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Close Encounters of the Bear Cub Kind

DISCLAIMER: Don’t EVER approach bears, bear cubs or animals in the wild.

Earlier this week, Shonna and I were thrilled to be invited to Discovery Wildlife Park to meet their latest adoptees.

Bos and Piper are two Kodiak cubs from the US who needed a new home. While they’re not siblings, they are the same age, three months old today. The amount of paperwork and regulatory hurdles required to rescue these cubs from an unsustainable situation, especially during this unprecedented time of COVID, was monumental.

Our friend, Serena, the head keeper at DWP, has been around animals her whole life. With her staff’s help, she has raised quite a few bears, wolves, and other animals in need of rescue, ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

Discovery Wildlife Park, the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre and the Calgary Zoo, are places I support and the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation, which rescues, rehabs, and releases animals back into the wild. I have no real interaction with the last one, aside from a monthly donation. To be released back into the wild, the animals need as little human contact as possible.

We would like to believe that this could be a world where no animal would ever need to live in captivity, but that would require sacrifices most of us aren’t willing to make. Our addiction to excess is one of the main reasons for disappearing wildlife habitats around the world.

With almost 8 billion people on the planet, each with our own opinions, vices, and levels of acceptable compromise, nothing is ever as black and white as we would like to believe.

Co-existing with wildlife is a never-ending discussion. There are strong opinions on both sides of the argument, from the average person on the street to nature and conservation experts, each speaking from their own experience and perspective. And those experts rarely agree. Unfortunately, there’s often more talking than listening, and the middle ground is mainly unpopulated and devoid of footprints.

I’ve personally wrestled with the issue for many years and will continue to do so. I’ve asked the hard questions from the dedicated people who work in these places. While the answers aren’t always the ones I’d like to hear, I believe they’re doing the best for these animals in their care and that their intentions and motivations are honourable.

I’ve seen how the animals interact with the park staff for years now, their evident trust and affection. I wouldn’t support any facility that didn’t treat its animals with respect and kindness or contradicted my wildlife protection values.
It’s with no small amount of gratitude that I enjoy such a close relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their allowing me close contact with the animals over the past several years is a profound trust I don’t take lightly.

I’ve taken thousands of reference photos at the park, which has allowed me to create some of my best work. But I’ve also learned an incredible amount about wildlife, their behaviour, medical and dietary challenges and their profound intelligence.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on 91 acres, fenced and double-fenced in places. There is a forested shallow ravine on the western edge of the property, complete with a flowing creek. As this area is inappropriate for any structures, it’s largely untouched and remains natural. This is one of my favourite photos of Berkley from one of our excursions in this little forest a few years ago.

When they’re small, many of the animals spend plenty of time in these woods, where they can run, explore, climb trees, eat berries, and play.

On the day that Shonna and I visited, the cubs were teething, as traumatic for animals as humans. Along with the physiological problems that accompany teething, there’s not much that can be done for the pain and discomfort.

We watched Piper have a full-on meltdown for about a half-hour, bellowing and bawling her way through the woods. She was cranky and having a bad day, reminding me of a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. It was just as uncomfortable to watch, but Serena wasn’t concerned, as it’s all part of being a baby. Piper eventually exhausted herself and went about exploring, playing and climbing trees.
The following morning, I sent Serena a text asking how Piper was doing.

“She is a happy girl today.”
Bos was much more subdued, a little lazier, but curious and seemed to be enjoying himself as he chewed on trees, dug in the dirt, and wrestled with his adopted sibling.

Just like people, they have their own unique personalities. As my only other experience with a brown bear cub is Berkley, the differences are remarkable. Berkley rarely vocalized, whereas these two are talking all the time. Piper was so named because she’s got a real set of pipes on her.


Though she’s always had an overall genial way about her, Berkley went through a bit of a rebellious teenage phase where she would push Serena’s buttons to test her boundaries. It’ll be interesting to see how these cubs grow into their personalities.

Presently, they require constant care, familiar territory for Serena and the staff. It will be some months before the cubs can spend any significant time alone. There’s little time off for those who care for animals, but I’ve never heard them complain. It’s a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
In the hour and a half we were out in the woods with the cubs, I took just under 1500 photos. With bright sunshine and dark shadows, the lighting wasn’t ideal. The bears were often between me and the sun, so I didn’t get as much light on their faces as I would generally like. Hard to complain, though, since I was watching bear cubs play in the woods. I wanted to take some video, but it was too much to handle and would have ruined the experience.



