Artist Profile: Christian Johansen
On the road in Northern California. Photo: Micheli Oliver (@micsteeze)
Christian is a skier to the core with a creative spirit that can’t be extinguished. Though he already has created topsheets that speak for themselves, his story and artistic approach are equally inspiring.
At 19, I worked my first season on a commercial salmon boat in Alaska. My captain, Korry, and I were fishing in waters on the footsteps of some of the best big mountain skiing in the world: the Chugach. It was my first time seeing big mountains, quite like that, quite so close. When Korry, who’s a ski coach for half the year, told me stories of skiing under the Northern Lights, I could feel my conception of natural spaces and moving within them rapidly expanding.
Prince William Sound, AK. Photo: Christian Johansen (@crisp.gin)
As we sat there looking at snow capped cathedrals, talking about heliskiing, and eating the best salmon in the world with orcas breaching around us and bear roaming the shore (eating the same salmon we were), I realized a couple things: 1) I was going to be a skier and mountain person for life. And 2) I found myself wondering how I could help in the protection of places like this. Places that could make me feel so small, yet also so big at the same time. I’m still figuring it out today, but working with WNDR Alpine has felt like a meaningful step on this journey. Proud to be here.
Jackson, WY. Photo: Madison Rose (@madisonnnrose)
Tell us about your background as a skier and an artist.
I’m an ice coaster originally, having grown up in a little village near Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. It’s a place where, as my dad jokes, if you throw a stone, you’ll likely hit an olympic skier. Skiing was, and remains, a distinct part of our culture. I first started sliding down snow in a pack on my parents’ back. Like many Granite State groms, I tried my hand at racing. But it wasn’t until I got my first taste of freeriding that I became enraptured by moving in the mountains. By the time I was at Middlebury College in Vermont, skiing had become both a favorite physical outlet and a mind-clearing meditation. It was really all I wanted to be doing — and, in many ways, still is.
I now live in Jackson, Wyoming, another place where upon throwing a stone you’ll hit a world class skier. It’s been a pleasure following around folks who know — intimately — the best terrain in the continental US. Particularly last February. My god. It was magic. But beyond ability alone, people here are obsessed with the exploration of skiing as a way of life, catharsis, even art: it’s a medium for self exploration and expression like any other artistic tool.
My art background is coupled with, randomly enough, acting. At four years old I began acting professionally. My parents gave me paper and a pen as a way to keep myself occupied during the plethora of downtime backstage. Dragons kept me busy for a while, then big cats and animals, and then I was given “The Art of the Lord of the Rings” books, and I would redraw the concept work Weta Workshop did for the films. I kept drawing as I got older, mostly in private, with the exception of the “art show” at a local bookshop my nanny helped organize for me when I was nine.
It wasn’t until college, right around the time I was skinning up the Middlebury Snowbowl for sunrise laps, that I began being a bit more forthcoming about my art to friends. I started taking on small projects: A logo here, a commission there, mostly mountains and natural landscapes. That small stream of one-off jobs is what has ultimately grown — through word of mouth, a lot of luck, and a guerrilla art booth at SIA/Outdoor Retailer in 2018 — into a small business that helps keep the lights on and lets me work from some pretty cool places.
It’s been a dream to move my art, more and more, into the world of skiing and the outdoors; seeing these two passions and communities converge. Particularly when I get to work on new canvases like surfboards or skis. But without a doubt, the most gratifying part of this journey has been facilitating my friends’ ideas through design and art, and learning about their projects and budding companies along the way. It feels like a gift to take a right-brain language I am intimate with, into a realm of left brain business thinking, with which I am less familiar, and work together to create something of greater value than could each on their own.
How would you describe your art style to someone who has never seen it before?
Atlantic flying fish. Christian Johansen (@crisp.gin)
Detailed often, and flowy. I love incorporating patterns from nature to fill larger shapes on the page. As well as including subtle details to tell the story of the piece. My home base is pen and ink, but I paint, take to the digital land, and on. I was a Waldorf student for 12 years, and if you know this style of education, understand it means I was steeped in all different kinds of artistic mediums from an early age — from water color to wood working to cross stitch. Art, and really just making things, has been present in my life since I was very young. I just happened to be one of those kids who really connected with it.
Orca. Christian Johansen (@cmjcmjcmj)
What things inspired the 2022 topsheets?
Snowy Owls! The Environment! Science! Skis that rip! Matt, Pep, Xan, and I had a brain- storm session to talk about the characteristics of each ski, as well as the ethos of WNDR alpine. It was pretty easy to create from the amount of excitement the gang displays when talking about ideas, and I think I made about 50 or so initial ski designs. In a nutshell though, the graphics seek to embody the performance characteristics of each ski, as well as WNDR Alpine’s pursuit of material science and innovation.
