Anyone lucky enough to live in Whistler will tell you there’s something special about this place. The jagged mountain peaks that dominate the skyline create a tangible feeling of being at once connected to, and humbled by, a landscape that overwhelms the senses.

It’s a force that people from the Squamish Nation and the Lil’wat Nation have recognized and appreciated for generations. Now, as part of the Vail Resorts Gondola Gallery project, three accomplished, local, Indigenous artists are visually reuniting their powerful alpine stories with the lands they originate from.

Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph looking out from a PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola at their artwork wrapped around another gondola.
Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph view their artwork soaring above the Whistler Valley. PHOTO WHISTLER BLACKCOMB / MATT SYLVESTRE

The Gondola Gallery by Epic

The Gondola Gallery by Epic is an outdoor art installation and film series celebrating growing diversity in ski, snowboard and mountain culture.

“It is important for the future of this sport to create meaningful conversation around barriers to entry and inclusion,” said Kenny Thompson, Chief Public Affairs Officer for Vail Resorts. “Every skier and snowboarder has their own unique story of how they came to the slopes.”

Vail Resorts commissioned five artists to create original artworks that speak to their personal experiences in the mountains and the results can be seen wrapped around gondola cabins across three different mountain resorts. The project aims to promote inclusion by literally lifting up the voices of people who have historically been excluded from ski resort culture.

Whistler Blackcomb is fortunate to have two artwork-wrapped cabins soaring through the sky on the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola; Wings of Thunder by Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph of the Squamish Nation and RED by Levi Nelson of the Lil’wat Nation.

Gondola Gallery: Wings of Thunder

Chepximiya Siyam’ Janice George and Skwetsimeltxw Willard ‘Buddy’ Joseph are accomplished weavers and teachers from the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) in British Columbia. A trained museum curator, Chief Janice George is a hereditary chief and co-organized the first Canada Northwest Coast Weavers Gathering.

Buddy Joseph is a former Director of Squamish Housing and Capital Projects and currently consults on similar work for First Nations communities. The duo co-founded L’hen Awtxw Weaving House to share the teachings and practice of traditional Coast Salish wool weaving.

Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph's artwork wrapped on a PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, part of The Gondola Gallery by Epic.
A weaving pattern translated into a bold, geometric design makes up Wings of Thunder. PHOTO WHISTLER BLACKCOMB / MATT SYLVESTRE

Their artwork, Wings of Thunder, is a weaving pattern translated into bold geometric graphic design. It tells the story of the Thunderbird, the most powerful being of the Squamish people, and its roosting spot — the iconic Black Tusk peak, clearly visible from Whistler Mountain.

“We’re so very proud of the gondola. The Thunderbird design; it brings a certain energy,” said Chief Janice. “The colours represent the power of the Thunderbird, a grandfather figure who cares for the Squamish people, and the spirituality of the ancestors.”

Every project Chief Janice and Buddy work on is a chance to showcase more than just their skilled craftsmanship, as all weavings need to tell a story.

“First Nations contemporary art represents resilience. And for me, it’s representing reconciliation. It’s a huge statement,” said Buddy.

Chief Janice agrees, adding…

“I think it helps people understand that things happened here before the resort was here. That this place has always meant something to people. I think that’s an important message.”

A photo of Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.
Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph hope the artwork will foster a greater sense of connection for people who see it. PHOTO WHISTLER BLACKCOMB / MATT SYLVESTRE

As well as a reminder of what was here before, Wings of Thunder speaks to their powerful vision of what could be.

“It helps people see our worldview and what we believe in and the energy that comes from that for everyone, not just for us,” Chief Janice explains. “Everyone can make a connection to this land, and [together] we can help make a difference with it, help take care of it. But we have to do it together. We can’t do it just the Squamish nation, or just Vail Resorts or just the town of Whistler. We all have to work together to accomplish this.”

It’s a message of unity and hope that Chief Janice hopes will inspire people.

