The Artistic Heart of Whistler, British Columbia

A Timeless Circle, Susan Point, Public Art, Cultural Connector

BY BRENDAN SAINSBURY

Most travelers arrive in Whistler carrying skis, hiking poles or a set of irons. The idea of viewing (let alone buying) cutting-edge art is rarely a consideration. But, beyond the golf courses and Gortex, Whistler has long been a potent muse for artists and art dealers.

Small local galleries first took root in the 1990s. But the town’s metamorphosis into a ski resort with an innovative arts scene gained traction in 2016 with the opening of the Audain Art Museum, a gallery of international pedigree that rivals Vancouver Art Gallery as the best in British Columbia.

Housed in purpose-built digs camouflaged by lush spruce trees and raised on stilts above the floodplain of Fitzsimmons Creek, the Audain combines contemporary style with environmental function. Its futuristic design fuses dark metal, light wood and luminous glass, while its steep gabled roof offsets the accumulation of winter snow. The interior is restrained and minimalist allowing the spotlight to fall on the art.

The museum’s permanent works come from the private collection of ex-home builder Michael Audain and are unashamedly British Columbian. There is an impressive array of Emily Carr, master painter of trees and totem poles; an attractive supporting assemblage of Nanaimo-born Edward Hughes’ land and seascapes; and a world-class collection of First Nations masks whose haunting countenances might have jumped from a Picasso canvas.

Not surprisingly, in the land of the Lil’wat and Squamish First Nations, Whistler’s art has a strong indigenous influence. Not far from the Audain, the handsome Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which opened in 2008, was built using BC Douglas fir and red cedar wood to evoke the feel of a Squamish longhouse and a Lil’wat pithouse. While not an art gallery per se, the centre’s bright glass atrium and spacious open-plan rooms exhibit carvings, basketry and weaving typical of Northwest coastal culture.

Indigenous art also infiltrates Whistler’s public spaces and has grown more abundant since the 2010 Winter Olympics. Resident Inukshuks (indigenous stone cairns) stand alongside traditional totem poles, while a more enigmatic piece, Timeless Circle by Musqueam artist Susan Point, depicting a cluster of round expressive faces, guards the Maury Young Arts Centre.

The Maury Young is the headquarters of “Arts Whistler.” Founded in 1982 only two years after the village took root, the council organizes workshops, art demos and festivals, along with exhibitions in its own arts building.

It isn’t the only gallery in town. A walk down the pedestrianized ‘village stroll’ reveals half a dozen others displaying classic Whistler motifs: grizzly bears, totem poles, saw-toothed mountains and snowboarders caught in a moment of speed and exhilaration.

Leading the way is the Whistler Contemporary Gallery with two branches, in the Hilton Resort and the Four Seasons. Both sell modern art with an equally modern price tag. Recent displays have included backlit photo art by Columbian artist, Max Steven Grossman and tiny three-dimensional figures from a series called Gatherings by Ontario-based Jane Waterous. But the biggest eye-drawer was a huge butterfly entitled Aphrodite, one in a series executed in glossy, luminous resin by local Canadian artist, Jallen. 

Plan your trip at whistler.com.