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. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mom and Dad's 50th

A full week has gone by since we gathered in the Kamsack Seniors' Centre to celebrate Mom and Dad's 50th wedding anniversary.  Normally, I would have written about the experience shortly after it happened, but the combination of having a long drive (12 hours) and getting right back into rehearsals for A Christmas Carol left me with no quality time to put some refections together.

"It's so nice to hear these things when we're alive," said Mom about the powerful thoughts that were said and shared, particularly by the grandchildren.

Many of us welled up as Kristina, the eldest grandchild, set the tone by getting up in front of the large group gathered for the celebration and delivering an eloquent, heartfelt and emotional speech.

I doubt if there was a dry eye in the house when Maggie presented her drawing of the backyard and the bus and what it, and they, meant to her.

Dylan made a last minute decision to sing a Frank Sinatra song as his gift.  He knew that his brother Ben had drawn a picture of the Empire State Building, as Mom and Dad had honeymooned in NYC. He thought "New York, New York" would be a perfect choice.

I was proud of both boys and completely moved by all the grandchildren, even those who couldn't join us but sent along their messages of love.

There were several themes that resonated through the reflections of the young people about Mom and Dad.  The role of the bus and the backyard was significant; it was a fun and adventurous place to be.  There was also a sense of safety and comfort being around Memere and Grandpa and in the house that has hosted many a visit and celebration over almost 5 decades.

Hundreds of pictures were gathered and put into a slideshow that played throughout the afternoon.  It was fun to watch the reactions as images from the near and distant past scrolled by, each kindling a warm memory.

We gathered everyone into a big circle and played a game of Know-Wonder (Thanks Tim Hurson).  Each person drew a card from the deck.  If they got an odd number, they were to share something they knew about Mom and Dad.  If they got an even number, they were to share something they wondered about Mom and Dad, and their 50 years of marriage.

"Was Keith planned?" asked one person, getting right to the good stuff.

"Nope.  He wasn't planned," answered Dad.

"Where did the bus come from?" asked one of the grandchildren about the iconic camper bus that has been parked in the backyard for the better part of 30 years.

"It came from Uncle Blair," said Mom.  He had bought a new one back in the late 1970's and sold the old one to Dad.  I could confidently say that dozens and dozens of us are glad he did.

We heard about Mom and Dad living in the basement of Frankie Rodger's house in Edmonton when they were first married.  Frankie was a famous Canadian fiddle player.

Though the memory wasn't clear, their first date was at a bowling alley in Edmonton.  "Your dad was working; your mom was flirting," said Tante Georgette laughing.

There is something inherently powerful about sitting in a circle and sharing.  I've seen it a number of times in storytelling workshops that I've facilitated.  But seeing the effect in a family context was profound.  Things got emotional a number of times as barriers dropped and silent permission was given to share and release, both emotions and long-lingering questions.

The immediate family closed out the weekend by joining Mom and Dad at church on Sunday morning.  The Thomas clan took up about six full rows.  It was nice to be there and be present when Father Franklin made a special blessing over Mom and Dad.

"Fifty years," he said reverentially.  "A lot of work. A lot of work."

How right he was.  A good and long marriage requires a lot of things, chief among them, "perseverance," said Mom during the sharing circle the day before.  It is a marriage that has had its share of ups and downs, like most do.  But after 50 years, the rewards are clear: a family has been built, steeped in love, respect, tradition and consistent care.  It was an honour and a blessing to observe it all during our short visit back home.

By Remembrance Day, the wind scattered most of us across the country.  A big piece of our hearts will always reside at 586 Second Street in Kamsack, a place where a warm welcome always awaits, and a bright blue and silver bus stands sentinel in the backyard.

To view (or download) all the pictures from the 50th wedding anniversary celebration, please click here.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Creative Summer

It's hard to explain what happened this summer.  Shortly after a May visit by Neil and Susan, I went on an inexplicable painting spree that started with the mural of Elsie Yanik that I wrote about in our last update, but continued with a portrait of the first Aboriginal First Nations chief in Alberta, Dorothy McDonald, on the east wall of the shop.  From there it was non-stop, producing a mural of our neighbour Norm Sutton, and multiple smaller format paintings of Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Adam Levine, Katy Perry, and so on.

