Illuminated in Nature

How nature’s influence on Vancouver
inspired light sculptor, James Nizam.

As told by Mike Berard

Part 1

Artwork Unveiled

Vancouver artist James Nizam creates a monumental light sculpture inspired by the city's bond to wilderness.

Part 2

James' Story

James Nizam clearly isn’t afraid of heights. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based artist stands near the apex of a ladder propped up against the steep flanks of Grouse Mountain. He’s stood here, on the city’s North Shore mountains, for two long days and nights, immersed in a large-scale light installation meant to be the central focus of a new photograph. Below him the expansive lights of Vancouver oscillate as the heat of the day dissipates off the mountainside and into the black night above.

About 100 metres (328 feet) downslope, a set of three cinematic Xenon arc lamps cut into the British Columbian night sky. Incredibly powerful, Xenon lamps are used in filmmaking to simulate full daylight, even on the darkest of sets. But it’s unlikely they’ve ever been used as they are on Grouse.

Dressed in trim, stylish jeans and a rotating stock of casual-but-cool shoes, Nizam defines contemporary West Coast urban. The friendly, articulate man with the charming smile has gone by many titles in his short but celebrated artistic career—photographer, visual artist and sculptor. Nizam creates art through a variety of mediums but the one that has shed the most light on the notoriously fickle art world is photography of his creative, complex light installations. But as with most art, it’s not all shiny light and aesthetic glory—Nizam aims to agitate thought and emotion with his work.

The plan with the momentous piece of work on Grouse Mountain is to project the light of the Xenon lamps out above Vancouver, creating a light installation over the urban landscape. “In camera these beams of light appear to be shooting up into the sky”, he explains. “But, in actuality, they are firing two kilometers (1.2 miles) out over the city.”

His vision—or at least part of the idea—is to illustrate Vancouver’s connection to the wilderness, a relationship which defines this city in so many ways.

Part 3

City in Wilderness

Two weeks earlier, Nizam sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a single prop De Havilland Otter seaplane, soaring high above BC’s Coast Range Mountains in search of inspiration for his creation. He didn’t have to venture far to find it. A mere 10-minute flight from Vancouver, glaciers calve in the warm, spring sun—falling to the valley in ferocious displays. Giant, gentle bears roam through rainforest. A line of cars filled with adventure-seekers navigates the beautiful Sea-to-Sky (Highway 99), bound for the mountain towns of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.

As the seaplane nears Phantom Lake—a glacial-fed body of water nestled in the mountains—the pilot lifts the aircraft up and over a ridgeline and begins his descent. But as soon the pilot lands on its surface, a late spring snowstorm rolls in. Light snowflakes engulf the plane as the pilot powers back up. We came for the sunny, alpine lakeshore but nature sees it another way. We need to leave. It’s a fitting reminder that the surrounding wilderness shapes our lives—whether we like it or not.

“When you go out into nature here there’s something that provokes you; something that’s without words,” recalls the artist. “You feel how vast and big nature is here. It has presence.” - James Nizam

Airborne once again, the pilot of the Otter banks hard, navigating the substantial seaplane between Vancouver’s twin mountain peaks known as The Lions. Nizam peers down on the city intently. While he was born in England, raised in the Middle East, and happily spends time in Berlin, Vancouver is the city he is aligned with artistically.

Vancouver’s place within nature is far from anonymous. The world knows the glory of this city of steel and glass set on the wild edge of British Columbia. A cosmopolitan sanctuary with its inspired restaurants, seaside markets, and rich culture, Vancouver sits between the Pacific Ocean and the imposing Coast Range Mountains, which rise immediately out of the ocean and stretch high into the alpine. Skiers and snowboarders who frequent the city’s three ski resorts in winter must resist being tantalized by the steep, snow-choked gullies. In the summer, hikers and mountain bikers collect vertical in both directions.

But wilderness isn’t merely close to Vancouver, it’s engrained in it. Stanley Park is a 400 hectare (988-acre) chunk of seaside forest at the heart of the city. Between towering swaths of thick emerald rainforest Vancouver’s active residents wander, wheel and walk their way on serene paths. And then there’s the Vancouver Convention Centre’s six-acre "living roof". Nizam, who has a keen interest in architecture, jumps at the chance to explore this unique structure post-seaplane adventure. The roof houses 400,000 indigenous plants and is equipped to recover rainwater used for irrigation. Four colonies of 60,000 bees spend the summer on this roof.

Being that no public can visit this closed, sensitive urban ecosystem, Nizam himself buzzes with the rare opportunity to explore the rooftop sanctuary. As a lively flock of birds swirls over the roof’s mossy surface, he climbs the gentle incline to the edge, looks out over Burrard Inlet and up to the slopes of Grouse Mountain. On them lies The Cut, an iconic ski run visible from almost any corner of the downtown core. But for Nizam, The Cut is more than a playground for winter enthusiasts. It is the site where his project will play out. And with a little help from The Eye of the Wind—the 1.5-megawatt wind turbine at Grouse’s peak that supplies 25% of the resort’s electricity—it is where the connection between city and wilderness will be brought to life.

Part 4

Capturing the Connection

Back on his ladder atop Grouse, Nizam seems close to framing in his chosen vision. In his photograph, both city, and wilderness will coalesce into what will become Visible Horizons. To Nizam this magical process means more than the sum of its parts. This light, the beams, these images; they mean something. “When the beams of light come together and create that connecting point, I get excited,” he says, with a childlike enthusiasm. “All of a sudden the concept becomes real. It’s alive.” Nizam goes silent again, pulled back into the magic only he can see through the camera.

“Part of living in Vancouver is being conscious of a respect for the beauty that we have here” he says. “We care about it. Go somewhere else and you’ll realize how tuned into nature you are in Vancouver; the type of food you eat, your sensibility for exercise and recreation…it’s so saturated into what we do here… and to what the lifestyle is. We live in an awesome part of the world and it’s like the fountain of youth here, I feel.”

Not far below, the three brilliant lights have become vibrantly fused. Nizam is elated. His vision has become reality.

“The light is a metaphor,” he says. “It’s a bridge that brings two spaces together.” - James Nizam

“You become aware of the fact that people who are in the city looking back up at the mountain are seeing something happening. The spectacle that we are observing through the point-of-view of the camera is suddenly something the city is observing looking back at the mountain. It frames the relationship between city and nature.”

Nizam depresses the shutter.

Related Travel Deals

Find Your Next Adventure

The BC Explorer

Want to experience the incredible things you see? The Explorer uncovers your favourite Instagram pics from BC. Use this travel planning tool to create your own #exploreBC adventure now.

Plan Now