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Special Deliveries

Art for a living is a lot more than the general assumption that I’m just drawing and colouring all day. Like any business, there is a balance between creating or producing something and selling or marketing that something.

After Expo cleaned me out of stock, an excellent problem to have, I had to re-order prints and the packaging that goes with it. In addition, I needed to fill orders for my retail clients and have stock to sell at an upcoming market and on my online store.

Even though I work with excellent vendors who deliver outstanding service, we’re all familiar with the supply chain challenges that still create delays. But over the past couple of weeks, all orders have finally arrived. I’ve spent many hours signing and packaging each print and the past week delivering them. Now I’m preparing for this Saturday’s Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre.
Last week, I drove to Innisfail to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year to deliver the largest print order they’ve ever placed and their first order of my high-quality vinyl stickers.

I had recently updated their park map and flyer for them, and It’s already printed and available for guests. In addition to financial contributions, there are always other ways to help your favourite causes and organizations, especially if you have the marketable skills they need.

Of course, there’s no point driving those couple of hours without taking reference photos and spending time with the staff and animals. Timing and luck delivered a beautiful warm day.

At Expo this year, my friend Kayla, a zookeeper at the Calgary Zoo, said that she wanted to come up and see Discovery Wildlife Park and meet their head keeper, Serena. So I told her I’d be going up soon, and we timed it for her days off. I arranged it with Serena to make sure it was convenient, gave Kayla directions, and met there on Thursday morning.

Here’s Serena on Thursday, feeding last year’s fast growing rescue cubs, Bos and Piper.
The Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park have a great relationship. Staff from one will often visit the other, participate in educational and training days, and learn from each other’s procedures and policies.

So, I was happy to introduce Serena and Kayla and connect them for what ended up being a partial professional development day. Of course, I was delighted to tag along and eavesdrop while snapping photos.
We got to meet their new wolf pups, though only the keepers who feed them are allowed to touch them. The vet has prohibited any other contact until the pups have their vaccinations next month. But I got plenty of photos, and there will most definitely be a painting coming this year.

On Monday, I was again on the road to deliver another print order to the Calgary Zoo. In the almost ten years they’ve been selling my prints, this was their largest order, a good sign for what we’re all hoping is an economic recovery year.

I had a good visit catching up with their retail manager, Kathryn, and spent some time meeting the new staff, talking about my work, and answering their questions. Since they’re the ones presenting my art to the public and I frequently talk to people who have seen and bought my work there, I’m happy to give the staff any help they need.

Of course, no trip to the zoo would be complete without wandering and taking photos and I was granted yet another beautiful day for it.

No matter how well I plan, some animals prove to be elusive when it comes to reference photos. From poor lighting, posing, vantage point, or timing, it can be frustrating when I can’t get the photos I want. I keep trying, however, as eventually fortune does smile, and it’s always unexpected.
After years of failure, I might have finally got the reference I needed to paint an African porcupine. They had just been given food for which they had to work a little, which is a form of enrichment. The lighting was good, I could get down to eye level, and the little critter kept looking right at me. I was shooting through glass, but if there isn’t much glare and I can cup my hand around the lens hood, that often works just fine. I must have taken 300 shots. I discarded most of them on the first pass, but there are painting reference potentials in those I kept.

From the two visits, I got good reference for wolf pups, a lion, a grizzly, and that African porcupine.

Once this Saturday’s market is behind me, I’ll have a lot more time to devote to painting, and I expect to share a new one with you, already half done, by the end of next week. I have plenty of recent reference stored up and am anxious to work from them.

Just in time for this Saturday’s market, my order from Pacific Music & Art arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m grateful to Mike for such a quick turnaround to restock me with magnets, coasters and aluminum art for this weekend’s market. But the best surprise in the box was my first order of the 2023 “Wild Animals” calendar! That’s one of my favourite paintings on the cover, Grizzly on Grass.
The shipment arrived while I was at the zoo, so I sent a text to our next-door neighbours asking them to grab it for me off the step for the third time in recent weeks. For a guy who is home most of the time, all my recent orders have arrived while I’ve been away. My neighbours got the first calendar as a Thank-You, but you can get yours at The Mountain Made Market this weekend at the Canmore Civic Centre.

