Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stories from Sherry

As I listened back to the IMPACT interview with Sherry Duncan from Tuesday, I couldn't help but admire her ability to tell a great story.  There were two that really jumped out for me.

First, she talked about the impact she had in the life of a young man who was having a hard time finding his confidence in school.  Things had not been easy for this young fellow and he felt that he was on a dead end road to nowhere.

"You have what it takes; you have the power," she said to him, sitting on a picnic table sharing an ice cream together.  "You are the one who owns your destiny."

As he and his family moved from the community, Sherry told the young man that she would like to come back to see him graduate from high school.

Years passed and she lost touch with this fellow. One day, out of the blue Sherry got a message from the young man.

"I don't know if you remember me," he wrote.

"Of course I remember you," Sherry wrote back.

"So I'm graduating, can you come?"

(It was at this point that I almost started to cry)

Sherry desperately wanted to go, but one of her own children was graduating on that very same day.  Instead, she promised the young man that she would come to his university convocation.

"When you graduate from university, I'll be there" she said.

He said,"I'm never going to make it to university."

"Well, what do you need to do?" she replied, as they began talking about a plan.

He just finished his fourth year of university and he's going on to be a physiotherapist.

(I almost cried here, too)

"We all go through being adolescents; we all go through being teenagers; and we've got to have some kindness and compassion," she said.  "These kids are trying to figure it out."

Near the end of the on-air visit I asked Sherry if there was a moment of kindness that stands out for her from the fire and evacuation.

She shared an unlikely anecdote of being stuck in the line-up of cars and trucks trying to flee Fort McMurray and needed to relieve herself.  Being a person who suffers from paruresis, I can't imagine trying to pee on the side of a highway with vehicles in every direction.

"A random stranger  move his truck to be aligned with my car and open his door, so I could be between two vehicles and have a tiny bit of privacy," she shared.  "That's heroism."

"In that moment, allowing me some dignity, that was a kindness that I'll never forget."

I appreciate Sherry so much and am grateful for her presence in this community and in my life.

Forgotten fragments

I listened to an audio compilation of radio clips yesterday from Country 93.3's Pete Potipcoe recorded on May 3rd. Right in the middle, the Alberta Emergency Alert kicked in, jarring and piercing.  I heard the same alert when I was in the line of traffic trying to evacuate Gregoire, though I was listening to KAOS 91.1.  Hearing the voices and Pete, Bradley Karp and John Knox, doing some of the best work of their professional lives in harrowing conditions brought back a memory.

I had left town that day with a full tank of gas and a phone that was fully charged.  I didn't anticipate needing to use the phone, except to take a few pictures.  It didn't occur to me to take my charging cable.

Photo sent to me by my colleague Cheryl Tang, shortly after 1 pm on May 3, 2016

Of course, as the disaster began to unfold, the phone became the conduit to information and a lifeline to my family.  Cell service quickly became sketchy as the volume of incoming and outgoing calls exploded.  I used texting and Facebook Messenger from that point on to let Heather and the boys know where I was and what I was going to do.  They did the same.

While many people were deeply stressed about their gas gauges, I was focused on my battery indicator on my phone, which was being depleted by the minute as message after message poured in from people and media from all over the world.

I try to imagine that day without the luxury of digital connection.  I can't; it's too painful to even contemplate.  I knew where Heather, Dylan and Ben were at all times.  So, you can imagine my fear as the battery dipped below 20-percent.

My circuitous journey that day took me from Fort McMurray to the Mark Amy Treatment Centre, back to Fort McMurray where I hit the wall of fire and smoke, then back to the Mark Amy Treatment Centre.  When I first turned back south, with thousands of other evacuees, I was heading for the evacuation centre in Anzac.  It was only at the last second that I had the brainstorm to see if the Mark Amy folks could spare me a patch of floor.  They did better than that.  They gave me an office with a mattress, access to a computer and phone, and Chelsey let me use her iPhone charging cord.

I spent the night of May 3rd on this comfortable mattress on the floor of an office in the Mark Amy Treatment Centre.

There are so many wrinkles and fragments of memory from that day.  The feelings then, and in the days to come, were intense. Life was happening with such terrific force that it is hard to remember all the little details.

Like the habit that many of us have to sneeze into our elbow - drilled into us during the H1N1 crisis - the great Fort McMurray fire has changed how we do things.  For me, an iPhone charging cable is a necessity for any kind of travel.  Making sure the gas tank is full is important, too.  And my level of concern when seeing smoke or fire is on a whole different level.  I'm sure there are other things that have changed that I just haven't discovered yet.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A sobering walk in the forest

We went for a walk in the forest in Thickwood on Saturday, at the bottom end of Silin Forest Road.  It was a lovely change of pace from our regular walks in the downtown area.  Heather had read about a particular hike that sounded intriguing.  You'd think after so many years of living in Fort McMurray that we would have had occasion to explore all the walking trails.  Apparently not.

