Michael “Chili” Thom, Feb 27, 1976 — Nov 30, 2016
One of my best buds, he was a loving husband,son, father, brother, loyal friend. A MacGyver that could fix anything and turn a shit situation into gold. Chili was also a filmmaker, trail breaker, visionary , mountain man, environmentalist, activist , guide, TV show host, actor, model, hunter, fisherman, a DJ, an inspiration, a leader, a famous Canadian artist, a corn cracking game spitting legend and many other things. We love you, Chili Thom. —Travis Tetreault
The following article was published in Mountain Life Coast Mountains in 2010.
“For me the Inukshuk has always been a symbol of man’s existence in nature,” says 33-year-old Whistler artist Chili Thom as he effortlessly twists his paintbrush in a fat dollop of purple before turning his concentration back to the canvas. He doesn’t speak while sliding the brush, applying yet another line to yet another iconic BC landscape, or at least, his version of it.
words by Feet Banks
“You know, you’re out on a hike…” another pause, another brush stroke. “And you arrive at some sweet spot, a beautiful lake or something, and there’s an Inukshuk to let you know you’re not alone – you’re on a path that someone else has been on, seeing things and sharing the moment with other people from other times.”
Chili saw plenty of Inuksuit (plural) during the years he worked as wilderness guide, touring BC’s mountains and coastlines, gathering inspiration for his paintings. “Or safe passage,” he continues, dipping his brush tip in water to thin the paint a bit. “I think traditionally that was the main use of the Inukshuk up north, for navigation. These days they are kind of cartoonized, with heads and legs and stuff, but to see one in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, you know you are on the right path.”
Chili’s path to being voted Whistler’s favourite artist for the past seven years meandered slightly. Originally he wanted to be a fighter jet pilot but failed one of the twenty-six tests required for acceptance to flight school. “I was enlisted in the Air Force and had a scholarship for Aerospace Engineering, designing satellites and spaceships,” Chili says. “But when I found out I could only be a navigator or a weapons specialist– the guy who drops bombs– I decided to pull the plug and went to art school instead. I had a partial scholarship for that, it seemed like a waste to not use it.”
Art school lasted five and a half months, long enough to get uninspired painting bowls of fruit, so 19-year-old Chili headed to Australia to surf and live hand-to-mouth. “I ran out of money and had to get a job picking bananas,” he recounts. “Worst job ever – I got bit by rats, spiders, got crop dusted twice. I got chased by a 20-foot bushmaster snake too, but I made enough to keep surfing for a few more months.”
After returning home to BC and moving to Whistler, Chili trained as an outdoor guide and started getting back into painting, landscapes this time, the ones he’d see on the guiding trips.
“Nature is where I draw my inspiration,” he explains. “And I find if I go a long stretch without spending time outdoors I feel drained and overwhelmed by the rat race – phones and computers and things breaking down. Even an hour-long walk or overnight trip will instantly recharge me and help sort out whatever problems and issues I am having trouble with.”
The phones have been ringing a lot lately. Last December, Chili realized a seven-year dream and opened his own gallery in Whistler. “It’s been on my mind for a long time,” he says of the 870-square foot space. “There isn’t much gallery representation for the lowbrow local artists to showcase their stuff and it’s just awesome to have a spot to hang my work, share my artwork, and get into teaching some classes. It keeps me busy, anyhow.”
Busy indeed. Fifty-five hours into it, the Inukshuk painting is coming along. All the purple is in and Chili is fast-drying the acrylic paint with an electric hair-dryer so he can start adding highlights. He layers colours rather than mixing them; “The eye can do the blending itself,” he says. This particular painting is being done especially for the 2010 Games, with an unlimited print run so anyone can enjoy a unique perspective of the Coast Mountains by a local artist whose work hangs all over the globe.
“I love living here,” Chili says. “It’s got so much diverse beauty but is also a very rugged and challenging place. From the weather-hammered shorelines of the West Coast all the way through to the jagged upheaval of the Rockies, you can learn that life is not always easy but it always goes on. You see a tiny tree clinging out of a crack on the cliffs of the Squamish Chief and it shows that life is a struggle but with perseverance you can get through anything.”
He turns off the hair dryer and begins calmly mixing another colour. “In nature, there are a lot of challenges you have to power through. You suffer out a storm, or a long slog up to a summit, but you are always rewarded with something beautiful: a sunrise, or a 360-degree viewpoint, or an Inukshuk on the top of a mountain.”