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Thank You Notes

One of the more interesting highlights of my art career happened in 2013 when Emilio Estevez wanted to buy the original painting I did of his father, Martin Sheen. I’ve told this story more than once, but if it’s new to you, here’s the link.

While it did generate some media publicity for me, and was personally exciting, it did little for my career. Painting portraits of people is something I do for my own enjoyment and with the exception of one commission I did for Canadian Geographic and the occasional editorial cartoon portrait (usually when somebody dies), I’m not hired for this sort of work and that suits me fine. The editorial cartoons and funny looking animals keep me plenty busy.

I do enjoy telling the story about that experience when it comes up, especially about how genuine and kind both actors were in our communication. Not only did they sign a print for me that hangs in my office, they gave me a signed copy of the book they co-wrote as well, as I’d mentioned in our correspondence that I’d given my copy to my father.
Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the movie The Way, which inspired my painting, it’s one of my favorites. Few films have moved me the way that one still does.

A short time ago, I came across a note card that Estevez included when he returned the signed prints. Or it came with the book, I don’t remember. It was an unnecessary nicety that might not seem like much, but it struck me as a classy gesture.
I remember thinking at the time that I should get little note cards like this. It added more value to the experience, and I thought it might be nice to pass the same feeling on to my clients. Obviously it’s something on which I failed to follow through.

Whenever I send a print out to someone who has purchased from my online store, I usually include a little note on the invoice or on a post-it, just a little thank you in my own handwriting, which is atrocious, by the way.

But on the invoice or post-it, it always feels a little cheap to me. It’s a personal note, sure, but it’s still the bare minimum.

This year, my painted work is being seen in more places than ever before. Thanks to my licenses with Pacific Music and Art, Harlequin Nature Graphics and Art Licensing International, it’s very easy to buy my work online. You can now order a canvas print of my funny looking animals from Wal-Mart, Amazon and other sites in the U.S. through one of my licenses.

But when people order from MY store, they’re getting it from me. I hand-sign the print, I package it, I put the art bio in the sleeve and I’m the one who personally takes it to the post office to ship it. Sure, I’ve included an extra art card or another small goodie when I can, but every once in a while, I’ve thought about that note card from Emilio Estevez.

A couple of weeks ago, I designed and ordered new business cards to reflect the changeover from Cartoon Ink to LaMontagne Art. Those arrived yesterday, along with my new note cards. It’s just a small thing and it adds to the print cost on my end, but I think it’s worth it.

At a time when you can order anything and everything online from an impersonal shopping cart, every so often I like to remind my customers that their purchase is appreciated, that it was bought from a real person. We all work hard for our money, so when somebody thinks one of my prints is worth parting with some of theirs, that’s pretty cool.

It deserves better than a post-it note.

I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bearing It All

“Don’t run.”

That’s what I told myself after coming across a black bear and her cub, the first time it has ever happened to me, in a place where I’ve worried about it for the past twenty years.

Each year, the first weekend of May, a group of friends has camped at a lake in B.C. for three nights, though the roll call changes from time to time. In earlier years, we used to go more often during the summer as well, but this formerly well-kept secret spot just isn’t anymore.

My first trip was in ’95, with gaps when I was first self-employed and time off was rare, and when I owned a little car that couldn’t make it up the road without multiple rock hits on the bottom.

Still, I have many trips under my belt.

Paddling around the lake in the canoe, lots of laughs, some bad weather, some good, plenty of stories about past excursions, and treasured shared memories with friends I’ve known for decades.

One thing I could never quite kick, however, was my fear of bears.

I’m an anxious person, high strung, easily startled, on edge most of the time. At some point in your life, usually after a mid-life crisis, you just have to own it and say, “fuck it, this is who I am.”

I won’t apologize for it anymore. Nobody else does, and I know plenty of people just as screwed up as I am, whether they’ll admit it or not.

I’ve had my share of irrational fears, but have done my best to face them, most with great results.

Claustrophobia. I went caving. Twice. It included plenty of tight squeezes, only one of which I couldn’t bring myself to do, but the experience was incredible. Not just facing the fear, but seeing that ancient underground world.

Fear of Heights. Shonna and I went skydiving in Vegas. An unparalleled rush, I would do it again without hesitation.

Fear of Public Speaking. I’ve taught at conferences, given talks to groups, spoken to schools. It no longer bugs me.

My fear of bears, however, is a strange one.

I probably know more about bears than most people. Living in bear country, I’ve educated myself to try and come to terms with this irrational fear. And yes, it is irrational because bears are not looking to have a confrontation. Despite what you might have seen in movies and on TV, bears would rather not encounter people. When bears meet people, it often ends up very bad for the bears.

And yet, people still have encounters for a variety of reasons.

They go camping and leave food out. Bears are opportunists with an incredible sense of smell and will come into a campsite simply to get a free easy meal. Most of the time, it’s preventable, but people are slow learners.

Folks will stop on the road and actually get out of their cars to approach a bear for a photo. This is a large animal that will defend itself. It did not instigate this situation simply by being there but it will react if it’s threatened.

People will come across a bear in the woods because they weren’t making noise and surprised it. Same situation, the bear will startle and defend itself, especially if it has cubs.

I could write thousands of words about bear safety, but the information is easy to find. Bears will leave you alone if you leave them alone, almost all of the time.

It’s incredibly annoying when somebody finds out I’m afraid of bears and then tells me all of the anecdotal information of which I am well aware. I’ve lived in bear country for 25 years. I know this shit.

Where I live in the Canadian Rockies, there are people who run into bears all the time, whether in their yards, while hiking, camping in the back-country and it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. My phobia makes no sense to these people, just as it doesn’t to me. I’ve even tried hypnosis, which helped me be more comfortable hiking, but did nothing for sleeping in a tent.