Perhaps this was an exercise in stabilizing a ship that had been rocking for some time; or perhaps it was a way to fill an excess of time during a lazy summer. As it turned out,  painting has completely supplanted fishing as my go to leisure time activity, hours of relaxation and creativity that has become an unexpected and delightfully surprising revenue source.  With two exceptions - painting I can't share as they are commissions that are being given as surprise gifts - here is my collected works produced since mid-June.

Elsie Yanik, 96" x 54", acrylic on wall

Dorothy McDonald, 96" x 60", acrylic on wall

Miles Davis, 16" x 25", acrylic on pine

Oscar Peterson, 12 3/8" x 12 3/8", acrylic on record jacket

Bob Dylan, 18' x 24", acrylic on canvas

Norm Sutton, 60" x 48", acrylic on wall

Adam Levine, 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Stevie Ray Vaughan, 12" x 12", acrylic on canvas

Katy Perry, 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Keith Richards, 12" x 24", acrylic on wood

Freddie Mercury, 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Freddie Mercury No. 2, 12" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Robert F. Kennedy, 18' x 24", acrylic on canvas
The requests have poured in as I've shared this creative journey online.  In order to keep track of future painting projects I have about 15 photographs tacked up in my shop.  The response to this style has been nothing short of extraordinary.  Depending on size, complexity, and whether the finished work is framed or unframed, prizes have ranged from $250 to $550.  I'm overwhelmed and delighted that this has turned into a great injection to our vacation fund.  I never would have guessed it was possible.

Dylan had an outstanding life-altering experience at Artstrek in July, Alberta's provincial theatre camp held in Red Deer.  He lights up and bubbles over when describing it to people.  It is completely obvious that he thrives in a creative, social, and exploratory environment.  He made many new friends and has set himself up incredibly well to transition into Westwood Community High School, which has a thriving drama program led by a good friend of ours who also played my lovely wife, Madame Thenardier from Les Mis, Terri Mort.  

Ben is about to complete his three week adventure with DramaFORCE at Keyano Theatre.  The 19 students in the drama intensive have put together a stunning production of Aladdin Jr. in that short amount of time.  We were able to all attend the opening performance yesterday.  Ben did an outstanding job, singing, acting, and dancing as Razoul.  We are very proud of his work ethic, teamwork, and talent.

We enjoyed a short but excellent visit with the Wagner side of the family during our annual summer get together, this time in Crownest Pass, on the August long weekend.  The highlight had to be our Crowsnest Pass scavenger hunt, which you can read about in detail by clicking here. Here are a few photo memories worth sharing.

Don't those pictures look intriguing?  Bet you want to go read about the Crowsnest Pass scavenger hunt now.  It was such a hoot, and a great way to spend time together as a family.

Most of us went on a search for Window Mountain the following day.  We didn't quite find it, but we sure enjoyed breathing the wonderful mountain air and doing a vigorous hike.

On our final day, Ben and I went parkouring on Frank Slide, jumping from rock to rock looking for the sculpture he had made the previous day during the scavenger hunt.  We never did find it, but we sure had find searching for it.

I'm grateful that this family tradition was started and that each year we reconvene for some quality time together. It was only a couple of days, but they were very good days indeed.

As we wile away the rest of the summer, Dylan and I have one more trip before the fall kicks in.  We will be off to Mindcamp on the 19th.  He'll be serving as a "Banana", or a conference helper, while I'll be filling my mind attending multiple sessions over three days.

Summer will come to a close with a pretty significant milestone for Heather.  After many months of waiting, she finally has a surgery date.  We will travel down to Edmonton on August 28th as her pituitary procedure is slated for the following day.  The doctors anticipate she will spend 3 or 4 days post-surgery in hospital (U of A).  I will be staying with her the entire time, with my home base being at Graham and Jenn's house, just a short drive away across the river. (Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Graham and Jenn)  Neil and Susan has generously offered to travel to Fort McMurray to be with the boys while they begin the school term.  (Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Neil and Susan)

We anticipate very positive results and a speedy and complete recovery, but would appreciate all the positive thoughts and prayers you can offer.  

Obviously, there is no shortage of things to share in our happy, healthy, creative life in the north.  I'll close with the very positive thought that my job with the United Way of Fort McMurray is going spectacularly well.  It is fulfilling, challenging, and inspiring - a great combination.  I also get to work with an awesome group of people (pictured above).  Yes, I'm the token male in the group, but I'm OK with that.  I'm comfortable in my masculinity (LOL).  

Enjoy the rest of your summer!