As I don’t like hoarding photos, I’ve already gone through them all and kept just over 100. Most are shots I simply liked, the ones you see here. But I did get about a dozen that I think will be the seeds for future work; there are two paintings in there for sure.

We didn’t get to visit Berkley this time around for a couple of reasons. Her large enclosure is on the far side of the park, and they’re doing a lot of work right now getting ready for their season-opening. Most importantly, the animals thrive on routine, and right now, visitors aren’t part of that, so there’s no need to confuse her.

I’ll have to return often this spring and summer to spend some time with her.

If you’d like to watch the cubs grow up, you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook and Instagram, where they regularly post photos and videos. They can only care for these critters thanks to the generosity of donors and visitors during the summer season, so if you’re in the Innisfail area, consider stopping in to check it out. It’s easy to keep your distance from others with plenty of outdoor space while still enjoying all that the park has to offer. They open May 1st, and annual memberships are available.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Another Berk in Progress

Here’s a sneak peek at a new painting of Berkley that I started this morning. I took the reference for this one in September 2019 at Discovery Wildlife Park but didn’t see the potential in it until just recently.

She was lying in the grass, looking right at me, so it’s actually a horizontal image, but I’m painting it vertically so that I can get the expression right. When it’s finished, people can hang the print whichever way they want, so that’s a fun little twist.

As the painting develops, I’ll paint in blades of grass in the foreground on the right side. It will partially obscure that side of her face but give the whole image a sense of place.

Yesterday, my friend and head keeper Serena sent me a personal video and a couple of photos to let me know that Berkley has woken up from hibernation. While it’s already warming up around here, seeing that sleepy 4-year-old brown bear’s face certainly makes it feel like spring might finally be around the corner.

Having raised her from a weeks-old cub, Serena and Berkley have a special bond, and I don’t know who was happier to see the other.

I’ll share more work-in-progress shots with my newsletter followers as this painting progresses, but I don’t think this one will take long. There’s no other face I like painting more than Berkley’s.

Almost all of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park are orphans and rescues; many are brought to them from Alberta Fish and Wildlife. These are animals they can’t release back into the wild and would otherwise have to destroy.

While animals in captivity are never ideal, people have made many bad choices, and there are very few places in the world where animals are truly wild outside of protected regions.

I live in an area where trains, highways and tourists are the biggest threat to bears, wolves and other wildlife. By leaving food in easy reach, approaching wildlife, and even deliberately feeding them, we teach them to associate people with a free meal. When they eventually become too comfortable or even aggressive, they often must be euthanized.

Hazing and relocation to other areas will occasionally work, but most often, the damage has already been done and is irreversible.

Discovery Wildlife Park works to educate guests and visitors about coexistence and conservation, which is why I support their efforts.

But without financial support, they wouldn’t be able to do the work they do.

Discovery Wildlife Park is closed for the season right now, but they’ll be open May 1st. With 90 acres of space in which to move around, it’s a great place to get outside and spend time with the animals while still being able to social distance. While you’re there, make time for their daily scheduled presentations to learn how you can help keep wildlife wild.

Memberships are currently on sale for almost 50% off, granting unlimited admission all season.
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Winter Raven

Before it debuted in 2010, nobody was asking for an iPad. Even after it launched, people made fun of it. There were plenty of articles criticizing it for not having a keyboard or a stylus. Even the name was fodder for ridicule. Who would want this when they could have a laptop or a home computer?

Years later, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody with a tablet device who doesn’t see the value.

While I’m not creating technical marvels or something the masses line up for, whenever I’m deciding on a new painting, I have to fight the urge to try to figure out what people want. Most of the time, we don’t even know.

When I painted my first funny looking Grizzly Bear in 2009, nobody was asking me for animal paintings. Like a lot of art, it was an experiment, borne out of boredom with the work I’d been doing.

There are times I will paint something purely for commercial reasons, to satisfy demand.  Most of my pet portraits are client commissions, I’ve painted pandas for the Calgary Zoo, and my Sasquatch and recent T-Rex painting were market suggestions from a licensing client.

It’s a nice thought to believe that you can create art for a living, and people will throw money at you, but the real world doesn’t work that way.

If I thought too hard about each piece’s outcome and marketability before I painted it, I would have never created some of my most popular pieces.

I’ve painted more bears than any other animal, and I’ll continue to paint more because I enjoy them so much. I’ve also painted multiple wolves, lions, tigers and owls. This is my third or fourth raven.

I paint some animals more than once because there will always be room for improvement and new approaches to try. You never know when the same animal, painted differently, will suddenly resonate with people the way a previous version didn’t.

