Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Remembering Elsie Yanik

Elsie Yanik had enjoyed a lovely meal the night before she passed, spending several hours visiting at the care home she was staying at on Vancouver Island.  After getting back to her room she didn't feel well, an ambulance was called and she was taken to the hospital where she passed away peacefully in her sleep.  She was 99.

A photo of Elsie is the very first picture you see in my "Wild Colour Portraits" exhibition, a beautiful moment of that day in June 2014 when she came over to see the mural I had painted of her on the wall of Birdsong Studio - back at that time I called it "my shop".

We sat together on a bench I had cobbled together from a piece of lumber I had salvaged from the shore of the Athabasca River looking at her portrait and talking about life.  That was a significant day for her for an additional reason; it was the anniversary of the passing of her husband.

Heather and I visited Elsie a number of times during those early months of my unexpected foray into art.  We brought her a copy of the photo sitting in front of the mural, kindly framed by Florence at Points North Gallery.

We went over to tell her the story of Justin Trudeau's visit.  And we went over several more times for Heather to give her reiki treatments.  Elsie loved company and she loved to laugh.

I had met Elsie many times over the years, often at large community events where she often shared the opening prayers.  At one Keyano College function, I escorted her to the stage so she could share her wisdom and serenity with the gathering.  Her voice was always soothing and soul-stirring.  She had a way of elevating an experience with her presence and her words.

She allowed me to borrow her prayer books - she had two binders full of them - so that I could add some of them to her mural.  Several are scribed right into the large painting viewable in the alley way between Hill and Demers Drives.

I painted Else a second time on December 22, 2014 on the wall of the Salvation Army mat program space, in the basement at their downtown community centre.  It was a very special day, capped off by staff members of the United Way and Salvation Army adding their words to the finished portrait I called Faith, Hope and Love.  Many months later, my friend Kate - who eventually befriended Elsie - brought her down to sign, too.

I last saw Elsie sitting in a wheelchair in the parking lot at the hospital.  She was getting some sun, accompanied by her son Lorne, who she often talked about.  Her eyes were failing her in the final years of her life, but her spirit and warmth remained intact right to the very end.  We had a small chat and I was able to give her a hug before saying goodbye.

Elsie has passed on after a remarkable and gentle life, filled with love, compassion and faith.  Like several of my elders who had gone before, I think that Elsie will always be close by and will continue to bless my life.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Local radio legend passes

The man who brought me to Fort McMurray died this week.  All deaths are hard, but ones like this are especially so.  The 20 years of my Fort McMurray life would not have happened were it not for the job offered to me by Kelly Boyd in 1996.  Had he made a different choice...

...Dylan would not have been born

...I would not have met Heather

...Ben wouldn't have happened

...and on and on it could go, the impact of one man's life on another.

Kelly was a radio man, through and through.  Walking into the radio station - CJOK and KYX 98 at the time - I saw it immediately.  It was a professional office, complete with announcers in dress shirts and ties.  The interview was a full day affair, complete with a comprehensive tour of the station, panel interview, and a guided tour of the community.  To say I was impressed would be a complete understatement; I was blown away.

Kelly clearly believed the connection between running a radio station and being "connected to the community".  That wasn't a clever catch phrase with him; it was a philosophy.  As a senior manager, part of my mandate was to volunteer and make a difference.  That is the only reason I was able to devote so much time to the interPLAY Festival in those formative years.  He supported it 150-percent.

There are so many memories associated with those radio years from 1996 to 1999, many of them connected to Kelly, and his fervent belief in "what gets measured gets done".  There was a high standard that was embedded in the culture of the OK Radio Group.

Radio people will understand this example.  If you had a remote coming up, it would include the following: an in-person pre-meeting on site the day before the broadcast, arrival no later than one hour before the start of the remote, all of the equipment in ship shape, the radio station van spotless, and exceptional service all the way around to the client.  They were paying a premium for a premium advertising experience and we were expected to deliver it to them every single time.  And if things went wrong (and they did), it got talked about on Monday morning.

We enjoyed many a conversation about broadcasting ideas, promotions and working with young announcers.  We shared a dedication to excellence and did everything we could to achieve great results for our listeners and our clients.  At times, that dedication got intense, and resulted in internal fireworks, other times, it resulted in great celebration and festivity.  Kelly was at the heart of it all.