We returned on Sunday, but drove down Thicket Drive to Ross Henniger Memorial Park.

"Let's see if there is a trail head there," said Heather, still looking for an expansive view of the Fort McMurray Golf Club and the Athabasca River Valley.

As we began walking down the asphalt path, we saw our first glimpses of the burned out forest - this is the fire that threatened the Water Treatment Plant and made its was up the hill toward Thickwood.

On the left side of the path, as we walked south, and a few trees in, were countless remnants of trees, black as soot near the ground and stripped of their life force all the way up.  To our right, a perfectly untouched swath of trees beyond which lay a row of beautiful homes and yards along Thicket Drive.

It was a sobering view and a sobering thought: imagining what it would have been like in this spot on May 3rd.

"I just can't understand how they stopped it," I said.  "It came so close."

We went to the left, on to a well-worn dirt walking trail, into the burned out forest and toward the river valley off in the distance.

The way nature bounced back left me speechless, the striking fall foliage juxtaposed against the backdrop of blackened tree trunks.  Trying to imagine the inferno of five months ago, I was as shaken as I've been since returning to the community on June 1st.

"Even parts of the forest floor are scorched," observed Heather.

We walked on, getting a better and better view of the mighty Athabasca and its striking valley with each step.

We discovered a little piece of heaven on yesterday's walk, and a visceral reminder of how close "The Beast" came to gobbling up even more homes than it did.  It is a miracle that Thickwood survived; it came so close.

You can see the burned out forest in pictures and television news reports, but nothing compares to actually being there, surrounded by resilience and towering reminders of what happened on that crazy day.  This particular patch of forest offers an unparalleled view and a great venue for reflection.

While we didn't see any bears, we certainly noticed several signs letting us know that we were in "Bear Smart" country.  I felt their presence in some weird way.

I had left to go on that walk knowing that I wanted to take a break from painting commissions yesterday evening and do something for me, but I didn't know what it was going to be.  After that beautiful walk, I thumbed through my inspiration file and came across a photo of a bear.  It was instantly clear that he needed to be the subject on this glorious day.

He's not quite finished, but the magic and impact of that sobering walk in the forest, seems to have found its way into the painting.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Stepping forward

I finished the first part of my work day - my United Way stuff - and found myself replete of energy.  Even after having a late afternoon nap, I felt like all I wanted to do was find my spot on the sofa and vegetate for the rest of the evening. Instead, I decided to walk to the grocery store to pick up a few things; I prefer shopping for a small amount every day, rather than a large amount every week.  I cooked dinner, cleaned up the kitchen and called the boys to eat.

I felt better having moved my body around a little and going for a walk, but I was still exhausted.  Rather than acquiesce to the tiredness, I encouraged myself to "step forward".  As long as I took a few steps in a forward direction, I will have honoured my intention to keep going.

Oftentimes, the work I need to do on the computer piles up, as it had by late yesterday afternoon.  So, instead of going straight out the studio, which is always my inclination, I took care of some correspondence and a number of other tasks that needed to be done.  By the time Heather got home at 7 pm, I was still tired and ready to step back and do nothing.

However, I continued to step forward.

"I won't be out there long," I said, referencing my inevitable trip out to the backyard studio.  "I just want to do a few things before calling it a night."

I cleaned up from my workshop the night before in Anzac, touched up my painting of Audrey Hepburn, and worked on the background on my portrait of Gene Wilder.  It felt good to clean up the space, and do a small bit of painting.

When I'm having a less-than-energetic day, I visualize the idea of taking one small step forward, then another, and another, and another.

"It is the small things, done consistently, that make the biggest difference," said Robin Sharma.

The little thing that I do every single day is step forward; sometimes it's a giant leap, other times it is small manageable steps.  However, I'm further ahead today than I was yesterday, and I know for certain that I will be even further ahead tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hope from Hunger

I put three words on the canvas featuring an aging Audrey Hepburn and her young friend: Hope from Hunger.  Here was a global superstar who could have easily floated through her sunset years living the life of glamour and luxury.  Instead, she chose to serve, and combat hunger in the world.

I think of the amazing team at the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association and the work they do every day.  Since the fires, they've been a lifeline to so many families who had never been clients before.  These men and women are so talented and dedicated that they could be working anywhere.  They chose to serve through the Food Bank, and do it with heart, dignity and intention.

I started this painting at my workshop on Saturday as part of the Empty Bowls Festival.  I put the finishing touches - and three little words - on it last night.

