James Niehues on cartography, art and retirement

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Growing up on a Colorado farm, James Niehues loved to draw. First, it was just the things around him. Then he got sick.

James Niehues: I think I was three months prone with nephritis, and my mom bought me an oil paint set. And so I would lie in my bed and paint landscapes from magazine pictures. After I got out I got over that, I continued to be really captivated by the landscapes around me.

For Niehues, painting trail maps has always been more about landscapes than skiing. He didn’t even learn to ski until he was an adult, enlisted in the military and stationed in Europe. Eventually, he said, he became an intermediate skier, although he admits to “skiing with a little fear”.

When it comes to trail maps, Niehues also didn’t start until later in life. At 40, he moved to Denver and became a freelance artist. But he was struggling to find illustration work and contacted trail map legend Bill Brown.

JN: And he lived in Denver, so I looked for him, hoping he maybe had a work overflow and maybe I could help him.

This cold call paved the way for one of the next great trail map makers in ski resort history. One job led to another and another and another. Breckenridge, Vail, Mammoth, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Whistler in Canada, Sun Mountain in China and Coronet Peak in New Zealand. Telluride, he says, is one of his favorites

JN: Due to the dynamics and the San Juans as a backdrop, the diversity of the mountain is simply extraordinary.

The list of Niehues cards goes on and on. But at first, the path of card making was not a sure thing for him. At first it was hard.

JN: Watercolor was new to me. I have been an oil painter for many years and really feel like I have no control over watercolor. I just jumped in and learned it and, you know, I worked it and worked it.

Other parts however, he said, came naturally, such as integrating different perspectives. Making a two-dimensional map requires moving a mountain in your head and putting it back together. Niehues usually begins with aerial photographs, taken by himself or sent by the station.

JN: It’s a lot about rolling back the prospect. In other words, a lot of mine are traditional with the sky. Whenever you look at a mountain with the sky, you are looking horizontally across the mountain. But there are a lot of slopes at the back. So what I do is have a perspective from above so I can grab those back bowls. But I’m fooling you by doing it in such a way that I can enter heaven.

Regarding the feedback he gets from skiers and snowboarders, Niehues said he rarely identifies with himself when he’s in the mountains, but it does happen every now and then.

JN: I was in the elevator once with a lady and her daughter, maybe – a grown girl, and we were talking. Then they asked about a race on the mountain. And I said, well, let’s get the map out and look at it. So I took out my card. And so it naturally led to it, and they were just outside of themselves. They were going upstairs with a guy who made the map.

This kind of chance encounters could now become even rarer. Now that he’s 75, Niehues is retiring from cartography. He wants to spend more time doing landscapes. And his time in the resorts, he said, is probably a thing of the past.

JN: I don’t ski very well anyway. And I’m so into it and I feel like I have so little time left that I’m putting everything into this new business.

After three decades on, around and above the slopes, this means a well-deserved après-ski for James Niehues.

This the story was produced by Matt Hoisch of NPR member station KOTO in Telluride, Colorado.


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