Next week, I will have the calendars available in the online store; I need to work on the calculations to keep the shipping costs as low as possible. I will let you know when you can order them.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The People That You Meet

I woke Tuesday in a foul mood.

Though tired, I’d gone to bed with a lot on my mind and couldn’t sleep, an ongoing problem over the past two years for obvious reasons. My worrying usually revolves around black-and-white, all-or-nothing, perfectionist ruminating, catastrophizing, and other cognitive biases that frequently plague overthinkers like myself.

Logically I know that every setback is just a setback, but my subconscious mind turns it into the end of all things, despite any evidence to the contrary.

I’m not going down this road again, simply explaining that a familiar dark cloud was hanging over my head when I got up at my usual 5AM.

I spent the next few hours drawing and sending an editorial cartoon before prepping my camera gear for a trip to the Calgary Zoo. I didn’t much feel like taking photos, but with a welcome print order to deliver, I’d be there already.

Although zoo attendance continues to pick up since the removal of restrictions, I happened to choose a quiet day.

From a business perspective, I want the zoo to be busy. But I’ll admit that I prefer it quiet when I’m taking pictures. I don’t have the patience for screaming children running around my feet and bumping into me while trying to hold the camera steady.

Sorry, I’m not a fan of kids. Bring on the cancel culture.

When I arrived at the Gift Shop, I asked if Kathryn, the Retail Manager was in, fully expecting them to say she wasn’t. Unfortunately, my visits earlier in the week often conflict with her days off, so most of our communication is via email. I think the last time I saw her in person might have been in 2019.

It’s a shame because Kathryn has been buying and selling my work for the past ten years. I enjoy seeing her, she always has good advice to share, and I learn a lot from her marketing experience.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to catch up in person, and we had a productive meeting. We talked about the year ahead, which paintings I’m going to retire and which ones I might consider painting soon. The first batch of stickers I had delivered a couple of months ago have almost sold out, so upon returning home, I packed up another order and dropped them in the mail yesterday.

Kathryn mentioned that Mike from Pacific Music & Art would be there the following day, so I texted him, kidding him that he was avoiding me. He said he’d be in Canmore later in the week, and he took me to lunch Thursday.

Pacific is my favourite license because I’m regularly involved in setting up my work for the various retail items, and I’m kept in the loop on upcoming plans, which is uncommon with licensing agreements. Mike’s also fun to work with, even though he regularly takes jabs at my being the stereotypical temperamental artist.

In the words of Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 2…“Agreed.”

I left my meeting with Kathryn in better spirits. I had another large sticker order, some positive feedback and information to consider, and an upcoming meeting with Mike to look forward to.

And the zoo was still quiet.
I spent a couple of hours taking photos, but nothing was grabbing me. I’m writing this after I’ve gone through all the shots, and while I got a few I might paint from, most were unremarkable. Some days you feast, others you go hungry. But there are worse ways to spend a cool spring day than walking around with a camera.

Eventually reaching the end of the zoo, I started back the way I came and soon recognized a familiar face, my zookeeper friend, Kayla. We had a good catchup a couple of months ago at the zoo when I delivered a canvas she ordered. I didn’t want to interrupt her work again, so I hadn’t told her I was coming. I figured if I ran into her, great. If not, I’d see her at The Calgary Expo in a couple of weeks.

Kayla and I met years ago after I painted my Smiling Tiger. She had walked by my Expo booth and asked me if the painting was based on a real animal. I told her it was and that I had taken the reference at the zoo. She said the tiger’s name was Katya, that she looked after her all the time and recognized her in the painting.

Considering my style is whimsical, and I take significant liberties in exaggerating the expressions, it was an incredible compliment that she could recognize the tiger she knew in my painting.

Since then, I’ve seen Kayla at Expo and on multiple visits to the zoo. Along with the Smiling Tiger, she has bought other pieces, and I’ve learned a lot about the different animals she cares for. As Serena at Discovery Wildlife Park and Colin at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre can undoubtedly attest, if you spend your life looking after animals, I’m going to annoy you with questions.