It’s embarrassing, it feels juvenile, and there is no small sense of shame surrounding the whole thing.

Despite my own internal logical arguments against it, the fear persists.

In 2016, I began a relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. They had a behind the scenes bear encounter with their orphaned black bears to learn more about them. I signed up, to work on my fear.
It was an experience I won’t forget. When the head keeper Serena (now a friend) found out I had a phobia, she took it up a notch and I got up close and personal with a black bear, even feeding a gentle giant named Reno. This was huge for me, and since then I’ve had even more encounters with their bears, especially with their latest orphan, a grizzly named Berkley.
Anybody who has seen my photos, videos and my experiences with Berkley probably doesn’t get that I’m afraid of bears. Over the past couple of years, we have walked together, played together, she has crawled all over me, given me kisses. While I don’t have close contact like this with her anymore as she’s much bigger, my time with Berkley has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Bears are my favorite animals to photograph, paint, read about, and champion. I feel strongly about bear conservation, rescue, and preserving their habitat. All of the time I’ve spent at Discovery Wildlife Park, I’ve asked many questions of Serena and she’s taught me plenty about bears.

So it makes no sense to me that they are what I fear most when I go out into the woods.

Just like challenging my other fears, I have been determined to continue to expose myself to the threat to try to get over it. I still go camping out there, and every night when I lie down on my cot in my tent, I spend the next couple of hours trying to get to sleep. It eventually comes, but the fear remains undiminished, year after year.

Friday night, we arrived at the lake, set up our accommodation and got to work gathering firewood for the weekend. My friend Jim in his little Boler trailer, Babe in his Boler trailer, and two friends Babe brought with him had a forty foot custom renovated blue school bus that navigated the difficult road with ease, an impressive feat.

As usual, I was in my small tent.

Despite the sketchy weather, colder, windier and wetter than forecast, it was rather normal. But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to feel the trip is a bit of an obligation. Sleeping in a tent loses its appeal as one gets older and early May in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable and usually quite cold at night. Falling within days of the Calgary Expo, it’s a challenge to get everything home from that event, unpacked, put away, get cartoons done for the week, then shop, pack and take off again a few days later for this trip. It shouldn’t feel like another chore.

Even though it’s a beautiful spot, the novelty of the same place, on the same weekend, each year, has lost a great deal of its appeal for me. But I’ve kept going, because I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits.

That’s the frame of mind with which I started this weekend, though I kept it to myself.

As usual, I lay awake in my tent for a couple of hours, trying to talk myself out of my usual bearanoia and eventually fell asleep.
The following morning, I woke early, made some coffee, grabbed my camera gear and headed out in the canoe for a paddle around the lake. It was enjoyable, although windy and cold, but comfortably familiar. I patrolled the shoreline, taking pictures of ducks.
The weather grew progressively sketchy. But we read, talked, got to know our new camping companions, and puttered as usual.

In the early evening, I decided to take a quick walk up the road to send Shonna a text. Unreliable cell service out there means pockets where No Service becomes one small bar for short windows.

About 150 yards away from the camp beside the road, I approached a familiar flat green space. Through the trees, I saw a large moving black shape, then another smaller one behind it in the grass. A black bear and cub.

I stopped, looked back and forth to make sure I wasn’t looking at a stump or pile of dirt and it moved again. I shouted, “HEY, GET OUT OF HERE!”

She raised her head, looked in my direction, then ignored me and went back to eating.

I turned back the way I came and started walking, too fast.

“Don’t run.”

Forcing myself to slow, I kept one eye on where I was going and one behind me. Since I was close to the camp, Jim was coming up to the road as I got back. They’d all heard me yell.

I told them what I saw. Naturally, I was the only one freaked out by it.

We ate dinner, but stress completely ruins my appetite, so I ended up discarding half of mine, the meal I’d been looking forward to most.

Years ago, Shonna and I were camping with Jim out there and while he was out in the canoe, we had seen a large black shape up on the road that spooked us. It turned out to be a cow, as ranchers down the mountain will often let their herds wander.

Did I really see a bear through the trees, or was it a cow? I doubted my own eyes, thinking my overactive imagination had conjured up my worst fear.

After dinner, Jim said he’d go back up the road with me to check for evidence that I saw what I’d thought I saw.

I was now wearing my bear spray on my hip, and Jim had a large stick he was loudly tapping on the ground as he walked behind me, an effort to alert a bear to our presence. The silly thing is that I was almost trying to be quiet so that I could get some validation that I wasn’t making this up. I know better than that.

Sure enough, as we approached the green space, Jim’s tapping did the trick. With plenty of room to spare, a black bear ran up onto the road from the flat area, heading away from us, followed by one…two…three cubs.

From my car, a cabin, on a boat out in Ucluelet, that kind of sighting would have been wonderful. In that environment, however, it ruined my weekend.

There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.

Thankfully, I had options other than my car. Jim’s Boler has a single bed in it he calls the spice rack because it’s so narrow, but I’m not a wide guy, so it would work. Better still, our new friends had a garage built into the rear of their converted bus for their two Harleys they’d left at home. My cot fit with plenty of room to spare, their hospitality greatly appreciated. I even had my own entrance so I didn’t have to invade their privacy.

We keep a clean camp, but we’d eaten plenty of food. Bears had investigated the picnic table before, just not on trips I’d been on. The next morning, no tracks, no scat, no sign they’d been there.

I had contemplated going home, but I had slept well in my secure accommodation so I decided to continue on with the weekend. I still canoed, even hoped I might see the bears around the lake so I could take pictures from the water, but saw no more sign of them. The weather went from rain, to sunny breaks, to windy, to cloudy, back to rain, with no end in sight.

