This post is part of a series here on Happiest Outdoors called “More Than Outdoors” where I chat with outdoorsy people who take their connection with the backcountry a little further, who do a little bit more outdoors.
Jessa Gilbert is a Vancouver-based splitboarder, painter and all-around super rad person. She is originally from upstate New York and has a degree in Studio Art from the University of Vermont. I was interested to know how this East Coast girl ended up making art inspired by the British Columbia backcountry so I recently had lunch with her to ask her about art, snowboarding, the mountains and how they combine in her #getoutoftownvibe project.
Taryn: Tell me about your background as an artist.
Jessa: I moved to Vermont to go and study art, but I also really wanted to snowboard. Throughout my university career I really fell in love with painting, just the process of it. I was also snowboarding at the same time so there was always this back and forth and push and play between the art world and the outdoors and I think it really affected my colour palette: all these pop colours. All the paintings early on especially were really sort of hyper colour.
That’s what I’ve been working towards the past few years is trying to merge this life in the outdoors and life as an artist through painting.
T: Your paintings are influenced by movement. Is that related to your snowboarding background?
J: Oh yeah, I am a really hyper active person, constantly in motion, and I really like the idea of trying to portray action over time on a two dimensional surface. I’m out there hiking or snowboarding or running and there are bodies in motion. I did a whole series in 2013 around dancers.
Just the body in motion I find really inspiring: how we can propel ourselves through space, not only as a vehicle for transit but as a form of expression.
So its like you are trying to merge physical activity and dance into the two dimensional surface of painting. I like trying to find that sense of playfulness in the paint.
T: How did you get into snowboarding?
J: I grew up skiing and my older brother switched to snowboarding when I was about 11 or 12 and I wanted to be just like him. Snowboarding hadn’t really gained in popularity and the handful of snowboarders at [my local mountain in New York] all wanted to go to the [terrain] park. So naturally being a bit of a competitive person, I wanted to be just as good if not better than all the guys I was riding with and I slowly got into competing that way. There weren’t really girls doing rail jams so I just started competing in the men’s category and then slowly you’d see more girls getting into it and then by the time I was in university there was actually female competitions that I could attend and travel to.
It was such a great experience to travel, meet other women doing the sport, like really get excited about it, like really push yourself, fall a ton [laughs] but then land something you’ve been killing yourself over for weeks. I got addicted to that feeling.
T: When did you start getting into the backcountry?
J: I didn’t really get into the backcountry until just before moving out to BC. My friend made me a splitboard out of an old Park deck right before I left Vermont, which I took out maybe 2 or 3 times. But moving out here, the ability to access this crazy wilderness and new terrain, it seemed like a no brainer. I was also told by my surgeon I should never leave the ground on my snowboard ever again when I had my knee replaced so I was like “I guess I’ll retire to the backcountry” [laughs] and get out of park riding. And I was really fortunate with my first year out here, I met a few guides and they brought me along. I was just hooked. The mountains here are so much bigger than what I had grown up with and you’re not surrounded by a ton of people when you are in the backcountry.
The pace of touring is very meditative, it’s much slower, you can get a good rhythm and enjoy the scenery around you. And that one run, maybe two or three that you get? You’re not so much trying to get as many laps or look at what every body else is doing, you’re really just in the moment and trying to enjoy it as much as possible. I loved it.
T: So what brought you to Vancouver or BC in general?
J: My partner at the time got a job opportunity [in Vancouver] and I had been to Whistler once and was just like: OK my only experience with Vancouver was this amazing trip to Whistler where I took 6 lifts and bus to get to the glacier.
And you look it up online and it’s this sort of outdoor capital of North America. So, yeah let’s move to Vancouver. Obviously!
So we both got 3 year work visas. And I’ve now applied for permanent residency so I can stay longer because I’m so infatuated with it here. There’s endless opportunities to explore. Everything is just endless. You have endless mountains any direction you go.
T: How has your art changed since you moved to BC?