My Smiling Tiger painting is one of my best-selling pieces. Had I failed to paint it simply because I had painted tigers twice before, I would have missed out on an image that many people love, including me.
In September of this year, I gave my wife a photo of a raven for her birthday, printed on aluminum with a clear coating. It’s easily one of the best gifts I’ve given her because she loves it. Shonna hung it opposite the kitchen entry so that when you walk in, it never fails to catch your eye.

Over the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with the image as well. Because of the print medium, the different light throughout the day changes the photo. Sometimes it’s devoid of colour; other times, it’s shades of gold, and on an overcast, gloomy day, it has hints of blue. Both Shonna and I often stop to look at it.

My friend Darrel and I remain fans of the 90s television show Northern Exposure. The fictitious tales from Cecily, Alaska, often incorporated First Nations beliefs and symbolism. On one holiday episode, the radio DJ, Chris Stevens said, “You know, twinkling coloured lights are nice, and so are plastic Santas and reindeers and manger scenes, but I’ll tell you something, friends… nothing like the sight of a beautiful black-as-pitch raven to get you in the Christmas spirit.”

I doubt there’s a December since that Darrel and I haven’t recited the last part of that quote to each other.
So it’s no wonder I’ve had ravens on my mind. It’s also likely why I chose such stark contrasts in this painting, inspired by the same quality in that photo.

I’ve had to remind myself often of the lesson I learned a long time ago. If I paint what I think people want to see, the image rarely captures the attention I expect. It’s likely those paintings won’t be ones I enjoy much either. It’s the ones I paint without any expectations that end up being the most fun and often become surprising hits.

So here’s another raven, whether you wanted one or not. And here’s to the next one I’ll no doubt paint somewhere down the road, whenever the mood strikes me.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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The Great Grey Hunter

With the brilliant fall colours and abnormally warm October temperatures, the timing couldn’t have been better for some R&R in Central Alberta ranch land with a good friend of mine. For five days, we caught up, reminisced, ate good food, tipped back a few drinks, played Scrabble and cards like old men, and enjoyed the slower pace.

As usual, I took plenty of photos, mostly of horses, cows and Jingles, the most good-natured dog you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet.

I even caught sight of a moose one evening, though too far away for reference. But anytime I see wildlife is a win.

In my regular day to day, I get up at 5am, even on weekends. For anyone who is self-employed, weekends often don’t mean much anyway. So when I do take time off and sleep in, I’m still an early riser.

On our last morning, I woke just after 7 to an eerie warm light coming through my window. I got out of bed, pulled the curtain back and thought it looked like that strange hazy glow of forest fire smoke. Since we haven’t had any of that in a few weeks around here, it took me a minute to realize it was just the light bouncing off the yellow leaves on the trees and ground.

I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera, and snuck out the back door of the cabin. I didn’t want to go past my buddy’s bedroom and possibly wake him. My photography skills just weren’t adequate to figure out how to capture the weird light I was seeing, so I resigned myself to simply appreciating the moment. The three previous mornings had been pretty, but this was much more intense.

Since I was up already, I wandered out to the road to see if there might be some deer or a coyote around. I knew that anything I might encounter would take off as soon as I saw it, so the best I might hope for would be a few quick snapshots.

When I emerged from the lane onto the road, I spotted a large shape on a fence post. At first, I thought it might be a hawk. I’ve long been trying to get photos of a red-tailed hawk in the wild, but each time I see one, it’s usually while I’m driving with nowhere to pull over.

At the same time, a little way down the road, there were two white-tailed deer. They spotted me just as I raised my camera. I got one shot before they bolted into the trees, but it isn’t worth sharing.

My attention quickly returned to what I now realized was a Great Grey Owl. A common species in Alberta, but I’ve never seen one in the wild. I thought I might get a few quick shots before it took off, especially since it looked right at me, but my presence didn’t seem to be a problem.

Female Great Grey Owls are larger than males but there’s no other way to easily tell their gender. As this was a single and quite large, I’m going with she.

With each step I took, I expected her to fly away, but she seemed more interested in finding her breakfast than worrying about me. I crept closer and moved a little farther down the road around her to get the best light, continuously taking shots.

Eventually, I got to within 8 or 10 feet and figured that was close enough. I didn’t want to crowd her. With a 70-300 mm lens, I knew I’d still capture plenty of detail.

Finally, after watching her snag a mouse and eat part of it on the next post, she gracefully dropped from the post and silently flew down the fence-line. Having taken a few dozen photos, I thought that was it, and I was grateful for the gift.