We alternated between sitting by the fire, huddling under the tarp, sitting by the fire, then moving under the tarp again. All of us wearing multiple layers, toques, gloves and trying to stay positive.

More than once I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

On the last evening, Jim came back from his paddle around the lake and said the bear family was in the vacant site at the other end of the lake. They’d stayed in the area the whole weekend.

You might wonder, knowing what I know of bear behaviour, that they aren’t predatory, or naturally aggressive, or looking for confrontation, what did I think was going to happen? I mean, she ran the other way long before we even got close. That’s typical and appropriate bear behaviour.

Here’s an example of where my mind takes me…In the middle of the night, while we’re all asleep, they wander into the camp looking for food. One of the cubs comes over to my tent, starts pawing at it, perhaps attracting Mom’s attention. I wake up at the noise, try to yell out or set off my car alarm, it startles Mom or the cub, but instead of running away, she gets defensive and I’m toast.

In my underwear.

The what-ifs of my paranoid mind spiral downward from there, taking turns with the self-loathing voice telling me I’m being stupid.

As my wife said when I got home, “Why do you keep going? What are you trying to prove?”

The only answer I can come up with is that I don’t want to be a coward.

I force myself to go on this trip every year, intent on beating this phobia, even though after twenty years, it’s still undiminished, just so that I can say I didn’t give up.

That’s a great frame of mind when something matters, like my marriage, career or a difficult painting or project.

But this is supposed to be a relaxing getaway after the most demanding part of my year. One day back and I can tell you, the most relaxing part of it was the hot shower and good night’s sleep when I got home.

This is likely my last trip to the lake for the foreseeable future. Investing in a hard shell trailer or larger vehicle for the three or four times I might use it each year is a bad investment. Add to that having to pay to store it somewhere. Doing the math, I realized I could rent a cabin for four three night stays every year for the next ten to fifteen years for the same price it would cost me to buy a trailer or camper, not to mention the vehicle to haul it.

And it’s a much more comfortable stay when the weather turns foul, where seeing wildlife is a treat, not an imagined threat, where I sleep well, truly relax and recharge.

While I’ll take some grief from my friends for this decision, they’ll eventually realize it’s a much more enjoyable trip without the guy who jumps at every rustle in the bushes.

It’s ironic that I’m soon heading up to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year. I miss Berkley and the other bears.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Podcasts I Have Known

Podcasts have become a big part of my work day. While I enjoy listening to music when I paint my funny looking animals or portraits, I’m almost always listening to podcasts when I draw editorial cartoons, drive to Calgary or on longer road-trips. I consider myself late to the party when it comes to podcasts, because I only started listening to them a couple of years ago and they’ve been around for quite some time.

Once Shonna got tired of hearing me talk about all of the things I learn from various subscriptions and episodes, she started listening to them as well and a lot of our conversations revolve around some of our favorite topics and podcasts, many of which we share.

From Wikipedia, “A podcast or generically netcast, is an episodic series of digital audio or video files which a user can download in order to listen to. It is often available for subscription, so that new episodes are automatically downloaded via web syndication to the user’s own local computer, mobile application, or portable media player.”

How do you listen to them? No matter what device you’re on, there’s an app for that. I listen to them on my iPhone via the Apple Podcasts app, but you can listen to them on Spotify, your desktop PC at their various sites and via many other apps.

They have sponsors, which mean there are commercials, but usually only two or three and for the content you’re getting without having to pay for it, they’re worth the annoyance. People need to get paid.

It occurs to me that while I’ve mentioned podcasts before, I haven’t talked about which ones I listen to. I gravitate toward random topics, history, long-form interviews, self-employed business stuff, and inspiration. So if you’re new to podcasts or are looking for some new ones to explore, here are my four favorites and a few honourable mentions.

WTF with Marc Maron. Marc interviews some pretty fascinating people and is a real character. He’s been a working stand-up comedian all of his adult life, but never really achieved real fame or recognition until this podcast, which just had its 1000th episode.

He’s now synonymous with the genre, one of the highest rated, is open about his own recovery from alcoholism and addiction, really gets to the heart of people in his long-form interviews and comes across as a genuine human being looking to make sense of the world, just like the rest of us. He managed to get President Barack Obama as a guest awhile back while he was still in office. When a sitting US President comes to your garage in California for an interview, you know you’re doing something right.

Duration/Frequency: 60-120 Minutes, Biweekly

Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin. Unlike many other podcasts, this isn’t an interview; it’s just Seth, an incredibly successful author and former dot com business executive. Yeah, I got that description from Wikipedia because when you’ve had the impact this guy has had, it’s hard to describe him. I just discovered this podcast a couple of weeks ago, now in its fourth season. But I started at the beginning and have been listening to multiple episodes every day. I’m coming to the end of the archive and now have to make peace that I will only get a new one each week. Will probably mean I’ll have to buy one or more of his 18 books.

As an artist creative type, this guy has some of the most fascinating insights I’ve ever come across. Really resonates with me and I think I’ll be talking about him more in the future. He’s changing the way I look at my business and life at its foundation, with concepts that only seem like common sense after somebody points them out.

Seth not only provides focused alternatives to the way we do things (without even knowing why), especially for self-employed people, but he also has a section at the end of each podcast where he answers questions about the last episode, and he encourages listeners to pose them.

Duration/Frequency: 20-40 Minutes, Weekly

Stuff You Should Know Podcast. Hosted by Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant, this is the brain child of the folks who bring you How Stuff Works. With easy going humour and camaraderie, these two charismatic guys do an incredible amount of research on their wide ranging field of topics. From the truth about the Loch Ness Monster to How Druids Worked, to name a couple of recent ones, I spend most of my SYSK listening time thinking “Really?! That’s nuts!” and then I call Shonna in the other room to ask if she’s heard this, and if not, she should add it to her list.

