The offer from New York was tempting for James Niehues. A “medium to large” publishing house offered to produce and distribute a compilation of his illustrious art career.
“I’m 73 now, and I guess maybe I better say yes to somebody,” he thought. “Not that I’ve had a lot of offers, but if I’m gonna see one while I’m still around, maybe I better do it.”
But four months before New York, a self-described fanboy in California had emailed Niehues.
Todd Bennett had admired the colorful illustrations found at almost every major ski resort in the world — Niehues’s trail maps, painted in a way that the industry has long valued. Since starting the practice in Denver nearly 30 years ago, Niehues’ legend has grown, with skiers everywhere realizing who they have to thank as their guide to the mountains.
In that email, Bennett professed his love and said he would be delighted to put a team together and see a book done.
In the end, Niehues decided fans were better than fancy New York.
“The team Todd picked out, they’re all skiers, they’re all really into it,” Niehues says from his home in Parker, recalling his conversation with his wife, Dora. “We just figured it’d be a better book that way.”
Most uncertain was funding. Doubts vanished as soon as the Kickstarter campaign launched.
What started as an $8,000 goal resulted in $590,088 in less than three months, with 5,156 backers ponying up for an advance copy. The campaign ended last week, but a new wave of preorders is expected to be announced soon at jamesniehues.com.
The first edition, with nearly 200 ski maps, could hit coffee tables as early as June.
“This is his legacy; this is his lifetime of work,” Bennett says. “I just feel very fortunate he trusted us with it.”
They knew they were setting a low bar at $8,000, but no one thought they’d raise more than 73 times that. Kickstarter has never seen an illustration-related project raise more, as categorically tracked by the site.
The money means “a bigger, better product,” Niehues says. And the outpouring means much more.
“I can’t put it into words how gratifying it is, mainly because I started this whole career when I was 40 years old. It’s astonishing to me that I was so lucky. I had a lot of luck along the way.”
It started with misfortune. First: the condition that left him bedridden for months in the ninth grade. As he was always drawing the animals and scenery around the family farm outside Grand Junction, his mother thought to give the poor boy a set of oil paints. And for the first time, paint he did.
Then, something of a mid-life crisis. He was happy again, remarried to Dora, but the two had left the Grand Valley to start anew in Denver, and work and satisfaction were tough to come by for Niehues.
“We were very poor,” he recalls. “I was in the hole.”
He picked up 9-to-5s and one spring day in 1987 walked into the office of Bill Brown, then the preeminent ski cartographer. He took Niehues under his wing.
So began the life of helicopter rides over mountains, camera in hand to capture the perspectives he needed to recreate with brush back home. An accurate scale is important, but the struggle for it never led Niehues to a computer. The hand creates “the best representation of the outdoors,” he says. And that is paramount.
“I can load my brush up with paint and water and from one brushstroke, that color can be several different shades or tones,” Niehues says — thus mimicking Mother Nature’s unpredictable ways.
The blue of the sky varies with the clouds. An airbrush dictates the angulation of the slopes. He pays close attention to shadows — Dora made sure of that when he was starting out.
“She would look through and make sure I had a shadow for every tree,” Niehues says. “I got a little tired of that, but they’ve got to have a shadow or they don’t exist.”
Though considering himself “semi-retired,” he still seeks the challenge. He hasn’t normally solicited work, though Oregon’s Mount Bachelor has been an exception. It is among his few projects currently, keeping him painting to achieve his reputation.
He has been hailed “the Michelangelo of Snow,” a title he dismisses.
“No, no,” he says. ”I don’t think I’m there yet, but thanks.”