Kelly struggled with his health in the last few years of his life.  I didn't get to see him during this time, but others did.  They always reported that he had an excellent attitude and his spirits were high.  That's Kelly.  That will always be Kelly.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Russell Thomas Art Commission Requests

Photo by Joey Podlubny

My Achilles heel is keeping up with commission requests.  There!  I admit it.  They come in on an almost daily basis and it is hard to keep up.  Heather helps....a lot.  She manages the business end of things with dexterity and grace, handling all the invoicing, payments, and the accounting, not to mention myriad other details.

I thought it might be useful to talk about the process of commissioning a painting from me, and suggest a few tips.

First of all, we've set up a Google form to gather the initial details.  This works great if you have a Google account; it doesn't if you don't.

There are two ways to get to this form:

1)  Hit the SHOP NOW button on the top of my Russell Thomas Art page, or

2) Hit the link on the top of my ART page on my website (www.russellthomas.ca)

If you don't have a Google account, then you will need to have us start a commission request on your behalf.  Just connect in the way that best works with you:

Russell Thomas Art Facebook Page

Email:  russell.thomas@birdsongconnections.com

Phone/Text:  780-881-3752

Here are some key things to note:

The PRICE is based on two factors: 1) the size of the canvas, and 2) the number of subjects in the painting.

If there is a single subject, the prices range from $350 to over $1,000.  For each additional subject, no matter the size, there is an extra charge of $150.  This is a time thing:  an additional subject in a painting requires a lot more time and attention than just painting a background.

How quick can you deliver the goods?

Great question.  We have been saying 4 to 6 months for new requests.  As of this morning, I'm changing that to 6 to 8 months to err on the side of caution. There is huge demand right now. That said, I reserve the right to make exceptions based on the nature of the request. In other words, don't wait to get your request in the queue.  And don't be shy to ask me to make an exception if the situation warrants it.

By way of example, there is no way that I can accept any new requests for Christmas presents in 2016.  If you want to shoot for Christmas of 2017, I'd be all over that.

If you're interested in a canvas print of an existing work, that is very achievable in time for the holidays.  You can connect with Heather at office@birdsongconnections.com, or ask through direct message on the Facebook page.

Commission Success Tips

The BEST way to communicate with me about commissions is through  Russell Thomas Art Facebook page.  The next best is through email at russell.thomas@birdsongconnections.com.

Sending SOURCE IMAGES of family members, pets, etc. can be done as an attachment through Russell Thomas Art Facebook page, or can be sent as attachments to russell.thomas@birdsongconnections.com.

Doing a quick CHECK-IN from time to time is highly effective and appreciated.

When the project is complete and it is time for payment, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1) We accept payment through Paypal, e-transfer, cheque or cash

2)  We need to add GST to the final total

3)  If you are from away, there will be an extra charge for shipping - don't worry, we package up the artwork to ensure its safe arrival at your home

Our goal is for you to get a piece of original artwork that you or a loved one will treasure forever.  I hope this helps.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Honouring the heroes

The 10th Annual Oilsands Banquet was significant in a number of different ways.  Most importantly, it honoured first responders and scores of others who contributed to the effort to save Wood Buffalo.  I saw fire chiefs and firefighters from Calgary, Smoky Lake, Athabasca and various other locations in Alberta, fire fighting pros who joined the fight on the ground back in May.  They were everywhere as the capacity crowd mingled during the pre-banquet reception.  There were also many other non-uniformed heroes that were there: support staff, Atco gas and power personnel, water treatment plant operators, industry folks who did so much during those crazy days, and countless others.  It was a big event; it was a big deal.

In terms of a plated service banquet (as opposed to a buffet style affair), the Oilsands Banquet was the biggest held at Shell Place by a country mile.  Executive Chef Ken Bowie and his staff knocked it out of the park and put on a helluva spread.

There were many highlights of the evening for me, among them getting to sit next to Chief Allan Adam from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.  We enjoyed a great conversation about the fire and what happened with our respective families during the crisis.  He went on to make what I felt was one of the best speeches of the night on behalf of the Athabasca Tribal Council.

"Our home is your home," he said.  The words, and the intention behind them, really hit me - we were truly all in it together as we faced the wildfires and as we go through the rebuilding process.

I painted Fire Chief Darby Allen on the 5th day of evacuation - Mother's Day.  It was finally presented to him and the department as part of the Oilsands Banquet.  A companion piece, painted more recently, was presented to RCMP Superintendent Rob McCloy as a thank you to the police officers that guided us to safety.