Now, running into Kathryn and Kayla at the zoo is not much of a coincidence. They both work there. And Kathryn telling me that Mike was coming in this week is also not too unexpected since he has family in Calgary and is out in Canmore three or four times a year to see clients. So we usually meet up if our schedules allow.

But the most bizarre turn of events happened after I let Kayla go back to work. I walked twenty feet to the red panda exhibit and started taking pictures.

Then I heard my name.

Although they follow A Wilder View, and we exchange emails occasionally, I only ever see Sheldon and Tracy at the Calgary Expo, so it took a couple of seconds for it to click.
They’re two of my favourite people to show up at my booth, not just because they’ve been great supporters of my work for several years. Here’s their collection.

I was already looking forward to seeing them in a couple of weeks, but to run into them at the zoo, on a quiet random weekday in a city of 1.3 million people, was truly strange. I don’t know how long we stood there catching up, but it was getting a little chilly, so we walked around the zoo together. I realized that what had started as a bad day had suddenly become a very good one.

It was a real treat to spend the better part of the afternoon wandering the zoo with them. I always want to, but it’s hard to visit with people at Expo while looking after others who want to talk about and buy my work. So to have that time to walk and talk with no other obligation or timeline was a privilege, and I was delighted to send them a Thank-You email when I got home. It really made my day.
One of the best parts of making art for a living, art that makes people happy, is that I’ve been able to build relationships over the years. And while I’m grateful that Tracy and Sheldon, and so many others have liked my work enough to buy it, it’s a lot more than that.

I don’t get that connection with people with the other half of my business. In fact, editorial cartooning is more likely to foster and reinforce division in our culture. But that’s a post for another time.

To all of you who’ve found some joy in my funny-looking animals, whether you’ve bought any or not, it is sincerely my pleasure, and I don’t take your support for granted.

Shonna and my close friends would likely agree that I’ve become a cynical grumpy old man before my time because I take a lot of the stuff going on in the world far too personally. It bothers me a great deal how people talk to each other, leading with outrage at the expense of empathy.

I’m a heart on my sleeve guy, so letting things go is not one of my strengths.

But if there is an antidote to this poison, personally and professionally, I find it in these paintings and how they make some people happier, if only for a short time. Meeting some of these people and hanging out with them once in a while has been an unexpected bonus.

Cheers,
Patrick

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An African Elephant

After more than two years of procrastinating, I finally finished this painting of an African elephant.

At the beginning of 2020, our friend Serena, her husband, and their son went on a long-awaited safari to Africa. Little did they know that it would be only a couple of months later that recreational travel would be all but cancelled for more than a year.

Serena takes almost no time off. As the head zookeeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, often raising and caring for orphaned baby bears, cougars, lions, and other rescues, her work requires many long days, seven days each week. So, this safari trip was many years in the planning for her family.

Before she left, she asked me if I wanted any reference pictures. Even though Serena is an excellent photographer, I said there was no way I would impose on her family trip with a laundry list of animal photos.

There are very few elephants in captivity anymore in the western world. Because of their intelligence, family dynamic, social structure, and other requirements zoos can’t meet, elephants don’t do well in isolation, so most reputable zoos don’t keep them anymore, a policy I fully support. Instead, many former zoo elephants have been surrendered to sanctuaries to live out their lives in a herd and in peace.

As it’s unlikely I’ll be going on safari anytime soon, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to take my own elephant reference photos soon.

Since Serena pressed me on it, I confessed that I really needed that specific reference. I told her I’d take whatever she gave me, but she asked for my ideal photo, just in case she had the opportunity.

In a perfect world, I wanted a ¾ view; trunk held up to reveal an open mouth, all so that I had the best chance of painting a happy smiling face.
Serena sent me dozens of photos when she returned, including exactly what I asked for. I was grateful, filed the photos, backed them up online and on portable hard drives, and spent two years painting other animals.