If you want a wide range of topics to choose from in order to get your feet wet, start with this one.

Duration/Frequency: 20-60 Minutes, Biweekly

The End of the World with Josh Clark. Half of the duo from Stuff You Should Know, this is only one season. Just 10 episodes but so good! Talks about all of the ways the world could end, from the Fermi Paradox to Natural Disasters. Rather than depressing, it reinforces how fortunate we are to be here at all.

A lot of this is difficult science explained in a way that won’t make you feel stupid.

Duration/Frequency: 60-70 Minutes, 10 Episodes

A few others that I subscribe to but don’t always listen to are as follows.

Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. Long-form interview style, gets some really interesting guests.

The Tim Ferriss Show. Best-selling author of The Four Hour Work Week and others, Tim often talks with guests that don’t interest me or heads off in a direction I find distracting, but some of his interviews and discussions are among my favorites. While driving up to the cabin this past weekend, I listened to his interview with author Neil Gaiman and didn’t want it to end.

Making Sense with Sam Harris. Thought provoking topics and discussions, requires an open mind to hear opinions and perspectives you might not agree with, but will ultimately help you grow. Shouldn’t that be how we approach life in general?

No matter who or what you’re into, there’s a podcast out there for you. In this information age where we are bombarded with trivial nonsense and empty calories for the mind, podcasts can help you change the channel. Think of it as furthering your adult education.

Cheers,
Patrick

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John Malkovich – a Portrait

Whenever I’ve painted portraits of actors, it’s been a character I like from a movie, rather than a portrait of the person playing the part. This one is an exception.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the movie Bird Box, mostly because the media reported that some were mimicking the characters and doing silly things while blindfolded. Despite hearing some negative reviews, I guess the gimmick worked well on me, because I gave it a chance while drawing one evening.

I didn’t find the movie terrible, but it’s not one I’d rush to watch again. It struck me as a poor man’s copy of A Quiet Place, but it was certainly watchable and I didn’t count it a waste of my time. A shame that the characters were forgettable, however, since it featured accomplished actors.

One of those, in a supporting role, was John Malkovich, an actor I’ve always liked and admired.

As often happens when I paint movie characters, it wasn’t something I had planned in advance. There was a scene where Malkovich turned and it struck me that I wanted to paint him from that moment. The light, the composition, his expression, who knows?


Aside from one commission last year from Canadian Geographic Magazine, where I was tasked with painting Rick Hansen, I paint portraits of people for my own enjoyment, to challenge and improve my skills. A couple have attracted attention after I posted them on Twitter years ago, most notably Martin Sheen and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, but I don’t ever expect the subject will see the portraits I paint of them.

Now that I’m off social media entirely, there’s no incentive to tag them or add a dozen hashtags, which I think is a good thing. It takes away the pressure for likes and shares and leaves me free to paint how I like without wondering how it will be received.
I started this on the iPad Pro in the procreate app, then brought it to my desktop and painted the second half in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. The brushwork was initially a lot smoother while I nitpicked the details to get the likeness right, but in the final couple hours, I added layers of texture and grunge to rough it up. Seems to better fit the character and feel of the movie.

There are some other portraits I expect to paint this year, but for now, it’s back to the funny looking animals.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Bear Berry Buffet


Late last month, Shonna and I drove up to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail for one more regular season visit. With kids back in school, waning light and cooler temperatures, it gets quieter as Thanksgiving approaches, their last weekend before closing until May.

They still do their shows as advertised, though. As we were told, everybody paid their admission, so they’re entitled to the same experience whether it’s busy or not.

The bear presentation is a bit of a head fake, because even though you get to see the bears show off their training, it’s primarily an opportunity for keepers to educate a captive audience about conservation and safety. They talk about the differences between black bears and grizzlies and what to do should you encounter either while out in the woods. I’ve seen the bear show a few times, but as it was a small group and we’ve gotten to know the keepers, we figured we’d sit in again just to be polite.

Of course, the moment you get cocky and think you know a lot, that’s when you learn something new and get taken down a peg.

While Serena was talking about Charley and Angel, two of their black bears, she told us about hyperphagia. I’m pretty well read, have lived in bear country for more than twenty years, but I honestly can’t recall hearing that word before, or at least not so it registered. From being bear aware and years of local warnings every fall, I know that bears are eating a lot this time of year to prepare for hibernation, but I had never looked into the science.

From the North American Bear Center website, “Experimental studies with captive bears revealed the following: …Hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. Black bears with unlimited food and water ate 15,000 to 20,000 kcal per day and drank several gallons.”

According to Serena, it’s a chemical process that happens this time of year, making them eat anything and everything they can get. The Park provides plenty of extra healthy food for them during this stage to prepare them for hibernation. On this particular day, we were told that their black bears had just finished this stage and were starting to slow down.

In the wild, it can be a dangerous time of year to run into bears, because they’re so focused on eating and not so much on their surroundings. So if hikers aren’t making enough noise, they might surprise a feasting bear, which can have less than desirable consequences.

Bears in captivity still hibernate and Discovery Wildlife Park makes them as comfortable as possible in their enclosures while they sleep. Some make use of the large culverts provided, a manmade cave, while others dig their own dens in their enclosures. What many don’t know, however, is that bears still do wake up in the winter. This happens even in the wild, especially on nice sunny days, but they won’t stay up for long.

There is one bear, however, who won’t go to ground this winter at Discovery Wildlife Park, and that’s Berkley, their Kodiak Cub. She’s not even a year old yet, has plenty of energy and is still marveling at the world around her. She’s seen snow a few times and appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Serena has said that Berkley likely won’t hibernate for a few years, but she might slow down a little during the winter months.