"The Officer" standing sentinel in against the backdrop of fire and smoke was inspired in part by a photograph taken by a Calgary based photographer named Chris Bolin (www.chrisbolin.com) and a story shared to me by a lady who works at the hospital who lived in Beaconhill.

At the end of the event, we had tables stretched down the hall at Shell Place holding 16" x 20" prints of the Fire Chief Darby Allen painting.

As I emerged, I saw first responders signing them with great purpose and intent.  Behind each print was an individual or company that had donated $1,000 or more to the United for Fort McMurray effort.

It was great to see Glenn Chaulk in the line.  I had painted a tribute portrait of him after re-entry, a special gift from his brother Shawn.

I saw my brother-in-law Chris signing.  The value he has brought to the region since arriving late last year and the role he played during the crisis was and is significant.

Chris had a long and distinguished career in the military and was right alongside Darby Allen and Dale Benfeld in the Emergency Operations Centre throughout the wildfires in his role as Assistant Deputy, Emergency Management.

A publication called "Saving Wood Buffalo" was launched at the Oilsands Banquet.  Those of us in attendance were able to take a copy home.  I'm about half way through the stories and I can promise you that it is one of the best collections of perspectives about the fire, response and recovery that I have seen to date.  It is available for purchase by clicking here - $10 from each sale will go to the Fort McMurray Firefighters' Relief Fund.

My deepest thanks to Phil Enarson and his team for putting on an amazing evening.  Special thanks to BMO for their sponsorship and the $2 million they announced to support a broad range of community organizations.  If you want to read about their investment in our recovery, please click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Those who served, those who saved

This is the week of the Oilsands Banquet, an almost-annual celebration that has honoured great organizations like the Athabasca Tribal Council, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray International Airport, Keyano College, CAREERS: The Next Generation, and many others.  This year the honouree will actually be honourees: the heroes of the Great Fort McMurray Wildfire.

Photos by Joey Podlubny

Heroes take many forms.  I think we all understand that more deeply having been through this experience and having heard countless stories.  Human beings respond to adversity by tapping into their best selves.  There are so many examples, but I'll generically pull a few out of the memory banks.

...the principal who stayed in the school until every single student was reunited with their parents, despite what was happening at home...

...the fire fighter who went 72 hours without sleep, fighting the fire with whatever water he could find, including, at one point, using a wet mop to put out flames...

...the mother who got her family out of Abasand using their family vehicle despite never having driven before - it was a standard...

...the people who picked up strangers during the evacuation and drove them to safety...

...the saviours who drive up the highway with gas, water and food - there were many...

...the bus driver who went up into both Beaconhill and Abasand when they were on fire to pick up stragglers...

...the underground services municipal worker who helped keep the water flowing and directed to where it was needed most...

...the evacuation hotline operator who worked the phones for 24 straight hours provided lifesaving information and a listening ear when people needed it most...

...local First Nations who opened their homes and businesses for tens of thousands of evacuees without question...

...the broadcasters and journalists who told the story, often at risk to their own safety...

...oil sands plants who threw protocols out the window and provided shelter, food and comfort to residents (with their pets) who fled north - they did so immediately and without question...

...the police officer who stood sentinel in the intersection surrounded by fire and suffocated by smoke guiding people to safety...

...the leaders who had to make critical decisions under the most adverse conditions imaginable with information that was changing by the minute; their courage to do so saved lives and property...

...the social profit organizations in our region who took care of their clients, many of whom are disadvantaged in the best of conditions; imagine how they felt on May 3rd...

...the professionals who stayed behind to keep the core infrastructure going during the heat of the crisis; they kept the city going to support the first responders and increase the likelihood that we'd have a city to come back to...

The face of heroism takes many forms and we saw many of them on May 3rd.  During that intense time, the eyes of the world were on us.  What they saw were real life examples of resilience, courage, determination and strength.  It generated a new understanding and appreciation for Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo and the industry that sustains us.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wild Colour Portraits by Russell Thomas

There was a moment when Ana Maria Mendez-Barks was starting the process of hanging my paintings at the MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery when it really started to sink in. I got a little emotional for a brief second, then carried on with the work required to get over 80 paintings hung on the wall.  My stress had been building for weeks as the date of this exhibition got closer.  As of this morning, the entire show is installed and ready for public viewing.  Now I shift my energy back to commissions, live painting events for charities, workshops and the Opening Reception scheduled for the evening of December 1st.

