PSYCH HACK | MIKE CICCARELLI
By William Fraser, MC Mikey Ciccarelli was a contest guru and former Team Canada athlete who recently became a backcountry master. In...
At first rub, it’s hard to square Jessa Gilbert’s personality with her art work. The flowing murals, paintings, illustrations and designs the 32-year-old puts out into the snowboarding community (and beyond) erupt with colour and fluidity. Her painting evokes seamlessness between the physical space and the abstract that feels organic and graceful. Meanwhile, to stand next to her is like sitting courtside at a Raptors game with Rodney Dangerfield. She is merciless in her smack talk and quick-witted humour, all delivered from the slight frame of an effervescent 125-pound New Yorker. —Words by Matt Cotê
But then again, maybe it all makes sense: it’s all about being unfiltered. Most of us who slide on snow already consider it a release, and compare it to art—painting lines on a giant, blank canvas the heavens reset for us over and over. But for Gilbert, her expressions in every medium are even more intertwined. As a painter, a Burton ambassador and a tail guide for Baldface Lodge and CAPOW, her life as an artist and rider is as seamless as her work. “She’s always drawing in her yellow notebook instead of doing weather observations,” jokes Jeff Pensiero, owner of Baldface Lodge, a legendary cat-ski operation outside Nelson, BC. Pensiero himself is one of the seminal minds behind snowboarding’s backcountry evolution. He helped raise the profile of the likes of Travis Rice through visionary events like his Supernatural series, and more recently Natural Selection. He also helped raise Gilbert.
“She originally came up to the lodge to sub in for a guy who couldn’t make a trip,” he recounts. “She hit our sauna gap first try, which is pretty big, and did a Method over it. She just won everybody over right away.”
Pensiero says she has the explosive energy of a teenager—popping every pillow, greasing every gap, and barrelling through every chute with joyful abandon. And her personality is just the same. So by the end of that week, he offered her a job. “She’s hilarious, you instantly love her, and she rides like Travis Rice if he weighed 90 pounds—she’s kind of fucking gnarly.” But when the light strikes the mountains and trees just right, she transforms. “She’ll see something beautiful and stop, and do a sketch of it so fast,” he adds. “Those sketches will sometimes end up standing alone, some will get expanded into paintings, others into giant murals. They fill galleries, private collections and the walls of buildings like the Sea to Sky Art House in Squamish, or the Burton location in the RiNo art district in Denver, Colorado. Her signature style is to use a single continuous line. Not unlike a snowboard track. “I really like the challenge of trying to be minimal,” she explains. “The single-line pieces keep me honest. They require that I let go of refinement.” That’s been the story of her life. Raised in upstate New York playing volleyball, softball and basketball, she found snowboarding at the age of 15. But she eventually started skipping practice to head to the mountains, and her coaches benched her for it. In turn, she fully quit ball sports to throw herself into riding.
She started competing in slopestyle, and in turn chose to get her degree in studio art from the University of Vermont, in Jake Burton’s hometown of Burlington. Her results on the USASA circuit were good, and she picked up sponsors quickly. Then life threw her some curve balls. Right after recovering from an ACL surgery on her right knee, she blew her left so bad it needed a full replacement. But she was too young—those are reserved for the elderly—so she got a transplant instead, along with the news she’d never snowboard again. During her recovery, she moved with her then-partner to Vancouver when he took a job there. That relationship didn’t work out, but she found a new one—with the Coast Mountains. The landscape was too big to ignore, and she started venturing out into it against doctors’ orders. Throughout, she used line drawing and sketching as a way to access her own flow state: a way to let go. “The single-line method is traditionally only used in art as a mode of practice, it’s a way of loosening the hand,” she says. The major thing that simple technique loosened up for her was the idea she couldn’t snowboard anymore. As her strength returned, she got a splitboard as a way to move slowly through the mountains and draw them—and then slowly started riding soft powder back down. Fast-forward eight years, and she’s become a significant character in Burton’s adventure content, climbing and riding massive backcountry lines around the world. Her art—all still derived from the single line technique—has won awards, and is increasing demand every year. Her designs have been commissioned by Leatherman, Land Yachts, Burton, Suunto Watches and a growing list of several dozen other companies. She also continues to get mural requests across North America. To her, the latter stand out as the greatest expression of what she hopes to leave people with. “I love creating public art because you’re creating environments you can exist in,” she says. “‘How is everything connected?’ That’s a question at the root of everything I do now. I’m trying to showcase movement over time. The Creekside underpass [in Whistler] is an example of that: it’s about moving through it.”
The “elliptical universes” she creates are a direct reflection of her own desire to move—they’re the sinuous product of her subconscious spilling out in a roaring flow state. Having lived in Squamish, Nelson and now Revelstoke, the progression of her imagery is directly tied to her own growth in the mountains, and she’s now delving into snowboard mountaineering. “Rogers Pass is a great training ground for that,” she says. “It’s fun to see where you can push the sport as a soft-booter, and a woman.” (She still despises the hard-boot setups many snowboard mountaineers insist on.) These days, as an influential rider and artist, her aim is to “take people with her.” For Pensiero, who has three daughters, he can’t imagine a better guide. “I look at Jessa as my best of intentions for all these young women coming up, she’s got deep power.”