That being said, Berkley still appeared to be under the influence of hyperphagia. Shonna and I had the pleasure of going for a walk with her in the woods that evening. On a previous excursion, Berkley seemed to want nothing more than to explore, climb trees and play. On this visit, however, she just wanted to eat.




Like a kid in a candy store, she stopped at every berry bush she could find and proceeded to chow down. It was fascinating and fun to watch. Then when she discovered Serena had peanuts, she whined like a little baby until she was given some.

Of course, when they find the treat that each bear likes best, that becomes a golden opportunity to use it for positive reinforcement and enrichment. Berkley has proven herself to be a smart bear and learns new behaviours quickly, especially when peanuts are involved.
Another black bear at the park named Reno has a thing for guacamole. I met this gentle giant in early 2016 and he’s a wonderful bear. Reno is 22 years old and has been raised at the park his whole life. He weighed one pound when they got him.

He had some issues with his lungs last month and is still recovering, but he was on the mend when we saw him, turning a corner thanks to the antibiotics. They had managed to get him to drink enough fluids without having to put him on an IV and we got to see some of his extra special TLC when we were there.
At one point, while Serena and Mari were in the enclosure with him, he started to urinate and they excitedly grabbed a specimen bottle to collect it before he was finished. They were positively giddy. You know you love your bear when his peeing makes your day. It was a good sign for his recovery and here’s hoping Reno continues to improve.

Vet bills for a bear aren’t cheap, but they do everything they can for their orphans and rescues at this place. It’s a big job, keeping all of these critters housed, fed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. I continue to be impressed with their dedication to these animals and am forever grateful they’ve allowed me to be a part of it. From sketch paintings to finished prints, I’ve painted most of their bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I hope to keep doing so for many years to come.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here’s a video of our evening with Berkley last month. I suggest you watch it in HD on YouTube.

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A Walk in the Park

When you’re self-employed, you’re always working. If it’s not a planned vacation or camping trip, I do some work every day. But I also make my own schedule, which allows me to take an afternoon hike and to visit popular places like Discovery Wildlife Park or the Calgary Zoo on quieter days.

My wife, Shonna, has a full-time and part-time job, a workaholic for as long as I’ve known her. As a result, scheduling time off together is usually a dance requiring some difficult choreography.

We go out to dinner or lunch once in a while, go on vacations, and still spend a lot of our time off together, but we don’t do date nights, rarely observe birthdays or anniversaries, and we loathe Hallmark holidays. I think we might have gone out for Valentine’s Day once before we were married and we haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts in well over a decade. Might seem odd to some, but it has worked well for us for the past twenty-seven years.

Of all the times I’ve gone to Discovery Wildlife Park over the last couple of years, Shonna has only been there once, and she never got to see any animals. Up visiting family, we stopped in to drop off prints while the park was still closed for the season. So she met the head zookeeper Serena and one of the other keepers I know, but that was it.

And yet, while she enjoys the stories and fun photos I come home with after these visits to the park, Shonna hadn’t been able to experience it.
Berkley is growing up fast, so I told Shonna that I really wanted her to come to the park and see her before she was no longer a cub. We both looked at our schedules, figured out a day to visit the park, and she took a rare midweek day off.

I’ve already been given more opportunities with Berkley than I could have ever hoped for, and I suspected she might be too big now to risk being up close and personal with strangers. But I’ve gotten to be friends with Serena and we both know each other well enough to be candid without hurt feelings. An example is that I can ask difficult questions about animals in captivity without her being offended, because she knows I just want to learn and abandon any misconceptions.

So when I asked Serena if Shonna and I could join her on an evening walk with Berkley, I made it clear that I fully expected the answer to be No and that I was fine with that.

I was thrilled when she said, “Yes.”

Serena already knows I won’t do anything to endanger Berkley or myself. She knows what Berkley will do; it’s always people who are the unknown variable. I assured her that I married somebody more intelligent than myself, and Shonna would be completely respectful of Berkley’s space. Serena has also wanted to spend some time with Shonna because of how often I’ve talked about her.

We arrived about 7:30PM and Serena was waiting for us. We got out of the car, and Berkley went right to Shonna, which doesn’t surprise me. Animals like me, but they all seem to like her better. Even my parents’ dog, who gets excited when she sees me, will pass me up for Shonna. It’s humbling.

Shonna simply stood where she was and let Berkley sniff around her feet. When Berkley stood up on her hind legs and put her paws up on Shonna, she didn’t flinch. Serena came over, told Berkley No, and put her back to the ground. Berkley seemed to think, “whatever” and just walked away.

Serena later told me that Shonna’s easy going reaction told her all she needed to know when it came to trusting her with Berkley.

Over the next hour or so, we walked in and out of the forest on the property. We didn’t make Berkley do anything. The whole point of her evening walks is to let her be a bear. She’d take off into the woods, climb a tree, disappear into the bushes and then burst back onto the trail.
She has recently decided that Mom isn’t busy enough working long hours seven days a week, so Berkley finds burrs to collect, which Serena must then pick out of her fur.

We chatted the whole time, about this and that, just three people having a regular walk in the woods, except for the little bear running around us. Most of the time, she didn’t care where we were. She just did her own thing. When she got close, I’d take some pictures and then she’d head off again.
At one point, Shonna was sitting on a large rock when Berkley decided to really check her out. She put her paws on her leg, then snuffled her ear and apparently licked it which was funny, but also kind of gross. A wet-willy from a bear tongue.

Berkley decided she wanted some of Shonna’s water. Serena apologized and said it was the same kind of bottle she often brought for Berkley so she thought it was hers. Shonna was happy to share, bear slobber and all.

