Sunday, October 9, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

Heather and Ben have a bet going as to when the first snowfall will happen in Fort McMurray.  It appears that they both have lost as the ground is white this morning, several weeks before either of their guesses.

The Farmer's Almanac did say we were in for a doozy of a winter, colder than normal.  It makes sense; this year has been anything but normal.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow with Corinne, Chris and Jonathan - our first family Thanksgiving gathering in Fort McMurray - we will be feeling a lot of gratitude.  Both of our homes were completely spared in the devastating wildfire that happened in May, and our neighbourhoods are unscathed.  Of course, that is not the same for a lot of people we know who lived in areas that were decimated.

Five months after the fire hit, homes are already starting to pop back up; some may be occupied by year's end.  For those that didn't get their foundations in before October, they will be into construction mode starting next May.  There will be a major building boom in 2017, unlike anything we've seen before.

I haven't stopped much since May 3rd.  As soon as the flames were at my back I was doing my communication work.  When we settled in Calgary during evacuation, I returned to painting after a few days of thinking I might never paint again.  The communication work and the painting continued in earnest through the evacuation, re-entry, summer and autumn.  I'm grateful that I've had lots to do.

There is so much gratitude to express for the kindnesses that we offered during our time of displacement.  Most importantly, Mike and Kathryn opened up their home and made us feel welcome.  You can imagine how your family routine would get upended if another family showed up out of the blue to stay for a month.  Mike, Kathryn, Julie and Simon were very patient with the discombobulation we caused and supported us through a very difficult time.  We will never forget their kindness.

Many of you helped in other ways.  Messages of concern, phone calls, donations to the United Way and Red Cross, and social media posts sustained us through that period of uncertainty.

Life for us has returned to normal.  We are all embracing routine in a way that is very different than before.  There is a new appreciation our home life, as we - and thousands of others - came so close to losing it.

Heather has stayed very active with teaching, doing cranial sacral work, and learning  She has had the opportunity to fly off to several different places to expand her knowledge.  Her next adventure will be a retreat that she is hosting in beautiful Sedona in February. You can find out more by clicking here. We spent a week in Sedona as a family a few years ago and absolutely loved it.

Dylan is in grade 12 -- eek!  How did that happen? -- and continuing to explore his love of theatre, performance and creation.  Right now, he's working on a professional touring show called Holmes and Watson Save the Empire happening at Keyano Theatre.  He's operating the follow spot.  In the New Year, he is hoping to direct his first one act play.

Ben is in grade 8 at Composite High School.  He made the big switch from Dr. Clark Elementary seamlessly.  Like Dylan, Ben is interested in performance and personal expression.  He is a very self-directed soul and will spend hours and days building virtual architectural creations on the computer, playing guitar or making films.  You can check out his videos by subscribing to his Youtube channel: The EpicEnder Team.

I would never have guessed, in a million years, that I would be doing what I am doing at the age of 49.  The United Way part of my life makes sense, building on almost three decades of communication work.  But the painting part of my life has been a complete and delightful surprise.  A total of 400 paintings have been created and scattered across North America since I began this crazy ride in June of 2014.  About 60 of those piece will be featured in my first solo exhibition that will run from November 10 to January 28 at the MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery.

The painting has branched into a number of different opportunities.  I've done between 15 - 20 live painting demonstrations at large events in Fort McMurray, Edmonton and Calgary.  Several hundred people have participated in my portrait painting workshops held in a variety of locations.  I was even able to field test a powerful team-building painting workshop at Mindcamp this summer.  I have three of those coming up in the next month.

Interest in my work is insane; there is no other word for it.  I get multiple enquiries every day and from farther and farther afield.  One commission in the pile is from a fan in Germany.  In early 2017, I will travel to Calgary to paint Gordie Howe and his two sons at a big fundraiser.  The two sons will be there to sign the finished work to increase its value and benefit to the charity. I feel a deep sense of wonder about what has happened and what lies ahead.  I've fallen into something that is deeply fulfilling on so many levels.

We have survived one of Canada's great natural disasters.  We have a warm home and the love of family.  We have financial security and an abundance of opportunities.  We are in the position to give back to our community and help others.  There is so much to be thankful for this year.  Heather and I will also celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary in a couple of days (October 12th).  It seems like yesterday that we said "I do" on that crisp and sunny autumn afternoon at Candle Lake.

