James Niehues: The Man Behind the Maps
James Niehues is the artist behind pretty much every ski resort map in North America.
But for most of the 30 years he spent laboriously hand-painting every tree from more than 430 resorts with tiny brushes, few people had ever heard of him—until a Kickstarter campaign for a coffee-table book featuring his art went viral and, well, the man behind the maps was discovered by the masses. He has since been inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.
Niehues first designed skis for us with his maps of Telluride, Jackson, Snowmass, Alta/Snowbird, or Whistler. Now, he introduces a new series from his American Landscape project, black-and-white drawings of America’s iconic peaks and beloved national parks. The new series includes graphics of Glacier Peak, the Grand Teton, the Maroon Bells, and, our favorite, Shandoka (the Ute name for Wilson Peak, which is in Wagner’s backyard).
James Niehues' "American Landscape Project" graphics for Wagner Custom: the Maroon Bells, Grand Teton National Park, Glacier Peak, and Shandoka.
To find out more about the man behind the maps, we caught up with Niehues over the phone while he was vacationing on the Oregon coast. This is what he had to say.
Words with Niehues
Wagner: We understand you’re not much of a skier…Did you ever imagine that your career would be in the ski industry?
Niehues: Well, I became an intermediate who skied in fear on hard blues, but enjoyed every bit of it even so. And no, I never imagined that this would be my career. I love landscapes—I always have—but I really pursued this to make a living. Bill Brown, who was doing much of the maps at the time, saw what I could do and said, “Hey, Jim, I’ll back you. You can pursue ski areas.” All of a sudden I had a career.
Snowmass Ski Resort as painted by James Niehues.
Wagner: Those maps are so detailed. Did it ever get tedious?
Niehues: You’re really asking, “Did all those trees get to you?” Yeah, they did. I always enjoyed getting a project from New Zealand. (Editor's note: the ski resorts in New Zealand are above treeline.) But I always knew that I would get through it, and I’d just take a section of the trees and start in with a color and work it through. But I never got to the point that I just would throw my hands up and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was a labor of love, and people would see the result for many years to come.
Wagner: What was it like to have so many people looking at your artwork every day and not knowing your name?
James Niehues in his studio. Photo: Lindsay Pierce Martin
Niehues: It never really occurred to me. I was always very grateful to the ski industry for the opportunity that I had. It is mind boggling to me that my work was good enough to overcome the introduction of the computer-generated map. I was up at Schweitzer working on a project, and they brought out a map that was just the altitude lines around the mountains, and they could manipulate those to change the shape of the mountain. I was thinking, “How many more years do I have?” I figured that in five to 10 years the computer would take over. But it just can’t manipulate the terrain like I do, or like anyone else could if they put their mind to it.
Wagner: You really capture how a trail skis with your art. How do you get the steepness and the accuracy?
Niehues: I use aerial photographs from many different perspectives. There are so many that I couldn’t tell you. I try to show the skier what he’s about to get into.
Wagner: What’s been your favorite resort to paint?
Niehues: That depends on the person interviewing me. I do have a preference for Western mountains. I’d say Telluride or Crystal Mountain.
Telluride Ski Resort as painted by James Niehues.
Wagner: Have you ever had your maps put on ski graphics before?
Niehues: No, and I’m really honored. I hope those skis can find their way downhill—though I suppose it depends on who’s steering them.
Wagner: What’s next for you?
Niehues: I’ve picked up another project, and I am excited about it. At the age of 75, I realized I couldn’t paint everything I wanted to, so I’ve been sketching iconic American landscapes. I’ve got 20 so far.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Steamboat, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.