Mountains as Muse: Artist Jessa Gilbert and her Splitboard Studio

Art and adventure in the Whistler backcountry

Mountains as Muse: Artist Jessa Gilbert and her Splitboard Studio

I love working outdoors and in the wilderness, and the people you interact with along the way, because they all have their own stories and experiences tied with that place. – Jessa Gilbert

Full-time artist Jessa Gilbert often ventures into the wilderness around Whistler, drawing on the landscapes and mountain sports for inspiration. She creates as she travels, sketching while splitboarding, hiking and biking then developing the ideas further in her Vancouver-based studio. The Insider caught up with her for her take on the mountains as muse, why she always takes a sketchbook into the backcountry, and her advice for aspiring artists.

Whistler Insider: When did you first fall in love with the mountains?

Jessa Gilbert: I grew up in the Catskill Mountains in New York where I started skiing with my brothers at a very young age before switching over to snowboarding around age 11. My brothers (one older and two younger) helped create a hectic atmosphere inside, so I found my reprieve outside. When things got too busy, loud, or complicated I’d escape out the door and into the forest, hiking and cliff jumping in the canyons, and snowboarding around the local mountains. I associated being outside with freedom and peace – a place where I could go to reflect, escape, and explore.

Jessa Gilbert happiest outdoors

Happiest outdoors. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: What made you choose to settle in this little corner of British Columbia, Canada?

Jessa: I was living in Burlington Vermont before moving to BC, and grew up pouring over snowboard video segments in BC. When the opportunity to move with a 3 year work permit arrived it was a no brainer. I’m happy to be settling in this corner of BC because you are able to really get yourself lost, away from the daily grind, out of reception, and into these landscapes that are truly humbling and awe inspiring.

Jessa riding the Whistler backcountry

Riding the Whistler backcountry. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: How do you like to spend your time in the mountains?

Jessa: It depends on the season. In spring, summer and fall I do my best to sleep on the ground and in my tent as much as possible – I just love it. In the winter I love splitboarding …it allows you to make your own track up to the top of some wild peak, a humbling feeling being surround by mountain tops as far as you can see, and then enjoy the ride down.

Waking up in the mountains and being able to draw and paint within the landscape has to be the thing that drives most of my choices in any/all seasons. I feel incredibly grateful to be physically able to access these different landscapes, and doubly so for being able to translate my experiences into a physical work of art.

A blue colour study at Cirque Lake in the Callaghan

Inspiration is everywhere in the mountains. A blue colour study at Cirque Lake in the Callaghan. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: Tell us a little bit about your work as an artist – what materials do you use, where do you get your ideas?

Jessa: I used to work primarily as a figurative painter back east, and didn’t become the experiential landscape painter that I am until moving here and engaging with this terrain. I worked primarily within a studio space separate from the outdoors, which still serves as part of my art practice. However, I spend more and more time creating artworks outside – in the mountains, on the skin track, from the tent, on the path, etc.

I work primarily with acrylic paint in the studio, a fast drying plastic based paint that can have a thick texture and deep pigment. I enjoy working with acrylic because it doesn’t wait around for you – you have to be completely in the moment of working, or else the paint will dry out on you. That’s also a plus side to acrylic, because you can really work in layers, changing the composition and details similar to how a cloud may reveal and conceal a mountain top.

I love the parallel between a canvas in motion and a mountain landscape in motion – at first they appear as static, concrete things, but upon further inspection you notice the subtle shifts in color, opacity, and texture, which creates movement and a piece of art that seems to change the more time you spend with it.

Artwork by Jessa

Insider: Do you ever let your creativity out of the studio?

Jessa: All the time – It’s so entwined with my personality at this point that those exploring with me become part of the process of creation. I love working outdoors and in the wilderness, and the people you interact with along the way, because they all have their own stories and experiences tied with that place.

Last winter I was sketching on the ridge of the Blackcomb Bowl, and countless people came up to ask what I was doing, see how the sketch was going, and tell me about their experiences there. One girl asked me where the Blow Hole was in the painting, while another older man told me how he used to boot pack up here and ski the backside back in the 70s, hauling his heavy, long skis up on his back, no avvy gear, likely some sweet rear entry boots, no problems.

Art and adventure in the Whistler backcountry

Art and adventure in the Whistler backcountry. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: What art supplies do you take with you on your backcountry trips?

Jessa: My materials for artworks created in the mountains, part of the #getoutoftownvibe series, have been paired down to what I can carry on my back: 1 watercolor sketchbook, 1 watercolor set, 2 brushes, 3-5 Micron pens of different thicknesses, 1 mechanical pencil, 1 disposable camera, 1 small sketchbook, and 1 rolled piece of primed canvas.

Insider: What inspires you to pick up a pen or paintbrush and start creating?

Jessa: I don’t enter the mountains with a set idea. I allow the terrain and the experience to dictate the artwork – what is the temperature like, what am I looking at, what are the clouds doing, how do I physically feel, am I exhausted or restless, and so on. What this creates is a body of artwork that reflects the feelings and sentiments of those places, telling a story and narrative of travel, exploration, and wilderness.

Freight trains and forest

Freight trains and forest. Exploring Train Wreck near Function Junction. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: How important is it for your own work to visit art galleries and look at other people’s art? Is there a value in exposing yourself to different types of art and culture?

Jessa: I love seeing what other artists are doing in their work, whether it has anything to do with interests that I have. I think there’s an awful lot you can learn about yourself and what you are drawn to by checking out work that is very unlike your own.

WI: What’s next for your work – any projects underway?

Jessa: This year has started off with a bang, and I am happy to hit the ground running for 2017. I just completed an Artist Residency at Mica Heli and in this month I was selected as the Feature Aritst for the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIMFF). I will be continuing to build my artwork and #getoutoftownvibe series, and hope to exhibit the artworks later this year. There are a few other collaborations in the works as well, which is super exciting, as I love being able to work with other companies within the outdoor industry to help tell the story of adventure, activity, and getting outside.

Collection of Jessa's works from the Sea to Sky and beyond

Collection of works from the Sea to Sky and beyond. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

Insider: Any advice for aspiring artists?

Jessa: The advice I would give anyone, especially aspiring landscape artists, would be to get to work and chase what you love, even if it is outside standard conventions. A professor once told me that I couldn’t pursue freestyle snowboarding AND artwork, that I would have to choose one or the other to focus on. I followed that advice for years, and thus struggled to make any real headway or impact in either camp. I wish I had instead been told to follow my passions and to invest in any and all areas that bring me joy. Get outside, draw/paint/create as often as possible (no matter how small), and invest in your curiosity.

Follow Jessa on Facebook and Instagram for her latest sketches and stories, and for more on her creative process watch this short video. Thanks to Mike Crane Photography for images.

Exploring the Whistler backcountry on splitboard

Exploring the Whistler backcountry on splitboard. MIKE CRANE PHOTO

If you are interested in the mountains as muse, Whistler’s a top spot to visit. As well as an exceptional amount of in-bounds skiing and backcountry terrain, we’ve got a ton of galleries to visit, a thriving arts scene and a selection of art workshops year round offering opportunities to learn and nourish your creativity. Get in contact with Whistler.com for more inspiration.

Pip Campbell

Pip Campbell

Pip has somehow worked her way around from being a snow-and-bike bum to holding a real job while also being outdoors as much as possible. She’s collected scars, bikes for (almost) every occasion, a small trail dog and a love of craft beer plus a rudimentary understanding of skiing, snowboarding, sketching, and the art of chairlift conversations. She currently believes a combination of gravity, snow, dirt and rad people are what make Whistler tick but investigations are ongoing.

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