On behalf of Heather, Dylan and Ben, our love to you and yours.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Happy New Year

The year has has turned.  The house is quiet, still, ready to walk with us down the miraculous path that lies ahead.

We were up late on New Year's Eve, though not quite to midnight, playing an improvised version of Balderdash.  Driving back to Fort McMurray from Kamsack, we listened to a similar word definition game on CBC Radio.  In our case, we found a website that generated random words from the English language.  All five of us (brother-n-law Chris is living with us at the moment - explanation to follow) took turns picking a word from the website.  Each person made up a possible definition for the word.  They were then read aloud, along with the real definition, and we had to guess which one was real.

It was a lot of fun as we had to use our imagination and language skills.  On the final turn, we all wrote definitions before finding out the word.  That was an absolute hoot!

Backing up to why our household population has grown by one.  At the beginning of December, Chris started a new job as Assistant Deputy Emergency Management with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.  He retired from the Canadian Forces, last based in Ottawa, after securing the position here.  Corinne will eventually follow as will at least some or all of the boys.  We ended 2015 very thankful that we have added some family to our community.

I have been rather negligent in maintaining my Wood Buffalo Update correspondences.  I apologize.  What began as a bi-weekly endeavour has changed to monthly, bi-monthly and now bi-annual.  During a recent visit with my cousin Guy Dore in Kamsack, he wondered if it was still being sent, as he hadn't seen one in awhile.

Frankly, my spare time has been absorbed by many hours spent in Birdsong Studio, the adopted name of our workshop in the backyard that has gone from being a motorcycle repair space and songwriting enclave with the previous owner to being an extra bedroom, carpentry shop and now art space with us.  It also become an art space for others, as I have had a number of guests join me in recent months including Taylor, a young fellow who works in oil sands who wanted to reignite his artistic passions.
Our family in the north has had a great year marked by various travelling and learning adventures.  Heather has pursued various dimensions of her practice, spending time in both California and West Virginia.  I made my annual pilgrimage to Mindcamp in Ontario while Dylan returned to his beloved Artstrek in Red Deer.  Ben travelled into the mountains for an amazing ski trip.

As a family we convened in the beautiful environs of the Kootenays in southern British Columbia in August with the Wagners, and returned to Saskatchewan to spend time with the Thomases in Kamsack at Christmas.  Both trips were memorable and heart-filling.

Heather has integrated drawing and colouring into her daily practice
Heather's first painting in many years - a stunning portrait of Nina Simone
Heather is doing remarkably well.  She is healthy, vibrant, beautiful, motivated and inspired. Yesterday she posted a lovely blog that I would encourage you to read by clicking here.  It contains some great ideas about how to approach the new year and, in fact, every single day.

Dylan on location during the filming of The Good Survivor
Dylan is coming off a super busy fall of performing, gaming and learning.  He is now is Grade 11.  I have to give my head a shake every time I say it.  Where did the time go?  He performed in a play at Westwood High School and was one of the feature performers in a short film project called The Good Survivor.  Watch a brief preview below.  We are all looking forward to watching the finished project when it gets completed in February.

Ben is in Grade 7, and like Dylan balances his time between gaming, learning and creating.  He focuses more on visual creations like drawing and filmmaking.  As we were driving back to Kamsack for Christmas, Ben spent hours sketching portraits in the back seat that were pretty remarkable.  He continues to be interested in skiing.

Ben is enjoying his skiing adventures
The two of us enjoyed a great day at Vista Ridge over the holidays; it was my first time skiing in about a decade.  He was expecting that I would be like a rickety granny and was rather surprise when I gave him a run for his money on a couple of races down the hill.

For me, 2015 was one of the best years of my life; I'd be lying if I said otherwise.  I love my work with the United Way, the various contracts that I took on with Birdsong Connections, and my painting.  I spent some time creating a graphic of all the paintings that happened in 2015.  Here it is:

Pretty crazy, huh?  Like everyone else, I am getting older.  Seeing things at a distance and up close are both challenges for me now.  As such, I'll be getting my first pair of glasses in just a matter of days.  So, the next time you see me, there were be something different.