The Wild Colour Portraits exhibition consists of sections or groups, paintings that thematically make sense to display together.  For instance, there is a section of painting masters, largely consisting of the Taylor Donald Collection.  Another is made up entirely of animals.  The feature wall, or the first you see to the right when you walk into the space, is made up of works that made a significant impact.  BB King's portrait done the day after he died is up there, with David Bowie's tribute, and two different portraits of the much loved actor who passed away earlier this year, Gene Wilder.  The first painting in this section isn't a painting at all; it is a photograph of a painting and a special lady.

I couldn't bring the piece that started this crazy journey, as it is attached to the exterior wall of Birdsong Studio.  But Points North Gallery had kindly framed a photo of Elsie Yanik sitting in front of her portrait back in 2014.  It is the first, and will always be the first.

The placement of paintings within the sections ended up being a collaborative effort between Ana Maria and myself.  Her eye for colour balance and visual interest is incredible.  I love how the show looks, how the paintings and the stories link together, and the conversations they have already inspired.

"The kids and I walked and talked about each of your masterpieces while we waited for Millie's dance class to start. Elias was curious who had passed away and who was still alive. They had a good laugh at the horse and each brought up some really neat conversation. Amazing work! We loved it all."    Sarah

So drop by any time.  The MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery is located on the 2nd floor of the Suncor Community Leisure Centre.  If you want to have me join you for a guided tour; I'd be honoured if it works with my schedule.  Story is a big part of these experience.  Several are shared in the printed form, but there are so many others.

Please, please, please mark December 1st in your calendar and consider coming to the Opening Reception starting at 7 pm.  There will be a number of surprises, some of which haven't been painted yet, and an exciting blind auction in support of United Way.  I'm also going to attempt to paint 10 portraits in a single day; they will only be revealed that night.  It could be your chance to pick up an original painting of mine right on the spot.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Resilience and Courage - painting Gord Downie

A few days ago, Colin Hartigan asked if I would consider doing a portrait of Gord Downie as a fundraiser for our local United Way campaign.  Colin is a big fan, and a big community champion, serving as our Community Campaign Chair.  He wears his heart on his sleeve about his love for Fort McMurray, in many different ways, and he has gone above and beyond with this campaign.  Colin understands the need in a deeply authentic way and he is doing everything he can to gather as many resources as possible.  I was honoured to say yes to his request.

To be honest, my personal calendar is packed, doing commissions, other pre-scheduled charity paintings, and getting ready for my first solo exhibition.  So, I checked in with my boss to see if she'd let me use a bit of work time to make this happen.  That is why I began my Friday, painting a 30" x 48" portrait of Gord in The Redpoll Centre hallway.

It is a rather complex composition, and took until 9 am to completely sketch out.  I started applying colour shortly thereafter and wrapped up the first phase of painting right around noon.

I was delighted by the various people who dropped by to visit and watch, particularly Greg and Carla.  They are visiting from Newfoundland and are huge Gord Downie fans.  Someone had mentioned what I would be doing the night before and they decided to pop by for a visit.

While I would have loved to complete the project in one morning, it was not to be.

I went home, had my requisite nap after lunch, and did a bunch of running around I needed to do for my art show before returning to the painting in the studio.

I did a base coat of the background, pulling in purple and magenta.  On the second pass I brought in more blues with white highlights.  The energy of the piece started to feel right at this point.  A couple of hours of touch ups in the evening brought "Resilience and Courage" to conclusion.

The painting is being auctioned on The United Way of Fort McMurray Facebook page.  Look for the album: Online Auction: Russell paints Gord Downie.

Bids are being accepted until 9 am on Monday, November 7th.  All proceeds will support agencies, programs and initiatives that help children, youth,  disadvantaged adults, families, and seniors in Wood Buffalo.

Crista Watts Baker kicked off the bidding at $300, Dale Unruh bumped it up to $2,000, followed by generous bids by Paul Hartigan and Liam Burgess.  An anonymous bidder has taken it up to $6,000.

I'm proud of this painting and how it turned out.  It is fantastic that it will help our community.  I'm in awe of Gord Downie and his resilience and courage.  I'm in awe of another friend in our community who has the same cancer for similar reasons.  Both are subjects that I have been honoured to paint.