I also had the art from a couple children’s books in my head -- Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Both of these inspire a sense of wonder in me: creative new worlds, and larger than life ideas. I thought this interplayed nicely with the spirit of WNDR Alpine.
What was the process for each of the three topsheets you made?
With anyone I partner with, it starts with a conversation. What is the ethos of the company? What's the message we’re trying to send? I ask them to share any thoughts they’ve had with regard to the visuals of the project. I want my work to reflect the character of the brand, the values they wish to uphold, and the vibe they seek to embody. At first, I sketch by hand to get ideas flowing, before jumping into Illustrator — an Adobe program that mimics a drafting table — where I draw/create/color new ideas as they come to mind. I distill our conversations and include concepts we've talked about as a team. From that point on, it is a cycle of thought sharing. We narrow down, fine tune, add new elements, and omit extraneous ones.
One of the things that we most love about the topsheets is the way they seem to invoke both science and nature. Was this an intentional choice on your part?
Absolutely. Fusing technology with the natural world in a symbiotic way seems like a crucial path forward out of this environmental tailspin we’re in. WNDR Alpine is knocking it out of the park in this regard — biobased materials, domestically sourced aspen, and a commitment to responsible consumption. The art had to reflect this mindset and mission.
Aesthetically, the precision of the science used in creating these skis had been reflected well in WNDR’s geometric look in the first two iterations of the Intention and Vital. Therefore, my goal with the introduction of the Reason and the next iterations of the Vital and Intention, was to interplay that ancestral geometry with movement and textures found in nature. Homages to snow, owl’s feathers, microalgae cells, and the bark of an aspen tree can be found in the graphics. It was also really fun to be sent microscope imagery of microalgae taken by Checkerspot’s scientists in California.
Snowy owl feather. Christian Johansen (@cmjcmjcmj)
The snowy owl has of course been our mascot since day one. How did you go about incorporating new elements of the creature into each ski’s topsheet?
We all came at it with different ideas. Some good, some great, some that didn't make it farther than the cutting room floor. Pep brought up the idea of choosing an element of the owl’s body to represent the soul of each ski, and we went back and forth on which elements this should be.
In the end we chose a talon for the Vital: precise and accurate, for big missions down sketchy sh*t deep in the mountains. The wing for the Reason. It’s a pow ski; you float and fly. Finally, the owl face for the Intention, representative of the flagship ski and WNDR’s spirit animal. I also reached out to the raptor center nearby Jackson, who invited me to come in and look at the snowy owl they had there.
Concept art for the 2022 fleet of skis. Christian Johansen (@cmjcmjcmj)
How did you balance pushing our topsheet art into new realms with maintaining a distinct resemblance to our current skis?
It was a welcome challenge to match the distinct WNDR aesthetic while infusing my own artistic style. I’ll be honest I have never worked so hard on something, purely because I love the company and product so much — I’ve wanted to design topsheets since I was in my teens. WNDR indeed has a distinct aesthetic, so the challenge for me was to fuse their angular geometry with my more flowy style.
Anything else you’d like to call out in the skis’ topsheets, or your art in general?
Admittedly, I'm not sure I've ever put so much time into a project, but I couldn’t stop tweaking and changing little elements, up until well beyond the 11th hour. My best friend in Jackson actually had to make me stop working after I stayed up all night a few times. But hey, I’ve wanted to design topsheets since I was in my teens. The sweetest thing though, is that the WNDR family is more obsessed with detail, making things, and skiing than I am. Matt and I had a 7+ hour zoom session on New Years eve day, complete with a couple cocktails, life talks, and adjustments to the designs on the greatest pow skis ever made. Pretty sweet deal. I like that guy.
But I’d like to take this bonus question opportunity to formally thank everyone at HQ in Salt Lake for bearing with my last minute changes, and to give a particular shoutout to the art department guru Ricky — who had to reflect my 2D changes on the computer with very 3D, very heavy, taller than human size silk screens — WNDR hand screens each topsheet. Ricky, you’re the man.
A personal favorite design element of mine are the small illustrations above the quotes on the tails. There’s a feather on the Reason, a mountain on the Vital, and a make-believe Aspen/Algae tree on the Intention.
I also love the quotes we chose, and will close with one, albeit slightly modified: Take a walk in the woods, you’ll come out taller than the trees.
Northern CA. Photo: Micheli Oliver (@micsteeze)
Want to get to know Christian better? Follow along here, here, and here.