This happens a lot. On rare occasions, I’ll paint from reference right away, but most of the time, that animal gets added to the list, and I wait until the time feels right. I’ll admit that sometimes, however, it’s more about imposter syndrome.

I knew that the details in the skin texture would be complicated, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to paint what I saw in my head. This is familiar ground. Regardless of how many years I’ve been doing this, the thousands of editorial cartoons I’ve drawn and more than a hundred whimsical wildlife and commission pieces, I still get nervous before every painting. It just never goes away.

Eventually, I push through it, and about halfway through a piece, I realize I’m enjoying myself.

There are two reasons I finally got off my ass to paint this elephant. First, Mike from Pacific Music & Art is putting together my 2023 calendar, and in the most supportive and encouraging way, he pushed me to get the elephant done. While I’m paraphrasing, he said something like, “stop talking about it, and just paint it, already.”
Secondly, the full-size four-day Calgary Expo will return at the end of next month. I’ve had my booth booked and purchased for three years. While I’ve painted many new pieces since the last Expo, I want that elephant in my booth.

Every year, the same guy asks if I’ve painted the elephant, and I sheepishly tell him, “Not yet, but maybe next year.”

I don’t know if he’ll be at Expo this year. I don’t know if he’ll even like the elephant I’ve painted. But if he asks if I’ve got one, I can finally say, “Yes!”

While it took many hours to get the skin texture and anatomy right, it turns out that it wasn’t especially difficult. I just had to put my ass in the chair, paint a lot of brushstrokes, and enjoy the ride. When I completed it, I was happy with the result.

Right up until I sent it to Serena.

I’ve painted several of the Discovery Wildlife Park critters over the years, so I often give Serena an early look at those, a sneak peek for allowing me so much access to the animals in her care. Since she provided the reference, I extended the same courtesy for this one.

When I sent the finished painting in a text yesterday morning, she said, “I love that you did the injured one.”

Say what now?!

I called her for clarification.

As the reference she took was at an African reserve and sanctuary, Serena pointed out that this particular elephant, the one I used for my primary reference, had the end of his trunk amputated from an injury and that it was shorter than regular length.

She thought she had told me that, and I conceded that she very well might have, but it was two years ago, and it didn’t make it into my long-term memory files. So, I honestly thought it was simply the reference angle that didn’t show the tip of the trunk, and I was okay with it. I didn’t know that the elephant itself had that part of the trunk removed. And for some reason, I just didn’t see it.

So, as much as she liked the injured elephant because she looks after orphans and rescues, I explained that I had to paint a fully intact animal for a production piece, even in my whimsical style. So, I looked through the other elephant pictures she sent, found some ‘end of trunk’ reference, and got to work repairing the mistake.
I sent a couple of changes to Serena, and she helped me get it right. She felt bad for having to tell me about it after I’d finished the painting, but I told her better than after I had bought dozens of prints, and coasters, trivets, magnets, and other licensed merchandise had gone into production.

Correcting the mistake added more than an hour of extra painting to the piece, but I’m much happier with the finished result.

I can’t wait to see it in print.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Eagles and Reality TV

Late last month, a subscriber sent me a link to a live cam of a bald eagle nest on Big Bear Lake, California. She has a cabin on this lake.

These cams exist all over the place; there’s one of an osprey nest just down the road from me. I took to this one because of the story of the breeding pair, Jackie and Shadow, and the beautiful scenery in which they live. The image quality and camera placement is fantastic; it switches to infrared at night, providing a clear image without disturbing the eagles. Their nest is 145 feet high in a Jeffrey Pine Tree.
I’ve been checking in on them every day, sometimes more than once, as it lets me scan backward several hours to see if I missed anything good. I only end up watching a few minutes each time, and I’ll admit to preferring the scenes where both eagles are in the nest, which is usually only a minute or two.
Jackie laid her eggs in January, and ‘pip watch’ begins next week. Jackie and Shadow haven’t had a successful clutch the last couple of seasons, so hopefully, they will this year. But, unfortunately, nature can be pretty brutal, and life isn’t as rosy and fairy tale as we’d like to imagine. There’s no guarantee that these eggs will produce healthy offspring that survive to leave the nest, between predators, the elements, and all that can go wrong. That makes those that do even more of a wonder.

