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James Niehues on map making, art and retirement

A photo of James Niehues painting.
Courtesy of James Niehues
James Niehues has painted over 300 ski resort trail maps.

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

James Niehues: I think I was three months flat on my back with nephritis, and my mom bought me an oil painting set. And so I would lay in bed and paint landscapes from magazine pictures. After I got out, overcame that, I just continued to really be enthralled with the landscapes around me.

For Niehues, painting trail maps has always been more about the landscapes than the 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, though 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 freelanced as an artist. But he was struggling to find illustration work, and reached out to trail map making legend Bill Brown.

JN: And he lived in Denver, so I looked him up, hoping that he maybe had an overflow of work and that maybe I could help him out.

That cold call set the stage 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 said, is one of his favorites

JN: Because of the dynamics and the San Juans as a backdrop, the diversity of the mountain is just extraordinary.

The list of Niehues maps goes on and on. But at the beginning, the map making path wasn't a sure thing for him. At first, it was hard.

JN: Watercolor was new to me. I've been an oil painter for many years and really felt like I didn't have the control over watercolor. I just jumped in and learned it and, you know, worked it and worked it.

Other parts though, he said, came naturally, like integrating different perspectives. Making a two-dimensional map requires moving a mountain around in your head and putting it back together. Niehues usually starts with aerial photographs, either taken by himself or sent by the resort.

JN: It's a lot about kind of rolling back the perspective. In other words, many of mine are traditional with the sky. Whenever you're looking at a mountain with the sky, you're looking horizontally across the mountain. But there's lots of slopes on the back side. So what I do is get a perspective that's from above looking down so that I can get those back bowls. But I kind of trick you with doing it in such a way that I can get the sky in.

When it comes to any reactions he gets from skiers and snowboarders, Niehues said he rarely identifies himself when he's on mountains, but every now and then it comes up.

JN: I was on the lift one time with a lady and her daughter, perhaps — a grown daughter, and we were talking. Then they asked about some run on the mountain. And I said, well, let's pull out the map and look at it. So I pulled out my map. And so, it just led naturally to it, and they were just beside themselves. They were riding up with a guy that did the map.

Those sort of chance encounters might now become even more rare. Now that he's 75, Niehues is retiring from mapmaking. He wants to devote more time to doing landscapes. And his time at resorts, he said, is probably a thing of the past.

JN: I don't ski that good anyway. And I'm so much into this and I feel like I have so little time left that I'm putting everything into this new venture.

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

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

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