But she didn’t go far. Her next perch was even closer to the cabin than the first. I wandered back the way I came, again expecting her to take off, but she stayed put. I enjoyed her implied audacity at ignoring the No Trespassing sign, coupled with the fact that the sign colour matched her eyes.

Eventually, she flew into the trees, but still close to the property line. I took even more photos because her perch this time clearly showed the incredible camouflage of her feathers against the nearby tree bark.

Since Darrel is also an early riser and I didn’t want him to miss out on this privilege, I walked back to the cabin to tell him. I knew she might be gone before we returned, but I’d already taken plenty of shots and thought it worth the risk. He was eager to see her as well, and by the time we got back, she was in the same spot.

We watched her move between three different perches. We were so close that Darrel could still get some nice shots with his phone. He took some video as well, but it also captured the sound of my camera shutter on rapid fire.

At one point, a brief gust of wind came up, throwing clouds of yellow leaves around her. It was such a treat to take photos of her in multiple environments, almost like she was a model for hire.

Finally, we decided we’d invaded her space enough and I didn’t want to ruin her chances of getting a meal, even though I’d seen her catch one mouse already.

I thanked her for her patience, and we walked back to the cabin, looking through the shots we’d taken.

After we’d eaten a small breakfast, Darrel saw movement out the window and said, “She’s back!”

Now perched on the fence on our side of the road, she still didn’t seem to care that we were there.

We watched her jump down into the grass to catch a mouse, hop back up on to the same perch, eat it down whole and repeat the process. Here’s a time-lapse of the Great Grey hunter in action. Not a good day to be a mouse.

I’ve taken photos of Great Grey Owls before, at the Calgary Zoo Aviary and at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale. In those cases, they’ve been orphans and rescues that can’t be released back into the wild. I’ve even painted a closeup of a Great Grey before.

But to see one this close, at eye level in the wild, going about her morning, so tolerant of our visit, was a truly special experience for which I’m grateful.

As the cold weather will no doubt be fast upon us, and with nowhere to go, I plan to spend a lot of time painting. Much like the squirrels and other critters storing up food for the winter, I’ve been stockpiling reference photos for new pieces and have a few already planned.

I believe I’ll add a Great Grey Owl to that list.
If you’d like to support these beautiful birds and others like them, please donate to the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. They do great work for wildlife conservation and education.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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The Art That Binds


Shonna has discerning tastes when it comes to the art she likes.

Were we not together and she stumbled across my stuff somewhere, she wouldn’t buy it. The side benefit, however, is that she has a critical eye and if there’s something wrong in one of my paintings, she can spot it. It took me a long time to stop taking that personally and see it for the gift that it is.

That’s ironic, because had I not met her 30 years ago, odds are very good I wouldn’t be an artist for a living. The opportunities that made that possible, all the pieces lining up, were because I moved to the mountains in 1994 to save our failing long-distance relationship.

Aside from the pieces in my office and one outside my office door, we don’t have any artwork hanging in our home.

That seems to bother one friend of mine a great deal, but Shonna and I have always marched to our own beat. From choosing early on in our marriage not to have children, to the fact that we don’t celebrate holidays, we’re happy to be weird. Normal is overrated.

After 30 years together, coming up quickly on 25 years of marriage, clearly it’s working for us.

Shonna and I rarely do anything for our birthdays. We’ve never had a party for each other, nor wanted one. We never made it a thing, nor do we ever put pressure on each other to buy the perfect gift. In fact, we almost never buy each other gifts because a calendar says we should. She’s forbade me to buy her anything for Valentine’s Day, and we both loathe Christmas.

But today is Shonna’s 50th birthday and I wanted to do something special for her. We originally had some nice vacation plans this year. We wanted to have an adventure to mark her 50th, our 25th anniversary in a little over a month, and my 50th early next year, but I need not explain why all of that was cancelled.

As Shonna told another friend turning 50 this year, we’re taking a mulligan.

A few years ago, Shonna found a black and white photo online that really spoke to her. Art being what it is, it’s foolish to dissect why. Just as one song moves one person, but elicits a shrug from another, it’s personal.

It’s unlike her to be so struck by an image, so she found the photographer online, a Russian from Saint Petersburg with the pen name Key Gross. His black and white photography is quite stunning, expertly capturing urban scenes. But it was a square cropped raven with an unusual composition that Shonna fell for.