The information shared on this camera space by Friends of Big Bear Valley is extensive, as is the commentary in the sidebar chat. While I’ve not participated in that conversation, I’ve learned a lot from reading through it.

I’ve enjoyed watching the two eagles switch off incubating the eggs so the other can go eat, fending off marauding ravens, and interacting with each other. The chatter between them when one flies in is amusing and fascinating. That tree also gets rocking when the Santa Ana winds blow over the lake. A snowstorm blew in fast and heavy last week, and while the eagles certainly didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, they handled it well.

I didn’t see them complaining about it on their phones, at least.

 


© Patrick LaMontagne

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Business and Pleasure

While driving to Calgary the other day, I realized that I hadn’t left the mountains since October. Between avoiding the holidays, COVID restrictions, and a cold snap, there wasn’t any reason to leave the Bow Valley.

After placing our Costco orders online the past couple of years, I actually set foot in one. Although I had a small list, it was quiet, so I enjoyed browsing the aisles for stuff I didn’t need. But I stuck to the list, so that’s impressive.

After leaving Costco on Stoney Trail, I drove down Beddington Trail and was surprised to see a Bald Eagle perched on a lamp post. As that’s a rarity for me around here, I parked in a residential area and walked back to take some pictures.
It was a scraggly-looking thing with uneven plumage—likely a juvenile, younger than five years old as the head feathers hadn’t yet turned white. Unfortunately, the pics aren’t anything I can use for reference, but it was still fun to see.

The real reason for the drive into Calgary was to drop off an order of prints at The Calgary Zoo. I’m pleased to announce that a selection of my vinyl stickers is now available in the Gift Shop, where I couldn’t help but be aware of many of my funny-looking animals staring back at me.
From my own prints on several shelves, plus coffee mugs, art cards, and calendars from Pacific Music and Art to T-shirts and hoodies from Harlequin Nature Graphics. Two of the staff excitedly gushed over the stickers, and a couple of prints neither had seen. That never gets old.

Of course, any visit to the zoo would be incomplete without a couple of hours taking reference photos. It was a cool, quiet day, above zero, not too windy, and overcast, making for great light. I’ve already given the photos the first pass, pleased that I got some excellent reference for another giraffe painting and a chameleon. As the gorillas were outside when I arrived at their enclosure, I took several photos I can paint from.

The best score of the  visit was a very accommodating snow leopard. I couldn’t have posed her (I think) better, as she sat in perfect light, looking right at me several times. Even her expression was already leaning toward cool and whimsical. But, of course, that could just be how I see animal faces, which is a good thing in my line of work.

I’ve already painted a snow leopard, and it’s a popular print, currently on re-order in fact. But I’m happy to paint another. After all, I’ve painted more than a dozen bears and you can’t stop me from painting more, especially a particular favorite.
It was a pleasant excursion away from my desk and office, but I also realized how much more of a hermit I’ve become the past couple of years. Even though the roads were good, traffic was light, and I wasn’t around that many people, I’m happy to be back at my Wacom display alone this morning, continuing a painting of a happy, playful dog.

Cheers,
Patrick

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One More

One of the reasons I enjoy taking my own reference photos for paintings is that the animals often surprise me.

When I began painting these critters, before I took my own photos, I’d often have a pose in mind, and I’d go looking for it on the internet. I’d eventually find something I liked, but it would often look similar to the pose I used for a previous painting of a different animal.

If it were a stock photo, I’d pay the licensing fee for reference. Failing that, I’d contact the photographer, arrange for a high-res image and pay or barter for the use.

Australian photographer Scott Portelli allowed me to use his underwater photo for my Humpback Whale painting in exchange for a rolled canvas of the finished piece. Moose Peterson allowed the use of several of his animal images in exchange for my drawing a caricature of him and a business partner for a course they taught. We already had a connection through Photoshop World, so he was familiar with my work.

I paid a U.S. park warden $100 for his photo I found online for my first Wolf painting. He confessed surprise at my offering to pay since that image had been stolen and published illegally more times than he could count.

