Whitefish artists and local businesses have joined forces to raise money for the beloved SNOW Bus, using their creative talents to transform vintage chairlifts that once ferried skiers to the summit of Big Mountain into colorful masterpieces.
Whitefish Mountain Resort donated the seats to the charitable event dubbed “Big Ski Chair Affair,” having dismantled its Big Mountain Express (Chair 1) chairlift in 1989 to upgrade from a double (installed in 1960) to a high-speed quad.
In 2007, the 1989 chair was replaced with the current lift, and the old chair was used to replace the Swift Creek Express (Chair 2), which is a shorter lift line.
Thus, the leftover chairs.
The 10 quad lift chairs were permutated by local artists who employed their creative verve to build functional and decorative benches, which will be scattered throughout Whitefish this summer and displayed in front of their sponsoring businesses.
The chairs will be auctioned to raise funds for the SNOW Bus and the Glacier Park express shuttles on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at Craggy Range Bar and Grill.
According to organizers, the project evolved from one of those random “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if-we” conversations last summer and evolved into a full-blown project involving more than 16 artists, a myriad of styles and techniques, and its own Facebook page.
Everything about the chairs presented interesting hurdles in order to turn them into something other than what they were designed to be, said Rick Cunningham, executive director of the Big Mountain Commercial Association, the nonprofit that organized the fundraiser.
“Big mega-heavy steel ski lift chairs are not easily reconfigured — or moved,” he said.
But the determined and creative artists who tackled the project divined some imaginative, whimsical and surprising new looks for the former ski lift chairs.
One example comes from artist Nanci Williams, whose black-and-white chairlift bench is tagged “Snow Bus Stop” and is adorned with life-size figures featured in her book, a compilation of drawings called “The Whitefish Fashion Collection,” which is inspired by the colorful characters who populate and frequent Whitefish.
“It’s designed to look like these crazy people are sitting there waiting for the SNOW Bus,” Williams said.
The figures include a frumpy old man wearing a short-sleeve button-up, shorts, socks and sandals; a teenaged girl texting; and a dog.
“It’s Whitefish,” Williams said. “Had to have a dog.”
Williams’ creation will be on display in front of the Purple Pomegranate, a fine craft gallery in downtown Whitefish where she works.
Another creation comes from Ruth Lane, whose lift chair is covered with eco-printed felt and features a bower of copper-wire leaves climbing up the overhead support.
The Big Mountain Commercial Association devised the creative fundraiser to support the Shuttle Network of Whitefish (SNOW) buses, a free shuttle that caters to thousands of riders each winter and summer as they make their way up Big Mountain to ski or snowboard.
The nonprofit’s mission is to promote unity between Whitefish Mountain Resort and the rest of the valley, said Cunningham, which includes those who don’t hit the slopes on a regular basis.
“This way we bring people up that may not ski but want to come up and see what goes on on the mountain,” he said.
Started 16 years ago as a way to alleviate parking congestion on the hill and to help resort staff get to work, the SNOW buses now provide more than 50,000 free rides each year for anyone heading up Big Mountain.
It’s especially helpful for tourists who fly in to Whitefish and don’t have means of transportation, Cunningham said.
The BMCA controls the SNOW buses’ day-to-day operations, though the group maintains a tight relationship with Whitefish Mountain Resort. The resort pays the lion’s share of the SNOW buses’ expenses through a large sponsorship, Cunningham said, but there are still other costs to be met.
The nonprofit also partially funds the resort’s shuttle and helps pay for the cost of plowing the road up to Big Mountain.
Maps are available to find and admire all 10 chairs at bigmtncommercial.org.
The sponsoring businesses are: Whitefish Lake Restaurant, Mackenzie River Pizza, Craggy Range Bar and Grill, Firebrand Hotel, National Parks Realty, Stumptown Marketplace, Hidden Moose Lodge, Walking Man Frame Shop and Gallery, Purple Pomegranate, Nelson’s Hardware, Frame of Reference Fine Arts Gallery, and JoBeth Blair-Pure West Realty.
For more photos, check out the Big Ski Chair Affair on Facebook, or just take a stroll around downtown Whitefish.