As a painter, Chili Thom was the master of colour. His eye would notice combinations few others would see — a woman's purse complementing a parked car as she crossed the street or the moment of purple the snow can take while reflecting the day's last rays of sun.
"I enjoy playing with the subtleties of colour," he once told me, "blues hold vibrancy well, greens are trickier. Not a single colour goes onto my canvas without some tweaking — anyone can paint straight from the tube."
When Chili passed over to the other side Nov. 30, all our lives got a bit less vibrant and a lot less colourful. His creative spirit and enthusiasm for life inspired us to get outside, to make things happen, and to enjoy each moment spent with friends, especially out amid the power and beauty of the forests, coastlines and mountains that he loved. Just 40 years old when he died, Chili was a husband, father, artist, adventurer, filmmaker, DJ, wilderness guide, TV personality, activist and a high-kicking, ass-shaking friend to almost everyone he ever met.
He was also, on a least a couple occasions, a male stripper named White Lightning.
I met Michael Christopher Thom at Sushi Village in 1996, busboys the both of us. We hit it off immediately and within days, he'd bought into the first of what would become two decades of schemes so batshit crazy I'd never even consider them. This time it was an amateur male-stripping contest in his hometown of Chilliwack. Stripping, apparently, was a lifelong dream.
"It's 500 bucks for first place," he enthused, "and I've been rock climbing all summer — I'm in top stripping shape!" We didn't make it to Chilliwack that time. but the White Lightning persona later became the subject of a mockumentary script idea (with a tragic ending that set up a zombie-stripper sequel), and the dream was eventually realized when Chili hit the stage at the GLC in 2005 as part of Whistler's first ever "Boy-lesque" dance troupe. With gusto, courage, and hand-sewn lightning bolts on his tear-away pants and cowboy hat, White Lightning performed numerous times from 2005 to 2006, including at Chili's own birthday, a self-organized 30-woman lingerie pillow fight. Another dream checked off the list.
If White Lightning represented years of thought, Green Jesus happened almost in an instant. Filmmaking gave Chili a chance to play in a new art form and tackle elements that didn't fit in his paintings. As such his films often delved into taboo topics — sex, death, politics, religion — and Green Jesus ticked most of those boxes right away.
Our first horror trilogy and the sole reason the B-Grade HorrorFest ever started, Green Jesus was about a marijuana-fuelled deity/superhero protecting the world from evil gnomes, lesbian vampires, zombie Lazarus and Satan himself. During shooting, Chili would dye himself green for up to four days at a time. The acting was B-Grade (maybe because the scripts existed solely in our heads), but the special effects looked good and the message was pure: never underestimate the power of the Holy Smoke.
Red Lights in the Dark
For a few years, Chili's only mode of vehicular transport was a retired but fully working Ford Econoline ambulance from California. As a touring DJ, Chili had painted "Party Medics" on the side but otherwise it looked legit and we hit those flashing red lights enough times that it was almost OK that she wouldn't start in anything colder than -2 C. The ambulance fit, though, because Chili was a first-aid master who would remove leeches, pad blisters, soothe burns and mend wounds whenever mishaps occurred. He once stepped on broken glass in our dining room (home to a Chili-built five-seat bar instead of a dining table) and put five stitches into the sole of his own foot.
The downside of being the go-to paramedic was when our good friend Brett Carlson died in a road-gap ski accident. First on the scene, and the only person holding it together under the worst possible circumstances, Chili did everything right but still had to watch a friend die in his arms at age 23. I know it affected him for years and I'm thankful our culture is shifting enough where kids these days are more likely to get help or counselling for the traumas and mental pressures that can come along with life in paradise. Chili eventually did, proving that sometimes the strongest thing you can do is know when to ask for help.
Chili was as generous with his time and talents as he was fearless, so when you needed help with something a bit... out there... he was game. One time, we pulled him out of a costume-building date with the prettiest girl in town so he could help us break into the drunk tank. We had a buddy in there we felt was wrongly incarcerated and Chili agreed if they wouldn't let him out they better be ready to let us in.
I once woke up to the sound of grinding metal and sparks shooting out of Chili's ensuite. His girlfriend was in there, naked but covered with a wool blanket, with her left ankle and wrist handcuffed together. Chili had lost the key and was cutting her loose with a Dremel, his pupils wide with the glee not only of the problem, but also the solution. Chili had a plan, the best plan... always.
The Golden Light of Love
He was an artist with an engineer's mind, he could see the inner workings of the world and could creatively shuffle and push life's everyday details into new levels of efficiency. As such, it was the less tangible things that brought Chili the most happiness — friendship, love, fatherhood, charity and the power of nature.
Nature especially was a continuous grounding force and Chili was as honoured to be involved with the Art for an Oil Free Coast project as he was proud to show up and raise his voice and fists in protest of the Canadian government's refusal to protect the world he held so dear.
"Nature has given me a lifetime of inspiration," Chili told me during a magazine interview. "In just a few decades, I have seen how mankind has damaged our planet at an exponential rate. I love snow. I love clean water, fresh air, wild animals. There come's a point where you have to look inside yourself and ask, 'What am I willing to sacrifice to protect something that has given me the life of my dreams?'"
Chili Thom is survived by his loving wife, his beautiful daughter, his two brothers and sister, his mother and the rest of us: people uplifted by the man or his artwork and inspired by a life lived anything but "straight from the tube."
A memorial gala is planned for Dec. 17 at the Roundhouse. Stay tuned for more details and ticket information.