The problem with online reference photos is that I know that no matter what I find, there’s a good chance another artist has used the same image. Certainly, I’ll paint it with my spin and style, and it won’t look the same as another artist’s work, but it will undoubtedly share similarities.

By taking my own photos, it stands a better chance of being unique.

On a recent visit to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, I had another opportunity to take photos of their black bears during their presentation to the public. As I’ve known the keepers and staff for several years, they allow me into the large enclosures with them, though I’m behind a hot-wire. It’s an electric fence about a foot off the ground that the animals avoid, for obvious reasons. The keepers, however, interact up close and personal with the bears.

These animals are all orphans and rescues who came to the facility under conditions prohibiting their release into the wild. Many of them have been raised here since they were very young. They receive exemplary care and clearly have an affectionate relationship with their caregivers.

The keepers use the bear presentations each day to educate the public about wildlife. They teach how to be bear-aware while hiking, what to do if you encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild, how to use bear spray, and keep a clean campsite so that the local fauna doesn’t learn to associate people with food.

The hope is that by educating the public, fewer orphans will end up in captivity, remaining in the wild where they belong.

One of those rescues is a big black bear named Gruff. With a genial and gentle personality, he has been hand-raised at the park since he was a cub.

Sadly, Gruff had a rough start in life. A hunter poached his mother in the Grande Prairie area, and people passed the frightened little cub from home to home.

Fish and Wildlife eventually confiscated the sick and frightened cub, and my friend Serena, the head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, was asked if she could take him.

He was malnourished, in shock from his ordeal, and sick from untreated pneumonia that has since resulted in permanent left lung damage. Because he was in such bad shape, Serena didn’t know if she could save him. But with proper food, medication, round-the-clock care and a lot of patience, Gruff has grown into one of the most beautiful black bears you could ever see.

He is currently eight years old and 709 pounds at his last weigh-in.

I’ve painted Gruff several times, and I expect I’ll paint him again as I enjoy his expressions and antics. The bond between him and the keepers is evident, and he never fails to put a smile on my face.
While visiting in June, I was happily snapping pics of Gruff when he made a clumsy attempt to sit up from lying on his back. He looked right at me, with his tongue out, and immediately reminded me of a large guy trying to do a sit-up. With the camera on rapid-fire, I got quite a few shots of this funny situation and was delighted at the photos when I got home.

As none of them were quite right on their own, I used three different reference pics for this piece. One had the best head position, another one revealed a better overall pose and the third, while a bit out of focus, had some lighting I liked.

Could I have found these shots online, taken by another photographer? Unlikely. Would I have even thought to have looked for images like this? Not a chance.

I could list dozens of paintings I’ve created that have been inspired by situations and experiences I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s why taking the photos is as much a part of the finished pieces as the paintings themselves. Each of them has a story and conjures up fun memories.

Whether it’s a pose, lighting, or simply a look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered future paintings while sorting through photos.

When I came across the photos of Gruff, looking like he was trying to get in shape, there was no doubt of a painting. But, before I put the first brush stroke on the digital canvas, I already knew that I would call it ‘One More.’

I imagine it 10 feet high on the wall of a gym somewhere.

Here’s a high speed video of ‘One More’, from start to finish. Prints of this piece are available NOW in the store.
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© Patrick LaMontagne

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Birds of Prey on Display

This past Thursday, I drove the four hours down to Coaldale, Alberta, to visit the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre before they close for the season. While the foundation operates all year long, rescuing and rehabilitating different species of owls, eagles, and hawks, the centre is open to the public between May and the end of August.

I first met Colin Weir and his daughter Aimee here in Canmore in 2017. They had brought a handful of their ambassador owls and a golden eagle named Sarah to the Town of Canmore’s WILD event at the Civic Centre.
The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation began in 1982 when there weren’t any wildlife rescue endeavours operating in Western Canada. Colin has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing birds of prey back into the wild for almost forty years. Birds with permanent injuries or those that can’t be released have been given homes at the centre, a beautiful spot in southern Alberta, right in the middle of a reclaimed wetlands area.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know Colin and can’t accurately convey my respect and admiration for his dedication and commitment to wildlife conservation. The facility receives no government subsidies, and they rely solely on financial donations from regular people and some generous corporate sponsors like Fortis Alberta.