I was negligent in putting together our annual Christmas newsletter, full of pictures and memories.  Too many clients were waiting for paintings, which meant that every spare minute was spent at the easel.  Hopefully this Wood Buffalo Update will suffice.

Lots of love, hugs and hope from all of us to all of you.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

When the treehouse comes down...

It's taken me longer than normal to write this post. I began on Easter weekend. You'll notice a number of different sections to indicate a new writing day or topic.

I am in the process of dismantling the green treehouse in the backyard.  Someone asked if it felt "bittersweet".  It is.  The years are flying by and the boys no longer make use of it.  The tree is also getting older and growing - once plumb and true, the structure now decidedly slopes from back to front.  As of this Good Friday morning, most of the deck boards and rails are removed with just the main beams and ladder to come down today.

After a long winter, it is once again nice to spend time outside, though ice still forms every night.  It will be a week or so before the frost in the ground gives way to spring allowing the melt to dissipate into the soil.

We are already three full months into 2015, 90 days that have been filled with adventures in Arizona, visits from family, rehearsals (for Dylan), workshops, client sessions, and so much more.  It has also been filled with a tremendous amount of painting and some remarkable stories of how this portraiture adventure has taken off.

Heather coaxed us to go down to Arizona for our January escape.  She had been down there the year previous.  I am so glad she did.  Sedona, which was our base of operations, is a beautiful place and offered lots for us to see and do.  The weather was comfortably moderate.  In other words, it wasn't super hot and it wasn't cold; it was just right.

We were blessed by a guided tour by Jesse Kalu, a local flute maker and performer whom Heather had met on her previous visit.  Using his 4x4 Jeep, we traversed rock and mud to get to some pretty remarkable places in the hills and mountains surrounding the community.

An abundance of art galleries and holistic healing attractions, Sedona felt like the perfect spot for our combined sensibilities.  The boys also seemed to appreciate the slower pace, the cuisine and the little adventures we went on including a day trip to the Grand Canyon.

As Dylan dived into preparations for A Rope Against the Sun, a one act play, I started directing The Odd Couple. Both projects will come to an end in the next two weeks, Dylan is off to the Provincial One Act Play Festival with his show, while we open ours just a few days later.

Heather has become increasingly busy with her work, and enjoyed a lot of good exposure and successful workshops during the Peace Warriors Health and Arts Festival.  This is also the venue where Dylan told his story.

He had been encouraged to audition by one of the festival organizers.  He did and was accepted.  Over a number of weeks he worked on "the talk of his life" and knocked it out of the park on Friday night.

Chris Koch, the keynote presenter at the event, made this comment on his Facebook page:

I would love to introduce you to a very amazing, inspiring and courageous young man. Dylan Thomas is a 15-year-old young man from Fort McMurray living with cerebral palsy. I had the absolute pleasure of listening to him speak before I went up on stage. I cannot put into words just how much I was moved by his story. It was by far one of the most incredible and impactful presentations I have ever seen. This next link is to a blog done by his father which will give you an idea of last nights events but more importantly a little insight into Dylan's presentation: Peace Warriors and Dylan's Watershed Moment. I sincerely believe Dylan Thomas is a name you'll be seeing more and more of. You did an amazing job buddy.

In addition to my studio paintings and murals (over 80 and counting), I have done two live painting events to raise money for charity.  The first one happened down in Calgary at the Deerfoot Casino where I did a portrait of Robin Williams as Patch Adams in front of 200 people.  I started painting at about 10 am and finished at 2 pm.  It sold for $6,300, funds that were split between two hospital foundations.

Last weekend, I painted Dr. Clark here in Fort McMurray. He was a scientist who became known as the father of oil sands extraction and the namesake of Dylan and Ben's elementary school.  This time the audience was about 800 people.  I started painting as people started arriving for the dinner and finished about four hours later as they began the dance.  It sold for $10,000.  The purchaser, the owner of the local Chevy dealership, will be donating the painting to the school.  Another bidder decided to throw in an additional $5,000 to the cause, which was a group called HALOS (Helping Assist Local Organizations Society - they raise money to give it away).

I'm not under any illusions that my paintings are worth that much money, but the magic of the moment combined with the novelty of seeing a painting emerge from the canvas right in front of your eyes inspires remarkable generosity.  Feel free to LIKE my Facebook page to follow along with the fun.

