Giggles. From its humble genesis as a club night with weekly themes, the company has emerged as a player in the events industry. Envisioned as a way to introduce city-style club nights to the resort, Shits ’N’ Giggles, now does everything from art openings to major corporate events at enormous venues like the Telus Conference Centre.
“Collaboration is great, it always gives you at least twice as many options,” he says of their partnership, acknowledging that they share a distinct, yet complementary aesthetic.
Thom could be described as collaboratively promiscuous. And everyone appears to be benefiting from his multi-partnered creative efforts. His list of partners and associates reads like a Who’s Who of young and hip Whistler. In addition to Nash, Chili Thom works with filmmaker Feet Banks, DJ Scott Arkwell and former roommate and fellow painter David Barnes.
At the reception of the Paralympic Cultural Cabaret, Thom and Barnes had their shared easel positioned next to DJ Foxy Moron’s set-up. While Foxy spun platters to scarf canapés by, Thom and Barnes performance painted. The painting, a 3’x2’ urban landscape featuring a puzzle of blue-green concrete apartment blocks with purple deciduous trees, their roots threatening to strangle the inorganic people cages, proved that the two, despite mixing acrylics on each others Re-Use-It Centre suit coats, were much more that clown princes of visual arts. Never has watching paint dry been so fascinating.
The confidence of Thom’s strokes and the fact he’s comfortable enough to paint in public is even more interesting considering how relatively new he is to the form.
“I came up here to have fun and got a job working at Sushi Village… I wasn’t really thinking about art. In Christmas ’98 I went home and was visiting my mom and found some old art supplies. I thought, I’m going to try to do a painting. So, I did a painting for mom and thought ‘It’s all right.’ I did another one… and thought ‘I kind of like it,’” he says, pointing to a modest-sized canvass detailing a multi-coloured river winding through a canyon.
His third piece was a combination of the two styles. That was the first painting he sold.
“I developed my style really quickly. When I look back on my older pieces I think my style was set in my first four pieces.”
Within a couple of years of picking up the brush, he served his last California roll, a move he admits was kind of scary. About that same time, he started producing outdoor theme parties.
“Six years ago when I got together with Kelsey I started doing a bunch of outdoor parties to give something back to people. Crazy outdoor events up logging roads and stuff.”
Scott Arkwell, a.k.a. DJ Vinyl Ritchie, convinced Thom and Nash to bring their show inside and Shits ’N’ Giggles Productions was born.
“Music is probably the most powerful art form. You can make someone cry with a song or completely overjoyed… you can bring back memories from the past instantly.
“Music goes really hand-in-hand with the artwork for me. I can’t really paint without music.”
DJing, art, guiding and filmmaking, what’s going to finally win out?
“I think if one was to die off, the others would be affected. I find it all works together,” says Thom who admits it’s not uncommon for him to come home from a night of clubbing and paint until six or seven in the morning.
And then there’s the matter of his commitment to Heavy Hitting Films and the immensely popular B-Grade Horror Movie Festival that he created with one of the first friends he made in his adopted hometown, Feet Banks.
“Feet trained me at Sushi Village to be a busser. He was going to film school in Victoria and I was his replacement. He rock climbs. I rock climb. So we got a little climber bond. We went out climbing and became friends. Then I ended up going to Victoria to help him with his student film.”
Student films led to other projects that established their ongoing partnership.
“We’re putting together a grant proposal now because we want do to a trip to Ice Berg Alley, between Greenland and Baffin Island, this is where 90 per cent of the world’s icebergs float down. We want to do a documentary, do some kayaking, get lots of photos and inspiration and do a 24-piece painting installation with each illustrating a different hour of the day; like the sun rising behind an iceberg. It will be presented in the round like a giant igloo.
“Within the film we want to incorporate an awareness about global warming. Ideally we’d take the art show on the road and come up with a coffee table book featuring my art and Feet’s writing.”
While they wait on to find out if a trip to Ice Berg Alley will be on the agenda, the two men will be shooting the final installment of their horror trilogy this summer.
“It’ll be epic, we’re even going to have aerial shots,” he promises with a laugh.
Eye on the world
Underneath all of Thom’s numerous undertakings beats the heart of a far greater idea.
“One of the big goals for my artwork is that I want to use it to help other people.
“I want to travel around the world and see people who need things like wells, farming equipment… I want to go to these places, create paintings and make prints to sell to help finance these kinds of projects. There’s a lot of opportunity here. Thanks to the Olympics it’s going to be great, the world is going to be watching.”
Chili Thom has given Whistler a lot, and Whistler has given him a lot back, including his name.
“It’s a nickname. Darcy Taylor at Sushi Village came up with it,” says Thom, whose birth name is Michael. “There were a bunch of others guys with the same name so, as the new guy I needed a nickname. Darcy asked me where I was from, I said ‘Chilliwack’ and that got him going, ‘Wacky Thom, Thom Whack, Mike Wacky, Chili Mike… Chili Thom.’ It stuck. Now my parents even call me Chili. It’s good. It’s completely my name now.”
Thom is a rarity, an open and spiritually grounded artist who embraces the challenges of living a life committed to his dreams. A thankful, thoughtful man, he is, as his cell phone message suggests, “out living the dream.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the support of my friends and the community of Whistler. I really see and stress the importance of that, of having a community bond where everyone is looking out for each other. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have support.”