Just Bruno

In the days long before personal computers, cell phones, digital cameras and instant capturing and sharing of data, photographs and other bits and bites of information, I was a young kid growing up in a small town called Kamsack in east-central Saskatchewan, just a short distance from the Manitoba border.


Our town's homeless guy was Bruno.  It was just "Bruno", as none of us knew his last name, though one person in a recent Facebook discussion suggested that it might have been "Matt".  All we knew for sure is that he, and apparently his wife, came from Quebec, and showed up in our community in the mid to late 70s.


I don't remember ever seeing his wife, though according to one person she would accept a bed in the winter, staying with a local pastor and his family.  They say she was a good cook.  Bruno would sleep rough, in the bush, in abandoned granaries, wherever the wind blew him.


The thoughts of Bruno connect to many other things, including bicycle trips west of town to the Shotenski/Vanin farm to play with Michael (who left us much too early in life) and to go fishing.  We would cross the field to get to a decent spot at the bend in the river.  Our marker was an old granary.  It had no door and appeared not to have been used for many years.  Inside were signs of habitation, small piles of soiled clothes, crumpled up blankets and assorted trinkets and abandoned pill bottles and such.


In my mind, this may have been one of Bruno's spots, though we never ran into him.  I had made the leap that he had substance abuse issues, but in reflection, that conclusion was not substantiated by any real facts or observations. When we were there, I always felt like he was around, watching us from the trees.  In truth, it was a little creepy.

Bruno was a spiritual man.  He walked slowly around our community in his tattered clothes, sandals and Bible in hand.

"He was a martyr-type," recalled my father.  "Like Jesus."

"He was probably more like John the Baptist," suggested my mother.

He would come up to groups of us kids and start reciting scripture.  Once in awhile he would storm into the church on Sunday, stride to the front and begin to preach.  The priest, patient and kind - Father Dumont I think - would allow him to say his piece before urging him to allow the service to continue.  Father lost his temper once, I believe, but I certainly didn't blame him.  Bruno had this way of taking over a space, like he was taller and more powerful than everyone else.  I'm sure the adults of the time would have seen it differently, but through my 11 or 12 year old lens, Bruno was larger than life, untouchable by mere mortals, unstoppable.


"I wish my adult self could have had a conversation with him," shared one person who was watching my progress with the portrait.  It was like she took the words right out of my mouth.  I have so many questions, a longing to hear his voice, to learn more about this looming figure of my youth.


The photograph, titled "The Chosen One", was taken by a Yorkton-based photographer named Mitch Hippsley.  He still runs a studio in that community called Photographs by Mitch.  I'm hoping to connect with him to see what he remembers about that particular portrait sitting, or if it was just a candid shot, taken at a pensive moment.  It is an incredibly powerful photograph, and for many of us that grew up in Kamsack, a direct conduit back to the place, the time and the man.


It was Mark Herbster who suggested painting Bruno on Friday.  I'm so glad he did, as I was wondering what to paint for the upcoming KD Gala being put on as a United Way fundraiser by the Centre of Hope.

Bruno didn't have a Centre of Hope back in Kamsack in the late 1970s.  He had caring reverends, chaplains and community members, but chose to live rough, shirking off the accoutrements of modern life for something else.  He carried a deep faith, possibly some personal demons, and an instance that he was walking a righteous path.

Just Bruno, 20' x 24", acrylic on canvas

This is pretty much all I know about the guy we knew as just Bruno.  If anyone is reading this that can add more substance to the story, I would invite you to add a comment to this blog post or send me an email (russell@birdsongconnections.com).

I asked my son Ben what he thought of the painting.  He said "It's missing something."

"Splatters," he concluded after looking at it for a minute or two.

He came out to the studio with me and did the splatters as a contribution to the piece.



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