On first glance, Roger Quesnel's black ink drawings and wood-burned carvings look like accurate portrayals of nature - the Chief rising above Squamish; a torrential Shannon Falls; clouds of eagles in Brackendale. Upon closer examination they become something else. Tucked into layers of intricate métier, turtles, gods, rabbits and witches run a fantastical course through his collection. They honour the folklore of the Sea to Sky corridor and pay tribute to the imagination of a nature-loving local whose life was dramatically altered by a serious spinal cord injury in 1991.
"I don't know whether it's primitive art or folk art but it's art - no question about it," said Brackendale Art Gallery owner and curator, Thor Froslev, who is showing Quesnel's art until December 1.
"Not only is he a historian... I really think that somebody in a similar situation, they will see what this man can do and it will give them a lift."
When Quesnel broke his back while attending a rescue of another injured skier at Whistler Blackcomb over two decades ago, he used carving as a rehabilitation tool. When he later broke his neck body surfing in the waves of Baja a few years later and lost the use of one side of his body, he took up drawing.
Art had always been a part of Quesnel's personal equation, but the accidents changed everything for the athletic local. Forced into early retirement by his injury, he started selling his work at Farmer's Markets and by commission. Though the accidents changed the direction of his life and art, his creative instincts have been well exercised since childhood.
"Growing up we had a great art teacher, Gail Featherston," he said. "In Grade 8 when she started her teaching career, me and a whole bunch of locals who had been here all our lives just fell in love with the whole process of art right 'til graduation," said Quesnel of his artistic background. "We started a t-shirt shop -Black & Bright - and won awards. Then I went to broken back, broken neck, early retirement, rehab, carving, and getting back to a place of physicality. I broke my neck on November 9 (two decades ago). I call it my deathday. I'm still waiting for my birthday, when I can let it all go."
Quesnel has as many layers and curiosities as the art he creates. When Whistler and Vancouver won the Olympic bid in 2003 he started creating one ink and paper design per month, intent on creating a locally focused nature calendar for the Games. When they came and went last February, he realized he was being propelled by something else and turned the drawings into a colouring book with a visual riddle woven into the pages.
"I tell people if you were to highlight from the beginning (of the book) the turtles and rabbits going through the mist and the rocks, that they will solve the mystery," he said. "It's been a really slow process but it is part of the big journey for me. There are characters in the rocks all through this valley."
For his carvings, also on display at the Brackendale Art Gallery, Quesnel uses what he laughingly refers to as firewood - local cedar and maple pulled from friend's woodpiles and salvaged from local forests. Once whittled into shape, he employs a wood burning technique to engrave the pieces with the dramatic illustrations that mark his style.
"It doesn't rub off, you don't have to seal it, it lives for the life of a hunk of wood and cedar could last thousands of years," he said.
It's clear that Quesnel holds nature's idiosyncrasies in high regard. Like the wood he shapes, withstanding life's rough patches is as important to him as turning them into something beautiful.