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Meet the man who turned Utah ski maps into works of art

Posted at 9:27 PM, Jan 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-04 23:27:45-05

PARK CITY, Utah — Anyone who skies or snowboards knows the importance of a map.

Understanding where you're headed on the mountain is key, but just how did those maps come to be?
"Here in Utah, these are big mountains that we're skiing on," said Travis Holland with Solitude Mountain Resort. "There's quite a bit of different terrain, especially at different ability levels."

On a winter day in the state, there's a high possibility that many will be hitting the slopes with Utah having the Greatest Snow on Earth. But to navigate the ins and outs of the runs, everyone should have a map.

"It's really important and helpful to have the map out there to kind of chart out your course and make sure everybody knows where they're going," explained Holland.
The ability to get down any mountain in Utah, or pretty much anywhere, is thanks to one man.

"James's artwork is just a staple of the industry," said Holland. "It's super well-known across the country."

While you may not James Niehus by name, anyone who has ever looked at a trail map knows his work.

"I feel very special to be and honored to have so many areas trust me in portraying their mountain," he said. "I really paint these, not for the resort, but for the skier."

It all started when he Niehus asked a former illustrator if they needed help, but learned they were looking for their replacement.

"I had the job and all of a sudden I had a career," exclaimed Niehus. 

For the last 35 years, Niehus has painted and sketched over 1,200 maps. He starts with an aerial flight before getting to work with a sketch and then on to paint.

"I use a watercolor to paint it and I'll paint the sky with an airbrush and all the snow features," he explained, "and then move on into the rocks and the different features, and the trees and end up in the parking lot.
"I do an awful lot of twisting of the perspectives, and for full view on a single sheet of paper, there's a lot of manipulation."

Niehus has now retired from painting ski maps and turned to sketches of some of the country's most beautiful monuments. But fans can still see his work in person, with some of his originals currently being featured at Gallery MAR in Park City.

"For the first time ever, they're on exhibition, and we're so excited to share that," said gallery owner Maren Mullin.

Even though Niehus doesn’t live in Utah, he admits a soft spot for the state.

"Utah is my favorite," he said. "I really have enjoyed coming to Utah and all the people that I've met, and it's a special state for me because I have done so many [maps] here.

With all the effort put into each and every detail, for many of his Niehus' works, they become more than just a map for those who have used and enjoyed them over the years.

"I can physically go back and remember, the lines I've taken and [the maps help] you actually remember the days I've had," said Holland, "you know, it just kind of takes you back."

And for Niehus, that makes it all worth it.

"They'll pull out their trail map or something, and I say, 'Oh, I did that,' and they'll just be blown away," Niehus shared. "I couldn't have thought of another career that would be better for me or rewarding than what I've had."