We took her up to the main park area, walking past large enclosures where black bears Charley, Gruff, Angel and others lounged in the grass in the setting sun. We walked between the lion and jaguar cages, the big cats VERY interested in the little morsel scurrying past them. Berkley wasn’t phased.
For the first time, I got to see Berkley’s night-time enclosure. Up until now, since they first got her earlier this year, she has lived at Serena’s house with her husband and kids. Berkley has gone home with her every night and comes to work with her every morning.

I had asked before when she’d be making the transition to staying at the park, and the answer has always been, “when she’s ready.”

Serena has raised many orphaned and rescued animals from babies and a number of them have lived at her house until they were big enough to be comfortable alone at night. She has managed this transition many times before with bears, lions, and other critters.

That week Berkley had just started her park overnights and that night was going to be her third alone in her pen, half of a large sea container complete with bedding, hay, water, food and whatever else she needed to feel comfortable.

Just as a dog takes comfort in a kennel or crate, these animals feel safer in their own space at night and they all have somewhere protected to go when it gets dark. What I found most comforting was that when we approached the kennel, Berkley went right inside, took a drink and then came back out. Clearly, she was comfortable with the space.

Just a couple of days ago, I asked Serena how the transition was going and she said she was adjusting well.
We took Berkley back into the woods where she could play in the creek, climb some trees, dig in the dirt and tire herself out. She checked us out from time to time, but we weren’t nearly as interesting as all of the other sights and smells of the forest.

The next day, we returned to the park as regular guests, bringing donuts and muffins for the keepers and staff as a thank-you. We watched the wolf and bear shows which are always informative and entertaining. All of the animals are trained using positive reinforcement and the loving relationship between the keepers and animals is obvious.
Education is a big part of these shows. Folks get valuable lessons in how to hike and camp safely, and what to do should they encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild. They’re told about why it’s a bad idea to stop on the highway to take pictures of wildlife, and how a fed bear becomes a dead bear. It’s a better way to teach than to simply hand out a brochure. These orphaned and rescued animals provide an education to prevent future orphan and rescue situations.

They call it a show, but it’s much more than that. This isn’t a circus where the animals are trained to entertain. Training is a part of their enrichment. By using food, praise, and generous shows of affection, their minds are kept active solving problems.

What might look like a simple trick to you and me is what keeps them mentally and physically healthy. We watched Charley the black bear figure out a new trick he just learned that week, which was putting a ball in his toy box. He kept missing the box, would look to Serena for his reward and when he didn’t get it, she’d pick up the ball, throw it a short distance and she’d encourage him to try again.

After the third try, he got it in the box and received his reward. Granted, he destroyed the box in the process, but he learned something new and worked it out. Serena has told me in the past that they have to keep coming up with new tricks because they’ll soon get bored of the old ones.

I noticed recently on their Facebook page, somebody expressed concern over making the lions jump from platform to platform. Serena diplomatically pointed out that it keeps their muscles and minds active. All reinforcement is positive and in this situation, they weren’t even in the enclosure with the animals, so if the lions didn’t want to do it, they just wouldn’t do it.

The best part about my visits to the park is how much I take away from each visit. I’m always learning something new and this day was no exception.

Best of all, a couple of days later, Shonna told me it was one of the best gifts I’d ever given her.

And it wasn’t even a Hallmark holiday.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Politics, Rage and Social Media


When people find out that I’m an editorial cartoonist, I often hear that I must be having a lot of fun going after Trump, or Trudeau, or Harper, or whomever people love to hate at that given moment. I usually just agree with them and change the subject, because most of the time, I don’t want to talk about it.

It’s just part of my job. It’s not who I am.

A lot of editorial cartoonists I know are political junkies, they love this shit. The theatrics and maneuvering, the players and the games they play, following elections and campaigns…many of my colleagues and competitors get off on it.

I got into this profession from the other side of things. Almost twenty years ago, I just wanted to draw and colour all day and at the time, editorial cartooning was the opportunity that presented itself. Before that, I really didn’t care about politics at all.

As a consequence, I had to learn to follow politics and current events. I was young(ish), opinionated, thought I knew more than I did, so I attacked it with relish. I also had a chip on my shoulder about starting into it a lot later than my competitors and felt I had something to prove. This meant that my mouth/keyboard got me into trouble sometimes, but I learned quite some time ago that sharing my political opinions on forums, comment sections and social media are a waste of my life.

As I’ve gotten older, this job has taken quite a toll on my perspective. When you follow negative news all day, every day for decades, it does damage to one’s psyche. Constant bombardment of bleeding leads and the worst examples of human behaviour taking center stage on the news, are only eclipsed by the relatively recent fashion of everybody sharing and arguing their own point of view with extra vitriol and a side of rage. Finding the good in people is a daily struggle, but I’ve not yet given up. I am both a conflicted idealist and a reluctant misanthrope.

I often equate the online world of this profession to getting up each day, having a shower, getting dressed, then turning on my computer and wading into raw sewage.

Basically, if I got terminal cancer tomorrow, would having an online argument with a perfect stranger about Conservatives and Liberals really be a good use of the time I’ve got left? That question should be given just as much weight even without the terminal diagnosis. I don’t even argue politics on my own editorial cartoon Facebook page. I post the toon and move on to the next one.

When I see people arguing about how bad the Liberals are, I remember the Conservatives, who seemed really bad when they were in power, but not as bad as the Liberals in power before them or the Conservatives before them. You see, follow this stuff long enough and you see the same repeating patterns, regardless of the parties or individual players. Political spin has been around since the first caveman stood up, pointed a finger at the other guy for overcooking the mastodon, and promised the group that he could cook it better. All they had to do was give him the best cut of meat.

So while Donald Trump seems like the extreme example lately, I just see another politician, without the polish of a life in politics. It’s the same mindset; he’s just less practiced at hiding his motivations.

But it isn’t just the elected folks. The people who like to blame everything on the government and tell them to stay out of their lives are often the same people who blame the government for not doing enough when their lives don’t meet the sitcom ideal.