A big part of my professional work this year has been prepared to move The Redpoll Centre, home of the United Way, to Shell Place.  In a sense, I've been acting as the general contractor, working with a variety of contractors and suppliers to stage the development of our new 8,300 sq. ft. nonprofit shared space.  I've also been engaging with nonprofit organizations, presenting the concept of The Redpoll Centre, and ensuring that we open our doors with a healthy uptake of subtenants.  Lord willing, we will open the doors on June 1st and welcome 15 different organizations.  With a total of 46 workstations in the space, we anticipate having 44 leased by opening day.

The robins came back this week.  Heather spotted 10 of them feasting on the front lawn a few days ago. With them, other species have returned, giving us a beautiful birdsong symphony to brighten our days.  Enjoy your spring!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holiday Hello 2014

It is time for our annual Holiday Hello.  The 2014 version, complete with tonnes of pictures, can be viewed by clicking here, or you can scroll down to read it on your screen.

This was a year of transformation for our family. Heather received news in early February that she needed surgery to reduce the size of her pituitary glad. She braved that procedure in September, and has been transforming herself to respond, adjust and embrace the changes her body continues to go through.

Dylan struggled greatly in his first year of high school, but found his stride as the year came to an end, then really flourished when he transferred to Westwood High School in the fall for grade 10. His performance in the recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was quite remarkable.

Ben is transforming from a little boy to a fine young man. He has taken his many talents and woven them into captivating short films, impressive drawings, and an unforgettable performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol.

Russell faced the greatest period of professional uncertainty as his time with the Arts Council and Keyano College came to an end mid-year. The move to the United Way and the launching of Birdsong Connections combined to make the final 6 months of 2014 completely inspiring and perfectly delightful.

A lot has changed, but much has stayed the same. We remain close knit, committed to our community, and to each other. There have been tough times, tears of frustration and sadness, and periods of great tribulation. But has been an equal measure of unparalleled joy, unconditional love and support, and a sense of gratitude for all that we have in this life.

Our best to you and yours as you approach 2015 - may it be a wonderful year, abundant in goodness and love.

50th Anniversary

The far flung Thomases and assorted friends and relatives traveled from near and far and converged in Kamsack for the 50th wedding anniversary celebration for Charles and Loraine (Russell’s parents) in November.

Apart from a captivating magic show (which has inspired Ben to learn several magic tricks), stories were shared and a great time was had by all.

It was so nice to see everyone, particularly all our nieces and nephews, who we don’t get to see often enough. Mom and dad both looked and felt great, and enjoyed all the company.

Ben's Message

This year was a pretty awesome year for me, but now that I come to think of it, I can’t remember most of the year anyway! I guess I’ll just remember what I can.

I have been in THREE plays this year! Pretty cool eh? The first one was Les Miserables, which I did in Febuary. The second one I did in the summer: Aladdin Jr. It was a summer camp thing but way cooler, and it was at Keyano Theatre! The third play was A Christmas Carol, which was in November. I had a pretty major role. My character was the Ghost of Christmas Past. All the plays were really fun and exiting. Oh, I forgot, I was also in a play/skit thing at my school. It was the first play in our school’s history. It was called Noel News and I was the male news anchor, Old Man Winter. Look at all that writing, and that’s all plays!

Anyway in December, I uploaded two videos to my YouTube channel. They were slightly scary but mostly funny horror films with my horse mask. You can check them out at I got a lot of good and funny feedback.

Also, one day, I was laying in my bed thinking about the Christmas holidays. And then I thought: I should build a blanket fort! The next day I started, then two days later I finished! It had Christmas lights and blanket flooring. It is a legitimate blanket fort.

Dylan's Message

This year has been quite the roller coaster for me. Early in 2014, I had a wonderful time being a part of Keyano Theatre’s production of Les Miserables. It was a lovely experience I will never forget.

When it was coming time to register for grade 10 I knew something had to change. So this year I switched to Westwood Community High School and I am loving every minute of it. Westwood is very supportive in the arts which, (big suprise) is very important to me. Also, I met many wonderful people that welcomed me with open arms.

I recently performed in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. I was so lucky to act with many great actors in this producution, and I look forward to working with many of them in the future. I continue to help out local organizations any way I can including the Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association, and a new association, the Fort McMurray Gaming Association.