After a couple of fruitless attempts to contact him, she finally managed to have a dialogue. She told him how much she loved the photo and wanted to arrange to buy a print. Because of the difficulty of having it printed the size she wanted, shipped to Canada, and the fact that she just loved the image, he offered it to her for free, despite her willingness to pay.

He quite unexpectedly emailed her the file so she could print it herself. Given that she is married to an artist who has been ripped off more times than I can count, and the frustration of trying to maintain copyright protection in the digital age, she assured him we would only print it once and that the original file would never be shared.

ABL Imaging in Calgary has been doing my canvas and giclée prints for many years and I can’t speak highly enough about their quality and professionalism. We went to the shop together a couple of years ago to see about getting it done.

The problem, however, is that they have many options and Shonna was paralyzed by choice.

She hasn’t spoken about this photo since, obviously having given up on having anything done with it.

Shonna is incredibly tough to buy for. She doesn’t wear any jewelry, abhors dust gathering knick knacks, doesn’t collect anything, and if she wants something, she usually saves for it and buys it. I’ve learned over the years that the best gifts I can give her are simply supporting things she wants to do.

Our recent kitchen renovations (she’s an excellent cook), taking care of her car maintenance, cleaning the house, bringing her lunch to her when she forgets it, making a workout space for her in the basement when her gym closed for COVID, cleaning the house. It’s the little things that mean more than the stuff that money can buy.

Take note, newlyweds.

As it’s so rare for me to know for certain that Shonna will like or want something I might buy her, a couple of months ago, I talked to Ryan at ABL Imaging about finally getting that Raven printed.

I had measured a couple of places in the house where it might hang, to give Shonna some options. The image was 30cm each side, and I wanted to print it 22 inches. That meant some subtle Photoshop magic so it wouldn’t blur on the enlargement. Good thing I know a thing or two about that.

Ryan and I discussed how best to make the image pop and went with a boxed aluminum print. The brushed grain added some texture and a wonderful, raised relief effect on the feathers. ABL Imaging then sent it out for a professional automotive clear-coat that took it to another level. The print has real presence.
From a traditional point of view, the image breaks the rules of composition. The eye is generally the focal point of an animal photo or painting, but this one is off to the side. In fact, the feathers in the center of the piece are the sharpest part of the image, another rule broken. But the image works, it’s got character, life and proves that following the rules isn’t always what makes for a moving piece. That, and trying to please everybody is overrated.

While Shonna did take the day off for her 50th, she still woke at 5am as we both usually do, and went to the gym while I worked. When she got home, I drove down to the bakery to get her a fresh cinnamon bun, a rare indulgence. After we ate those with our coffee, I gave her the gift, which for reasons I already mentioned, she wasn’t expecting.

Before she got it fully open, she asked “Did you get me my raven?”

She was thrilled.

As I wrote this in my office, she was busy with drywall anchors and searching for screws. I took a break midway through to help her line it up.

She hung it in her newly renovated kitchen.

(she told me to add, “and it looks fantastic!”)

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Another Day of Discovery

I’m not breaking any news here when I point out that most businesses have had to adjust to operational difficulties during the past six months. Many had to close, some permanently. For the ones that survived, the opening came with severe restrictions, reduced hours and a strange new reality.

Discovery Wildlife Park began its late-season start as a drive-thru. People could visit the park, but had to stay in their vehicles, while staff did their best to ensure a worthwhile experience. It proved to be quite popular, especially since there were few options elsewhere for a family outing at the time.

Once allowed to fully open, they had reduced hours, but visitors could roam freely while keeping their distance from other guests. The park itself is a well-manicured open-concept venue, and just walking around the place is relaxing. Add in the rescued and orphaned animals, and it’s a unique experience.

Their season ends typically on Thanksgiving, but this year the last day is September 30th. With that date looming and the fantastic fall weather this year, I made the time on Monday to drive up and spend the day taking photos.
As always, my first stop was to see Berkley, a brown bear I’ve known since she wasn’t much bigger than a cat. She has a massive enclosure all to herself, complete with a pond, big fallen trees on which to climb and plenty of daily attention from staff and guests alike.
In August, Berkley weighed in at 388 pounds. As she’s been preparing for her long winter’s nap by eating a lot more, I suspect she’s well over 400 now. She’ll turn four years old this coming January and still isn’t full grown. Given the excellent care the animals receive at the park, Berkley is one of the healthiest brown bears you’ll ever see. Her thick, luxurious coat sometimes makes her look like she might be carrying a little extra weight, but she’s fit and lean.