This painting is available for purchase.  I will be accepting bids until the end of the week.  All proceeds from the sale will be donated to the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association to support their work creating Hope from Hunger.

To place your generous bid email:, or text: 780-881-3752.  It is a great cause and a colourful painting that tells a great story.

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I also tweet from time to time @rvthomas67.

Have a creative day!

(-: Russell

Monday, September 19, 2016

Marty Giles - painting a community champion

Marty Giles and I go back....way, way back to my early radio days here in Fort McMurray.  He was a big radio advertiser back in those days too, and I would often get tapped on the shoulder to do broadcasts from Northstar Ford in Gregoire.  In fact, I recently stumbled across a sheet of mantras that meant something to me from that period of my life; several were from Marty.

"Undivided attention is the best attention"

"You made a call.  But did you make it a smart call?"

"WOW Factor = Customer Satisfaction plus ONE"

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing at the same time every day and expecting a different result"

Marty was an influential character back then, just as he is now.  He has transformed quite a bit in 20 years, taking his passion for business and adding a profound passion for community and giving back. He has also adopted a healthy lifestyle; he looks to be in the best shape of his adult life. His work with the Northern Lights Health Foundation, Keyano Foundation and United Way - among many others - has resulted in positive change in our community and changed lives.

On a personal note, Marty and Dennine asked me to do two different things that significantly helped my art career.  First, they asked me to do a live painting for a big charity poker tournament they were doing down in Calgary.  This birthed a live painting element of what I do that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for charitable groups.  

They also asked me to populate their Motown Lounge in their new dealership with portraits of music icons like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Lionel Ritchie and many others.  These paintings are seen by hundreds of people who visit Northstar Ford every week and have helped grow my fan base.

Northstar Ford was the site of the 4th Annual Motorcycle Rally and Show and Shine put on by Suncor in support of the United Way's Community Campaign.  I was there representing United Way and decided to make optimal use of my time by painting a portrait of Marty right there on the showroom floor of Northstar Ford.

I got the sense that he was a little embarrassed about it, to be honest.  However, it was done in a spirit of appreciation and respect for all that he has done, and continues to do, for our community and province.  With dealerships in Calgary and Cochrane, his role on the recovery committee, and various other volunteer roles, his influence and reach continues to grow, well beyond the borders of Wood Buffalo.

It was tremendous fun doing this painting in the showroom.  People at the event were very kind and seemed to appreciate watching the portrait come together over the course of three hours.  I did some final touches in the studio later in the afternoon.

Now that Marty is immortalized, I am thinking Dennine needs to be next.  Lord knows her impact in this community has also been extraordinary.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Empty Bowls Success

There was a moment when I looked up from my painting in McMurray Experience at Jubilee Plaza and observed what was happening at the Empty Bowls Festival in support of the food bank.  Directly adjacent to where I was painting with a few other people, scores of friends and neighbours were enjoying a hot beverage and conversation in Blue Mountain Bistro.  Out in the plaza, hundreds of people were sampling the tasty treats being offered up by multiple food vendors.  The place was packed, and the energy was super positive.

The importance of having a city square cannot be over stated.  As the community has become familiar with Jubilee Plaza, it is being used more and more in the way in which it was intentioned: as a gathering place for people, a place of celebration and festivity.  It felt like the Empty Bowls Festival was the pinnacle of that evolution.

My intention was to finish a portrait of Audrey Hepburn, famous actress and humanitarian, during the event.  However, you know what they say about best laid plans.  People kept coming in to watch us paint and the visiting became equally important to putting paint on the canvas.

"How many people do you think have come through?" asked Alix Murack, one of the McMurray Experience Coordinators.

"Gosh," I said. "I have no idea.  It's been busy.  A hundred?  Hundred-fifty?"

"Since this morning, 375 have come through," she said.

During most live painting events, I am a side attraction - a little something extra to add flavour to the event.  During the Empty Bowls Festival it was a little different.  Outside of the regular interactive features of McMurray Experience, our painting was the primary activity.  It made for a lot more engagement, which I absolutely loved.  The only downside was that the painting didn't get done.  I went back into the studio when I got home and brought it close to completion; I'll be finishing it up later today.

My participation in the Empty Bowls Festival turned out to be more about the act of painting and less about producing a painting.  People enjoyed coming over and looking over my shoulder, asking questions, and watching the scrolling slideshow on the wall with a selection of my previous works.  For Myra and Madison, it was about enjoying a creative, relaxing time in a great space.

My thanks to the folks at McMurray Experience for providing a brilliant space and being so helpful.  My thanks as well to the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association and Arts Council Wood Buffalo for inviting me to participate.  It was a great day.