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Welcome to The Chili Thom Experience

Whistler honours its late artist son with five exhibitions, including masterpieces at the Audain Art Museum

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When Pique interviewed painter Chili Thom just 10 months ago, he was upfront about the aggressive cancer he had been battling for much of the previous year.

He knew there were challenges, but was making big, optimistic changes in his life, namely moving from Whistler to Montana with his wife Lauren.

He described himself as "totally open about everything," in terms of the treatments he was seeking, but it was also the perfect way to describe Thom as a person.

Thom practically owned the superlative "Whistler's favourite artist," being voted top of that category for 14 years in a row in the annual Best of Whistler competition.

When he died, aged 40, on November 30, it was a terrible loss for family, friends, and the community that nurtured his artistic and filmmaking talents for two decades.

Thom's friends are celebrating his life and influence with The Chili Thom Experience, a tribute to his career, at various locations around Whistler from June 2 to 26.

There are five major exhibits: His Masterpieces at the Audain Art Museum has 29 of his best works; His Eclectic Soul at the Maury Young Arts Centre explores Thom's quirky and bizarre humour in art and film; Inspired By Chili Thom at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre is a display of Whistler Secondary School students' art influenced by Thom; Little Chilis/Les mini-Chili is art by Myrtle Philip Community School and l'Ecole La Passerelle that was inspired by Thom; and Collecting Chili Thom at the Whistler Museum looks at his life story and legacy.

Entry to the exhibitions is free, costs for the film screenings is $10.

Heather Paul, who is a member of the project team, says she can see the finish line after months spent finding paintings, arranging transportation, seeking out films, and collecting stories.

She was up at 3 a.m. speaking to Canada Customs in the attempt to get one of Thom's paintings across the border from Billings.

"That's not the first time Chili's had me up at 3 a.m., but he firmly believed that if things aren't in your way, you're doing the wrong thing," Paul laughs.

"The painting is an unfinished work, his last work."

Paul says it is an arctic scene depicting narwhals.

"It's a statement to say he wasn't done, this is what cancer took away," she says.

Thom's friend and film collaborator Feet Banks said he was most excited by the pulling together of so many of his paintings.

"As a working artist, Chili's paintings didn't hang around very long. As soon as he was done a painting his next job was to get rid of it, so he could pay the rent and work on the next one," Banks says.

"For us to sit and bask in so many at the same time is a real treat. It will be special for a lot of people."

Banks adds: "There's been a few jokes. I've been asked, 'What are you doing today?' and I've said, 'Working for Chili.' There's been a lot of that kind of stuff.

"His wild and crazy projects and vision were contagious. He'd get people helping him out for all sorts of things, whether it was for a horror movie, or decorating for a Halloween party, or building some kind of contraption in the forest... it is fitting that people continue to make this happen."

Thom's close friend Nora Clarke says, "it has been absolutely amazing."

"I've loved every second of it. For me, the biggest thing is knowing how much Chili would have loved every second of seeing his name and his art in the gorgeous Audain."

The show had been talked about before Thom's death, Clarke says.

"He knew. He knew it was happening and he cried when he found out. It's going to be very overwhelming," she says.

Banks wanted to thank the volunteers.

"A lot needs to be said about how the community made this happen," he said. "From Arts Whistler, to Gibbons, the Houssian Foundation, The Grocery Store and Sushi Village pitching in large chunks of money, to friends like Nora coming in on their own time to hang the show. It's touching to see the time, energy and love people will put in."

Sushi Village is also having a decorate-the-dumbo event through June, which encourages people to buy and decorate their sake takeaway dumbo containers in Thom's style.

As well as the exhibitions, the aim is to raise funds through a silent auction for a memorial art scholarship for each of the three high schools in the Sea to Sky region.

The opening reception for the Chili Thom Experience starts with His Masterpieces at the Audain Art Museum on Friday, June 2, at 5:30 p.m. and continues with His Eclectic Soul at the Maury Young Arts at 7 p.m.

Admission to both is free and all are welcome.

For more information visit www.artswhistler.com.

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