Fix my roads, but don’t make me wear a seat belt or tell me how much to drink before driving. Photo radar is a scam, but I’m not going to slow down. On a Facebook article about a family dying in a car crash due to distracted driving, be sure to click the sad face emoticon on your phone while you’re doing fifty in a school zone.

We expect the government to repair the economy, create more jobs and make sure we can retire early with more money than we currently earn, but don’t make us sacrifice the latest iPhone or SUV in order to pay off our increasing credit card debt. Don’t tell me to eat healthy and exercise, just make sure the health care doesn’t cost me anything, and there had better not be any waiting.

We’re a privileged populace who can’t even tolerate the inconvenience of voting, but we’ll bitch about it online for years afterward. If everybody who says they voted actually voted, we’d have more than a 90% turnout every time.

True story, at the last federal election advance polls here in Canmore, there was a long lineup moving slowly. Poor organization, unexpected volume, who knows the reason? Frustrating, yes, but definitely a first world problem. People fight wars for this privilege.

A man not far behind me in line, finally blurted out something along the lines of, “screw this, if you can’t get your shit together, you don’t get my vote,” and he stormed off, no doubt convinced he was right. I wonder if he had time to watch TV later or share a nasty political meme on Twitter.

We’re all so angry all the time, that we’re not realizing how little it makes sense or how much choice we actually have in the matter. And before I get feedback about the pot calling the kettle black, I hear you. I’ve been angry for a long time and it took a recent frightening personal crisis to realize it.

It’s exhausting. It’s ridiculous. Worst of all, the solution is obvious.

The next time you see something online that gets your blood boiling and presses all of your rage buttons, delay that share, comment or angry emoticon. Take a breath. Take another.

Ask yourself if what you’re reading was designed to make you mad. Ask yourself who has what to gain by your getting angry at it. Was it written by a stranger? By a troll? By a paid lobbyist? By a person whose opinion you even value? Are you being manipulated to feel this way in order to serve somebody else’s agenda? Is this worth getting upset about? Will your engaging with this argument change anything in your life for the better or will it just make you stay angry for longer?

By sharing the instigating post, are you improving the world around you by inflicting the same rage on the people you actually do care about?

Sometimes anger is warranted, especially if it’s a cause or subject that affects you personally or genuinely has an impact on your life and your values. In those cases, your voice matters. One voice can change the world, for better or worse. But you will make your point better after thoughtful consideration, followed by a measured response. If it takes you a day or two to get your thoughts together, so be it. If it’s not worth that day or two, then it isn’t worth it at all.

Most importantly, people are going to disagree with you. Family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and strangers, are as entitled to their opinions as you are to yours. When they disagree with respect, hear them out. You might learn something. Listening to another’s point of view has become a lost art.

If somebody resorts to insults, name-calling and childish behaviour, let it go. They’re not worth your time.

They’re not worth your life.

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A Visit To Harlequin Nature Graphics

This trip to Vancouver Island has almost become an annual thing, and I always return home with plenty of reference photos and renewed inspiration for painting. Back at the desk, having gathered another collection of pics, but an added bonus on this trip was being able to pay a visit to Harlequin Nature Graphics Ltd. in Cobble Hill.

This is my first year working with Harlequin and they came highly recommended by current clients. While shopping around for a new licensee for my work on apparel, both the Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park spoke well of Harlequin’s quality and service. When I was first considering licensing my images with Harlequin last fall, the fact that they are Canadian, primarily focused on wildlife and that they support wildlife causes were all high on my list of pros.
As this trip is a working vacation, we included in our plans a drive down to Cobble Hill on Monday, from where we were staying near Qualicum Beach. Unless you’re moving from one end of the island to the other, we never seem to have to travel long distances to get where we need to go. Since we’ve always planned our visits for early June, before school is out and vacationing families pack the highways, we usually don’t have much in the way of heavy traffic.
Kevin and Gillian were very welcoming and spent more than an hour giving us a tour of the facility, showing us the shirts, their printing operation, talking about the history of the company and where their future plans might take them. They’re working on a new website at present that I’m looking forward to sharing.
I’d already had a good feeling about Harlequin from the beginning, which is why I signed with them. They initially took on a lot more of my images than I expected and time will tell which designs generate the most interest among their many clients across Canada.

It’s not always reasonable or economical to meet face to face when licensing is concerned. I’ve got licensees in the U.S. with whom I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to sit down and have a chat, but given the option, I’ll always choose to. The opportunity to meet with Kevin, Gillian and their staff was well worth the drive to Cobble Hill and we came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the operation and an even greater confidence in our shared vision for my whimsical wildlife paintings.
Of course, since we were there, I managed to beg a few more shirts in my size, too. Thanks, Kevin!

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Transition of Power



(Yesterday, one of my newspapers asked me to write a few lines to accompany the editorial cartoon video you see here, ‘Transition of Power.’ I sent them a short paragraph, but realized I had more to say on the matter.)

In the 1980s, my father was stationed in Lahr, West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces. Growing up overseas was a privilege, but during the Cold War, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Our Canadian schools ensured we got the most out of our time in Europe. We were able to see a lot of it, were exposed to different cultures and we learned its history.

A school visit to Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on me as did visits to other World War II sites. The history of that era is something I’ve read about a great deal in the more than three decades since.

Most recently, I’ve read the Third Reich trilogy by British historian Richard J. Evans, which details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It was a bit of a slog to get through it, but well worth the effort. While there are many differences between the world of the 1930s and today, the similarities to today’s climate in the U.S. can’t be ignored.

