Rather than go to a museum or gallery, to see James Niehues’s artwork you’ll have to go to the top of a mountain. The good news is, you have plenty of mountains to choose from—from Aspen to Killington, Camelback to Whistler. The 74-year-old artist, who lives outside Denver, has been painting trail maps for ski resorts around the world since 1988, lending his talents to nearly 200 mountains and counting.
Growing up on a farm in rural Loma, Colorado, Niehues would sketch the animals around him, and when he was in the ninth grade, bedridden for three months with nephritis, his mother bought him a set of oil paints that he used to recreate landscapes out of magazines. “You’d think that’d be pretty messy, and it was,” he says, then adds with a chuckle: “I don’t remember ruining too many sheets, though.”
Later, after returning home from his military station in Berlin in 1969, that hobby became a career. Niehues worked in a print shop and started freelance illustrating. He didn’t know how to ski, but he looked up Bill Brown, the preeminent resort-map artist of the time. “I showed him my portfolio, and he liked what he saw. So he gave me a little job—the backside of Mary Jane Mountain at Winter Park. With that, my career was born.”
For each map, Niehues begins by taking aerial shots from a helicopter, then sometimes skis the mountain himself, all of which happens long before he picks up the brushes and watercolors he uses to bring the intricate scenes to life. “It’s a complicated puzzle, to put a mountain on a flat sheet of paper where it’s readable and understandable,” he says.
To that end, Niehues focuses less on cartographical precision than on making a mountain feel accurate to the skier. That’s how he approached his redesign of Amtrak’s route map, taking a few liberties to highlight the country’s major ski regions—the Great Plains are shrunken, while the Rockies loom large. “I hope nobody takes it too seriously,” he cautions.
This spring Niehues will be inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, coinciding with the release of his new book, The Man Behind the Maps, which showcases 30 years of his work. Thinking back on his career, he recalls the point, about five years after he started, when he discovered he could naturally visualize how a mountain should become a map: “I would review a ski area and say to myself, ‘You know, they could do a lot better with this view.’”