J: The art has changed soooo much since moving here. It’s crazy. Back in Vermont I was focusing more on figurative works, so bodies in motion, dance, athletics. And moving out here, the first thing I noticed the change in was the palette. Like everything became blue and grey and green. And I was just like: What? Why is this happening? It was sort of completely unconscious.
And then I started thinking more about landscape and all of the sudden I’m painting mountains all the time. So after three years of being here, I’m a landscape artist.
I’m still thinking about the ways in which we move through landscape and how we access it: How we are sort of carving these mountains into recreational places? How the wilderness is becoming more and more sparse? How does our interaction with nature and these wild spaces look? How does that translate over time? I’m trying to focus in my painting on the positive side of things. When we go into nature it’s this experience of slow moving [and] you can use these contour maps to really engage with your environment. How you show it in a way with colour that is positive, that’s inspiring, even though when I see logging it sort of hurts my heart.
T: Take us through the process of how you create art when you are travelling outdoors, what you bring and how it works.
J: It’s developed quite a bit. When I moved to Vancouver I drove here. I was really curious about how travel would affect the creative process and so I created this series called Between the Points Project. It was basically me and my car and as many sketch pads as I could bring. I had this small easel, I had paints, I had all of these things that filled up my passenger seat. And it was a great experience because it was trying to figure out how to take in the landscape quickly and with smaller materials than I have in the studio. And then it was like, well what’s the next step? I want to go camp everywhere [in BC] and I can’t take an easel and 4 pads of paper with me.
So at this point I’m down to 2 sketchbooks, a watercolour palette, and about 6 pens and a camera. I try for all of these trips with the #getoutoftownvibe, which is what it’s sort of become, to quickly just capture what I’m experiencing there.
The sketches can range anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, to hanging out by a campfire or when we’re not on the move. I’ve become much faster at drawing through the process [laughs]. I don’t want people to wait for me at a lookout for too long or at a lunch spot so it’s trying to get the feeling and momentum of that activity. Like how the clouds are moving, the landscape of course. If people are there I try to incorporate them into scene. Because it’s all part of it.
T: What’s your favourite backcountry place in BC and how has it made it’s way into your artwork?
J: I went to the Tantalus Range 2 or 3 weeks ago. You see it driving the Sea to Sky anytime you’re on it and the first time I saw it I was like “I want to go back to those mountains” and everyone is telling me how hard it is to get there. And so I finally get back there and from the top of Serratus Ridge you can see Vancouver, you can see UBC, you can see Mount Baker, you can Vancouver Island, you can see forever and it’s just endless in any direction and you’re still on top of this ridge that’s super rocky and gnarly and oh man it was so cool back there. I did a ton of sketching. I would get up and just sketch in the morning or go outside and try to take photos to get the morning light. And then we’d usually skin up, do a descent and have a lunch break which I would sketch during. The perspective from being on the ridge and looking down it’s not something that many people get to experience. What I realized up there was: Wow these views are so impressive! I’ve spent so much time looking at it from the highway and now I’m on the mountain looking at the highway, it’s crazy.
I feel like that’s an opportunity for the artwork to give somebody that experience that I had. It’s like I can share that with someone in a small way. It’s this tangible thing I was holding. Maybe it’s smudged from snow or even sweat. But I don’t sweat I glisten. Hard. [Laughs.]
T: What is your favourite piece of outdoor gear and why?
J: My hot pink Adidas sun-bleached baseball cap. I bought it for this retro party 5 or 6 years ago at a thrift store for probably $5 and it’s nylon, it doesn’t hold sweat, it dries fast and it is so sun-bleached at this point that it is no longer hot pink, it’s this weird hot salmon or something. I bring that on every single ski tour. I burnt my forehead pretty bad on one of the first trips I took and learned that you do need a baseball cap, especially in the spring so that’s definitely my go-to piece to bring. I also started bringing a disposable camera this year because I sort of like the satisfying click of pushing that button down. It’s very intentional. Real gear? Definitely not my snowboard boots! Those things are blown out right now and I need to replace them!
Jessa Gilbert from Steve Tan on Vimeo.