(Ed’s note: This story appears in the January 2011 issue of Powder Magazine.)
Words by Mitchell Scott
Art by Jeremy Down
The mountains in wintertime are beautiful enough. You would think. Beautiful enough to find contentment just to take it all in. The myriad shades of white and blue, the sparkling sea of shimmering crystals, the great peaks and shapes of glacially carved granite. For abstract artist Jeremy Down, however, the want to simply enjoy one of nature’s most inspiring works is far outweighed by a deeper, more complicated urge.
Based in Silverton, British Columbia, Jeremy Down removes his custom-structured canvas from his backpack and sets it on the snow. The canvas is a three-dimensional structure; abstract in shape, built by Jeremy using bits of wood that are screwed and glued together, then covered by a stretched canvas. The resulting shape forms a mini-mountain of sorts, with peaks and ridges all its own.
Born and raised in Toronto, and now living in the 300-person village north of Nelson, B.C., and presently high in the Selkirk Mountains, just above Baldface Catskiing's sub-alpine lodge, Jeremy stomps a circle around his canvas. He takes his snowboard and places it beside this hastily constructed easel where he removes tubes and cans of paint from his pack. He sucks and spits water from his Camelbak into a plastic cup, then stops and takes a look around.
"How do you know where to start," I ask, quite dumbly. As a Nelson resident, I'm familiar with Jeremy's art, even though he doesn't sell much of it locally. A celebrated artist for almost 20 years, most of his work catches a pretty penny in big cities like Toronto and New York. I ask the question because I know that he's an abstract artist—that, in all essence, his paintings do not attempt to capture scenes. In fact, they don't look like anything, except, well, art. And here, deep into the mountains on a beautiful winter day, with Jeremy a few days into an artist-in-residence program offered by Baldface Lodge, I can't quite fathom where he should begin.
"The start needs to be as real as possible," he says, scratching a dark, week-old beard, his tall, lanky frame brooding over a complex and detailed 360-degree panorama. "If I trust myself that what I feel is right, it'll work. Right now, I'm digging those clouds."
For the past 10 years, all of Jeremy's art has been produced outside. In the summer, an avid canoeist, he paints all his pieces on or around Slocan Lake. In the winter, he straps his canvas to his backpack and tours on his splitboard to a suitable vantage point.
Finally, he makes his move. He mixes some paint on the base of his board and starts to make long, dramatic brushstrokes. Little bits of lichen blow into the paint. It starts to snow, and big fluffy flakes land and bleed the watercolor. He mixes more paint, makes more strokes on the canvas. No discernable shapes are coming into view; the only visible structure is how the paint follows the elevated ridges of his unique canvas.
"The art I'm interested in is emotional, to make people feel," he says, taking a break to look around once more. "Our culture is super thinking, we spend most of our lives thinking. The destruction of the earth is not done by feeling people."
For a guy who's got a functional version of synesthesia, whereby he sees music and hears color, who almost died a few years ago when his canoe sank in the frigid February waters of Slocan Lake, riding and working in the mountains is the one truth that makes total sense. "I create opportunities for myself up here. I'm encapsulating a moment and it's valid, it's a remnant of creativity," he says. "It leaves a residue that is timeless because it occupies the gap between what we have and what we want. That gap disappears when we're absorbed in the moment. That's why art is so closely related to snowboarding powder. You have all these choices."
He applies more paint, this time without a brush, just big globs right from the tube, struck just so with a knife. He looks around, to his surroundings where he claims there are no mistakes, pulls out some spray paint, waits for the wind to change direction just so, and sprays across the peaks of the canvas. What was just an oddly blank piece of cloth is becoming a stunning piece of art.
The tall contemplative artist puts his supplies away. He straps the canvas onto his pack, straps into his board, and we begin to bank effortless turns through cold, perfect powder down to the lodge. He doesn't ask me what I think of the piece, or what I think it represents. It's an ancient teaching to stay in the moment, one Jeremy is keenly aware of. And as we continue down, through snow-encrusted trees, powder billowing in clouds as we pass, I catch glimpses of him and his colorful canvas. A moment captured, passing through new ones. Each inspiring the other.