It never fails to make me smile when I call her name, and she ambles down to see me, even if she’s at the other side of her enclosure. It’s such a privilege to sit on the grass and look into those beautiful brown eyes.
Serena (the head keeper and Berkley’s Mom) and the staff have become friends over the years. I’m ever grateful for the behind-the-scenes access they give me when I visit. During the bear presentation, I was able to take up-close unobstructed photos and got some nice reference pics of the black bears. I tried to hide a little during Berkley’s part of the presentation. She tends to get distracted if she sees people she knows.
In the middle of the day, I drove ten minutes down the road to have a visit with my folks and meet their new little animal; a Yorkie named Lily. Once again, the first favoured LaMontagne child has four legs and a fur coat. She’s a skittish little thing, but she seemed to like me. A baggie full of dog treats helped.

Upon my return to the park for the lion presentation, I got another nice batch of photos. I’ve wanted to paint their male lion, Griffin, for some time. While I still don’t have THE shot I’ve been looking for, I did get plenty to paint other images.
While nobody knows what the future holds, I expect a winter with even more time indoors than usual. With a topped-up stock of new photo reference, I’ll be using that time to paint and write.

Lions, tigers, and bears…oh my.

And an elephant.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Walking with Wolf Pups

If you’d asked me how I was doing during the past couple of months, I might have answered that I’ve had OK days and not-so-OK days, for reasons I need not explain.

This past Sunday, however, was the first good day in a long while. And it was a really good day.

Discovery Wildlife Park is open as a drive-thru right now, an Alberta Health Services approved method for people to still come and see the animals, but they must stay in their vehicles. It’s proving very popular and they’ve been busy, with a steady stream of cars winding through the park on their well-manicured gravel pathways. The staff helps the animals be seen, they answer questions and do their best to make it an enjoyable experience for their guests, despite the distancing measures.

While I think it’s great they have this option, it’s not one I’d planned on experiencing. I’ll admit to being spoiled by my connection to the park, and the access they’ve given me. I just don’t want to see Berkley from my car, especially given the drive time to get there.

Shonna and I have been very good at following the isolation rules in all of this. She still goes to work at the law office each day, but it’s closed to the public and they have the appropriate safety measures in place. I’ve stayed home, only going out once a week for groceries, completing all of my errands in as few days a week as possible.

Alberta relaxed a number of restrictions on Friday, allowing people to get together in small groups. Some more businesses have been allowed to open and people are venturing out of their homes, though still being advised to wash their hands, keep their distance, and exercise caution.

Serena and I were texting Saturday night as we sometimes do, as I’m always curious to see how the animals are doing. She often sends behind-the-scenes pictures and videos for us. I made the off comment that it’s too bad I wouldn’t be able to see the wolves while they were pups, to which Serena replied, “Why not?”
As she did with their Brown bear Berkley when she was a cub, Serena takes 8-week-old Sassenach and Highlander for a walk each evening in the large fenced wooded area at the park. She lets them explore, play, and get into trouble, without having to worry that they’ll go anywhere.

We’ve had the privilege of many walks in the woods with Berkley. So it was exciting when Serena invited us to come up Sunday evening and meet the wolf pups in the same way.

Shonna later said she was impressed at how I jumped at the chance without overthinking it. Spontaneous is not my default setting.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day. With warm temperatures, sunny and cloudy skies, very little traffic on the highways, we headed up that afternoon, a little over two hours’ drive one way.

I talk with my parents often enough on the phone and via FaceTime, but we hadn’t had an in-person visit since they left for Arizona in the fall. As they live ten minutes from the park, we made time for a short visit on their deck beforehand, keeping our distance, of course.

We met Serena at the park at 6, drove over to the wooded area and before long; the wolves were doing their thing while we took pictures.
Part of the reason we have such a good relationship with the park is that we’ve always given the animals their space. There’s no chasing, lunging, grabbing, yelling, basically any behaviour that’s going to freak them out. We were content to watch, let them get comfortable with our presence and it was up to them to come to us.



Thankfully, once they did, both pups did check us out, but their primary focus was on each other, exploring, playing and attacking.
As Serena said, “It’s Fight Club, every night.”