This year has been an adventure. There have been bumps in the road and there have been times were I felt like I was in the ditch. But thanks to the support from my friends and the family, I am getting through it. Thanks to all the acting and projects I have done throughout the year. I feel like I have been able to really open up and be myself. I look forward to what 2015 will bring and being able to share my experience with you all.

Russell's Message

The picture below captures everything about 2014 for me. It was a leap of faith into a new world. From playing Thenardier in Les Mis to traveling to Yale and being inspired by the four MBA students in the picture at the top, from playing Scrooge to close out the year to finding my artistic voice with my wild colour portrait series, I feel incredibly blessed and inspired.

My work with the United Way is profoundly fulfilling, with great people and a great purpose. It is a pleasure to go to work each morning with people who are passionate about what they do and why they do it.

There are so many highlights to this year, but I will remember it as the time I began to see myself as an artist. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous considering the fact that I have been drawing, painting, acting, and writing for much of my life. But the eruption of portraits, that began with a mural of Metis elder Elsie Yank and continued with a dynamic collection of celebrities that even included the iconic wanderer from our hometown called “Bruno”, I crossed into the world of entrepreneurism and found a hungry market for what I was (and am) creating. Apart from creating a very unexpected source of revenue, the paintings raised over $7,000 for charity this fall. I’m equally shocked as I am delighted.

 I am grateful for the support, encouragement and trust of my family in this most extraordinary year.

Heather's Message

Wow. What a year. As I read what I had written about 2013, I see some of the same themes popping up: enjoying life as much as possible, travel, working less and helping or serving more. Those same themes continue to be an integral part of my world - sometimes though one has to wait for the timing to be right and this year was definitely no exception. I felt with the news of the surgery, the waiting for the surgery and the recovery period, much of of my world had been put on hold. What I now know though is that there was good work happening in those spaces of time. I learned, I grew and I built the foundation of what (I hope) will be great things to come!

After the Spring Conference our mastermind group disbanded and travelled in seperate ways. I enrolled in a major business course, learned a lot and have brought it back into my work with renewed excitement and inspiration. Though slow out of the gates, this Turtle is looking at great things to come with my own web-based mastermind groups, online programs and the opportunity to connect with and serve a broader group of people. I am no longer of the mindset that I desperately need to grasp at every person who approaches me and instead feel comfortable in screening for the right fit so that success (and less frustration) can be guaranteed. I am also learning about Ayurvedic Healing, something which I hope to incorporate into wellness oppotunities for me and my clients.

My new website says it all:

I feel so grateful for Russell and the boys. Without them I would not have the supportive strength that cushions and holds me when I fall and that inspires me to pick myself up and move forward once more. I would not be where I am today without them. They are my greatest teachers and most stoic cheerleaders. It is them that matter most to me. We each support each other in turn and for this alone, I am ever so grateful.

My heart is open to receiving all that is good; an abundance of love, connection, creativity, inspiration, prosperity and good cheer. May you be blessed with the same and more.

Love and Light - always and forever, Heather

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Scenes from A Christmas Carol

It was a rare gift to share the stage with Ben during A Christmas Carol, which ran for a total of 8 performances over the last couple of weeks.  The show was seen by over 3,000 people, all of whom were blown away by Ben's portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Here are a few photos (by Greg Halinda), to give you a sense of the show.

I watched the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol the other night, and found myself incredibly moved by the performance of Alastair Sim.  I saw that we made similar choices in our portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge, small things that made me believe that I might have done Mr. Dickens justice.  I know Sir Charles would have been proud of Ben's choices; I certainly was.

While we performed at Keyano Theatre, Dylan was up at Westwood doing an amazing job in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  I don't have a vast collection of images from that production, but here are two collages that will give you a sense of what a great production it turned out to be.

On the closing day of our show - we had two performances; one in the afternoon and one in the evening - I was inspired to paint a self-portrait as Mr. Scrooge.  I started at about 8 am and finished up around 11 am, which allowed me to get the cast and crew to add words, phrases and lines from the play that meant something to them.  The original will be going to the director of the show, Jacqueline Russell from Calgary, and prints will be made and given to everyone involved.

We are blessed to be living creative lives, all of us, each in our own way. We are grateful for Heather who supports our late nights and many weekends away from the house rehearsing and performing.