“I think if we can just set the tone, just keep on saying the same thing, people will get it. People love this place, so why wouldn’t they [want to] take care of it? I’m an optimist and I love people bringing people together,” says Chief Janice George, “Maybe it’s a start.”

Gondola Gallery: RED

Levi Nelson grew up in Mt. Currie, just north of Whistler, and holds an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University. His work explores traditional motifs from Indigenous culture within a Western understanding of art.

His first solo exhibition was held in Whistler at the Maury Young Art Gallery and led to his piece Nations and Urban Landscapes being acquired by the Audain Art Museum for their permanent collection.

When approached about being involved in the Gondola Gallery project, Levi was initially hesitant, due to focusing on finishing his degree, but something in the back of his mind kept saying – it has to be you.

“I grew up in Mount Currie, but this is the traditional territory of the Lil’wat, so growing up we’d always come to Whistler and my Aunt taught me how to ski when I was a little boy. It’s just home, this is my big backyard.” Levi said.

“For years before the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre existed I don’t know if people really had a clue about Indigenous people living in this area for thousands of years. My great-great-grandfather had a trapline on Fitzsimmons Creek. Flash forward to today, and people from all over the world come here. It’s such a unique place. I think that it’s perfect for people to be able to see the traditional aesthetic side born out of the very land [they’re standing on] – mountains, nature, water.”

His piece, RED brings together traditional elements of Northwest Coast and Coast Salish art and is a perfect fit for Whistler Blackcomb’s PEAK 2 PEAK gondola.

“Red is a sacred colour within Indigenous culture, representing the lifeblood of the people and our connection to the Earth,” said Levi. “There’s a geometric order that exists within nature that is so fascinating. Nature is itself balanced and one of the very fundamental ideas around Northwest Coast and Coast Salish art is that idea of balance between the positive and negative spaces.”

Levi Nelson's artwork wrapped on a PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, part of The Gondola Gallery by Epic.
Slicing together his heritage and upbringing, Levi Nelson’s artwork in sacred reds is striking against the snow. PHOTO WHISTLER BLACKCOMB / MATT SYLVESTRE

While the RED cabin cuts a striking visual image through the skyline, the companion documentary shines a light on some of the deeper meanings behind the work.

“I’m excited for people to see the documentary because I think it’s so beautifully done,” says Levi. “Witnessing how colonialism has interrupted my culture, I chose to slice up all of these different shapes to express that interruption in a way, and then put it back together. Because I’ve had to do that myself with my own identity; gather bits of my language and bits of what my ancestors believed in, the cultural protocols that we still hang on to today, mixed up with my interests in dance music, skiing and being a contemporary artist.”

The original artwork RED is currently on display at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, where visitors can get a close-up (and stationary) view of the work. But for the full Gondola Gallery experience, nothing beats looking out at the valley from inside the artwork itself.

“These shapes come from and are inspired by my ancestors. To be inside the gondola, looking out through an ovoid or through the Ancestral Eye, maybe you can imagine what it’s like to experience my territory and see home through my eyes.”

Artist Levi Nelson sits on stairs facing the camera.
Levi Nelson is currently working on the branding for the Invictus Games 2025. PHOTO WHISTLER BLACKCOMB / MATT SYLVESTRE

Levi Nelson is putting together a series of paintings for his next solo exhibition, the details of which are yet to be announced, and is also involved with creating the branding for the Invictus Games 2025. Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph are working on a large-scale Vancouver city building facade that will be woven from ribbons of stainless steel and are excited for wherever their weaving journey takes them next.

Take in their artwork as they soar across the sky on the PEAK 2 PEAK gondolas and visit the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre to connect with Whistler’s Indigenous peoples and develop a deeper understanding of the mountains and the people who call them home.

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Like a lot of locals, Kate came to Whistler for a month, seven years ago. Originally from Australia, Kate is happily stuck in the Whistler bubble, spending their free time boarding, biking and hiking among the trees. In the summer months you can find them canoe guiding on the River of Golden Dreams.