We spent about two hours with them, visiting and catching up with Serena and taking a lot of pictures. I had my camera, but also my phone. Shonna and Serena took pictures with their phones and I got copies of all of them. So most of these pictures are mine, but some are theirs, too. And we don’t really know which are which.
The funny thing is that like most young animals, they were just bundles of energy, until they weren’t. Once they crashed, they crashed hard. Serena then told us we could pick them up, because at that point, they didn’t care. Holding a snoozing wolf pup is a real treat.
As always, we are forever grateful for our connection with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their orphaned and rescued wildlife critters receive the best care, and you need only look to how the keepers and animals behave around each other to realize how much love there is between them.
We were happy to make another donation to the park while we were there, as they really need it right now. In a regular year, they’re only open from May to October, but they still need to feed and care for the animals the other six months of the year. Maintenance of the facilities, upkeep of the grounds and enclosures, veterinary bills and a long list of accessory expenses, not to mention the salaries of the dedicated staff, makes for an expensive undertaking.

I came home with about two thousand photos. After hours of weeding out the ones I can’t use, I still ended up with dozens of reference shots. I’m so glad to have taken photos while they were little, because they certainly won’t remain that way for long. Their eyes are already changing from blue to yellow. There’s no doubt I’ll eventually create paintings of both of them.

After more than two months of being locked down, that was the perfect break from isolation. And to top it all off, Shonna and I drove back into the mountains that night under a brilliant red sky, one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen this year.

Cheers,
Patrick
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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Ring-Tailed Ringleader

Here’s a new painting, a Ring-tailed Lemur just finished this morning.

Wacom sent me their new Wacom One display to take for a test drive and to record a video for them. The video has an inspirational theme, rather than a technical one. I’ve written the script, recorded the video, but now I need a few days to edit all of the footage and record the audio, especially since I have my cartoon deadlines as well. It’s a lot of work to take a painting that took about 15 hours and compress it into a 3 or 4 minute video so people won’t get bored.

Seriously, I love painting hair and fur, but it would be effective torture to make me watch many hours of somebody else doing it.

Initially supposed to be more of a cartoony creation, I wanted to see what kind of advances Wacom had made in their display technology, so I painted with it instead. The Wacom One is being marketed as an entry-level display, but I enjoyed working with it and didn’t feel hobbled at all.

I’ll have a more technical evaluation post a little later, but for those of you who just like looking at my funny looking animal paintings, I’ll save those details.

The Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Calgary Zoo are fun to watch, and the Land of Lemurs is an immersive experience. Their enclosure allows them to freely roam where they like and it’s the people who are restricted in the center, but with no barrier. With zoo staff on hand to make sure people follow the rules, the open-air concept allows for some great photo opportunities.

I’ve taken many shots of these critters and plan to paint a group of them together as they like to huddle in a ball. All of the expressive faces peeking out is quite comical.
While going through my photo reference, however, I came across the image above. She’s a female, as are all of the ring-tailed lemurs at the zoo (or were at the time of this photo), and I liked what I saw. I even loved the blue sky background, and saw no need to change it. I don’t know if she really has a bad attitude, but part of the reason I paint the personalities I do is that I actually see that in the photo reference I take. The painting definitely looks male, however.

This was a lot of fun. I know I say that about many of my paintings, but I’d put this painting experience in the Top 3. Many of my paintings could be labelled cute, but this one borders on psychotic, which is probably why I liked it so much. Those crazy eyes suggest a critter that isn’t quite all there.

As my friend Pam at Wacom said this morning on Instagram, “He looks like an evil ringleader.”

So while I don’t know if it’s the kind of image that will be popular on a print or licensed product, some of my best images were ones I did for myself. I never expected my cantankerous Ostrich image to be popular and that one has developed a strange cult following I don’t fully understand.

I worked a very long day on Sunday drawing three editorial cartoons so that I could spend all day yesterday putting the final hours in on this piece. I could have finished it last night, but I erred on the side of patience and decided to sleep on it. When I opened the image this morning, I laughed out loud. It’s such a ridiculous expression.
Another hour on the fine hairs, tweaks here and there, tunes cranked in the earbuds, and I’m glad I waited. It was a great way to start my day.

I’m looking forward to sharing the video soon.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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A Visit with Birds of Prey

After my first visit to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta last year, I was looking forward to another visit this season. Unfortunately, with other obligations close to home, I didn’t manage to get there before they closed last month for the season.

After reading their latest newsletter, which is always informative, I realized that I had not only failed to visit this year, but I hadn’t contributed financially either. I called up last month to make a donation and the patriarch of the family, Colin Weir, told me they’d be in Canmore again on October 5th at the Civic Centre.

I marked it in my calendar and made sure I wouldn’t be away or have other obligations.

A really nice day for it, I got there first thing on Saturday to avoid what would later become a good crowd of people. The birds were outside, in conjunction with a larger event focusing on Geology, fossils and the Canmore Museum, located in the Civic Centre.