There is a well-known internet adage called Godwin’s Law. It states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

It’s true. We tend to be cavalier with the assertion and most often, it’s unwarranted. The mere mention of Hitler in the same sentence as a current leader is looked upon with derision, along with accusations of lazy logic. Some might say that to compare the current U.S. President to the leader of the Third Reich is irresponsible and inappropriate, largely because it amounts to placing a living human being in the same company as a man who is considered to be the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.

So why is this different?

Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, to see what was allowed to happen in Europe of the late 30s and early 40s once the invasion of other countries began. While world politicians talked, worried about polls, votes and public perception, the ball continued to roll toward what we now know as the worst genocide in human history.

And by the time enough people noticed, it was too late.

We can pretend that what’s going in America is politics as usual, that things will settle down soon and he’ll mellow into the job, despite there being no sign of this happening. It has become cliché to say that we ignore our history at our own peril, and yet we continue to do so time and again.

Hitler surrounded himself with men who supported his views, some who entertained demons far worse than his own. These were men he tasked with carrying out his orders, but also whose appointment gave tacit approval to come up with orders of their own. And they did.

Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and more. Without Hitler, these men might never have been put in positions that allowed them to achieve their full, horrific potential.

So it isn’t just one man being compared to another, it’s what that one man represents. It’s what he allows simply by his presence.

We forget that Hitler didn’t start by building concentration camps. He started by promising to build a better Germany for Germans, swore to return the Fatherland to its former greatness, and he pointed fingers at minorities and said they were to blame for all that was wrong in the world, then he compared them to vermin.

Yes, the blame rests largely on his shoulders. Hitler wrote the tune and he conducted the orchestra, but he wasn’t the one playing the instruments.

The score was performed by the German people of the time, a shame they later had to live with. Had they known what they were allowing in the 1930s when they failed to speak up, had they a glimpse into the future to see the legacy of their misplaced rage, would they have changed course?

We can never know. How could they possibly have imagined the nightmare to come?

But that is what it means to learn from history, to see the same patterns repeating and to make different choices. Unlike the German people, we know too well what is possible when bad men are given power.

If we allow men like Donald Trump and those he enables to flourish, to explore the full potential of the seemingly limitless power they are currently testing and exploiting, the shame will rest on all of our shoulders.

Will Donald Trump and his inner circle become as monstrous as Hitler and his followers?

I doubt it.

But how far down that road is far enough? A quarter of the way? Half the way?

What are we willing to give up in order to find out?

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A Portrait of Alan Doyle

Whenever I’m having a hard time finding my footing, when the dark stuff settles in, painting a portrait can often be a refuge.

I consider the daily editorial cartoons to be my day job, but in recent years, the whimsical wildlife portraits have become that as well, which is a little sad since I never wanted those to feel like work. While it’s great that people like my painted animals, that the prints sell well in zoos and galleries and I’m finding licensing opportunities, that part of my work used to be the escape. Now, not so much.

I’ve been quite candid recently revealing that I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety, a direct consequence of years living with OCD. While people most often associate that with germophobia and checking things, 95% of my particular version is not visible to other people. While I’ve no intention of going down that road in great depth in this post, I’ll just say that these past few weeks have been the most difficult of my life. It is my nature to want this fixed NOW so that I can move on and get back to normal, whatever that is. Apparently it doesn’t work that way and I must be patient. This will be a long road back and I have to stop thinking of it as a destination and simply as something I need to learn to live with.

While I’m not anywhere near there at present, I am moving in the right direction. I’ve found a therapist who understands OCD better than any I’ve spoken to before, and while I haven’t ruled it out, we’ve agreed that medication is a last resort for me and doesn’t look to be necessary at this time as other tools are producing results.

This experience, however, has granted me some much needed perspective. I’ve been working too hard when I haven’t had to. I’ve made it all about becoming more successful and producing more work at the expense of having a life. While I’ve had wake-up calls before, this has been more profound and frightening than any that have come before.

Artists. We’re such drama queens.

In hindsight, it seems I look to portraits of people as island escapes when the seas get too rough. I was in a similar frame of mind when I painted Martin Sheen a few years ago.

I’ve wanted to paint Alan Doyle for a year or two, but just kept putting it off for the work and the deadlines. With workmen currently in the house installing new floors, my office taking up part of the kitchen and not being able to count on any routine right now, this painting was a necessary diversion.

My buddy Darrel and I went to see Doyle play in Calgary a few years ago when he was touring with his first solo album, ‘Boy on Bridge.’ It was a real treat because the tour was playing small venues across Canada and we ended up at a front row table at the Ironwood Stage and Grill in Inglewood. Had we wanted to, we could have put our feet up on the floor level stage.

It was the type of venue where you’d expect to see up and comers before they’re well known. Had Doyle been touring with his band, Great Big Sea, the venue would have been much larger and when he came through Calgary again with his second solo album ‘So Let’s Go,’ he moved up to the Jubilee Auditorium.

I’ve long been a fan of Great Big Sea, but to be honest, I like Doyle’s solo albums better and hope they’re just the first of many. He’s playing with some great musicians and that experience at the Ironwood felt like a special opportunity, reminding me of the days when Darrel and I used to hang out at pubs in Red Deer more than twenty-five years ago, listening to live music.

It occurs to me that perhaps I might paint some more Canadians this year, musicians, actors or average folks like me. Maybe I’ll call it a Canada 150 project, purely to find some joy in painting again, and an escape from the work. I won’t be taking requests or entertaining suggestions, nor will I be putting it on a schedule or trying to get a certain number completed. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.

I could have spent many more hours nitpicking this one, but I deliberately stopped myself before it became an exercise in frustration. It’ll never be perfect, so why bother trying?

I listened to Doyle’s albums and some Great Big Sea while painting this. Here’s a favorite, ‘My Day’ and the video from where I got the reference for this painting.

And if you get a chance to see him live, don’t pass it up.