The regular cast of characters were there, the ambassadors that travel with Colin when he goes to these events. These are birds that can’t be released back into the wild and have lived at the Centre for a long time. A Great Horned Owl, Short Eared Owl, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl and Golden Eagle, each with names like Basil, Dexter and Edgar.
Their Golden Eagle is in her early thirties, and I painted her a couple of years ago. Sarah is a beautiful bird and Colin admits he’s very close to her, having raised her since the 1980s. His daughter, Aimee has joked that Sarah is the favorite child.

While I enjoyed painting Sarah, it’s not one of my more popular prints, largely because when the general public thinks of eagles, they’re most often after the Bald variety and that painting of mine is far more popular than this one.

Even still, I couldn’t resist taking more photos of Sarah, knowing I still may do another painting of her, for my own enjoyment.
I spent a good couple of hours there, taking hundreds of photos of all of the birds. The opportunity to get up close and personal, acquiring such detailed reference is one I rarely pass up. I was happy to leave another donation for the privilege of having the birds come to me.
When it comes to supporting charities and causes, I would encourage you to find the thing for which you feel a personal connection.

Whether it’s research into a medical illness that has touched you or a member of your family, efforts for building a new library in your community, or a regular donation to the food bank, find something you can regularly support that makes you feel like you’re making a difference.

As this is a wonderful facility that rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey, I know how much they rely on public support to continue the work they do. With so many worthwhile charities and causes out there, it can be overwhelming to want to give to everybody, but only having the funds to support a few. I decided quite some time ago that all of my charitable donations would go toward wildlife causes, especially facilities that help animals in need of emergency care and rehabilitation. I make a monthly donation to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Airdrie, contribute to Discovery Wildlife Park in whatever way I can, and I support the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, but I say No to most everything else, even though I still feel guilty while doing so.

Giving is one of the most selfish things we do, because it feels so good. It’s addictive. I’ll freely admit that it’s also self-serving for me to support wildlife causes and facilities because it’s allowed me to be able to get up close and personal with many of the subjects I’ve painted. How could I not support them in return?

I make a good living, but I’m not wealthy, despite the outsider’s view that everybody who lives in Canmore and Banff is rich. That’s right, the people serving coffee in the local shop, working at the gas stations, cleaning hotel rooms, and working in the grocery store are all rich people, slumming it because they’re bored.

To support a charity, any charity, doesn’t required a huge outlay of funds. A monthly donation of even $20 helps these places because they’re not just relying on your contribution but all of the others who can only give a little, which amounts to a lot. A monthly donation helps them budget for the year, to get the most of their donations and stretch it as far as they can.

I was talking to Colin on Saturday about the challenges faced with fundraising in a facility like his. He told me that their small staff does everything, from rescuing the animals, caring for them, releasing them, training new staff and volunteers, ordering for the gift shop, maintaining the facilities and what I can only imagine is a much longer list of daily duties that go on even when the facility is closed to the public in the off-season.

He told me about somebody who had called him recently from Fort McMurray who hit a Great Horned Owl with his truck at night. Colin showed me the picture of the owl trapped inside the damaged grill, looking out at the man taking the photo. He had to talk the guy through the extrication over the phone and they managed to free the owl that was seemingly undamaged. These types of calls are not unusual, and come at all hours.

On top of all of that, they also have to have a sharp focus on fundraising, or it all stops.

While the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation has a few generous corporate sponsors, like Fortis Alberta and AltaLink, they don’t receive any funding from the Alberta or federal governments. When governments change, priorities change and funding can suddenly be frozen or come with strings attached that would ultimately hinder their good work, rather than help.

If you think about some of the larger, more well-known charities, Colin points out that those organizations often have fundraising and marketing departments with more people in them than the entire staff at the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. Not to mention that the marketing budgets of larger charities often exceed the entire operating budget of a facility like the Birds of Prey Centre, where all of the funds raised go directly to conservation.

The next time you’re thinking about where best to put your limited charitable donations, I would encourage you to find somewhere that does great work that aligns with your values. Consider choosing a small facility, where they might not have the flashiest of ad campaigns, but are on the ground doing great work that matters, necessary work that if they didn’t do it, nobody would. You won’t get the chance at a lottery prize or be invited to a gala fundraiser, but you’ll be able to see firsthand where your money goes and the good that it does.

It might be your local SPCA or animal shelter, a local greenhouse that grows food for struggling folks in your own community, or somewhere like the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation.

Be selfish. Give a little.

Cheers,
Patrick
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