Anytime a facility relies on government funding, they risk having that lifeline cut or eliminated with each election or political party whim, which would continually put the wildlife at risk. Unfortunately, politicians are usually more concerned with the optics of a ribbon-cutting than a long-term vision for wildlife conservation.
As with any non-profit operation, caring for the birds is only half the battle, and it’s a never-ending quest to raise enough funds and resources. To attract people to the centre, it must be safe, appealing, and well-maintained, a feat they have managed well. The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre is an attractive, professional, and welcoming facility. All the enclosures, aviaries and structures are top-notch, serving as housing and rehab areas for the birds and an educational facility for the public.

If somebody hits a great horned owl with their truck in the middle of the night, they’ll often call Colin. Sometimes he’s simply a knowledgeable, helpful voice on the phone, but his efforts are the difference between life and death for the unfortunate bird on many other occasions. If somebody can’t deliver the bird to the centre, he often must retrieve it, which can mean hours on the road, all year long.
I’ve wanted to get down to the centre more than once this summer, but as with all things these past many months, best intentions haven’t always aligned with feasibility. Plagued with long stretches of record-breaking heat, a thick choking blanket of wildfire smoke for weeks on end and the uncertainty of changing pandemic restrictions, this summer has been challenging. Add long hours in the office working to diversify my business, and I haven’t been able to get away.

With the weather changing for the better, some welcome rain and reduced smoke, I had to prioritize the trip before their season ends.

I arrived in Coaldale around noon and spent the afternoon taking photos and chatting with the knowledgeable staff. Colin and I had an excellent long talk catching up, which I greatly appreciated, as he doesn’t have much free time. One of the biggest challenges this year is that his phone is constantly ringing with people asking if the centre is open (it is) and if there are any COVID restrictions (there aren’t). It’s an open-air outdoor facility, ideal for a natural escape, with plenty of room to keep a respectful distance. Colin takes those calls with his typical grace and friendly nature, but it must be frustrating sometimes, especially when they interrupt his long list of other duties.

It’s a long drive to get there, so even though I took plenty of photos on Thursday, I stayed the night and returned the following morning to get more pics of their flight training.
Over two days, I watched them fly a mature bald eagle, a juvenile bald eagle, and two red-tailed hawks. Bald eagles don’t get their full head of white feathers until four or five years old. One of the staff suggested on the second morning that I lie down on the ‘runway’ to take some head-on shots of the red-tailed hawk. To take advantage of a cushion of air just above the ground, the birds drop down low when they’re flying back and forth, only climbing again at the end.

From my spot on the grass, I was right in the hawk’s path, which allowed me to get some exciting photos. The trainer told me my presence was inconsequential and wouldn’t be a distraction. The bird’s primary focus was the piece of chicken held in a gloved hand above and behind me.
I could write a few thousand more words on their important work and all I learn whenever I visit the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre. The staff share some fascinating and amusing stories during the flight training presentation and are always available for questions from visitors. Nothing is off-limits, and they’re more than willing to talk about the challenges they face each day while caring for these birds.


It’s hard to describe the thrill of close-up visits with weeks-old snowy owl chicks and burrowing owls (above respectively), or to hold a great horned owl in a gloved hand, to feel the feathers of a golden eagle and hear their calls and cries. These opportunities are open to all visitors to the centre.
I’ve painted several eagles and owls and will likely paint more in the future. A few years ago, I painted Sarah, one of the longest residents, seen here with Colin Weir. Sarah is a beautiful golden eagle that Colin has raised since the 80s. She is a healthy 37 years old, a commanding presence, but gentle enough that children can pet her, under Colin’s supervision, of course.

While I enjoy seeing all the birds, and I take plenty of photos of each species, I’ll admit that my primary goal this time around was to get reference of a red-tailed hawk. I’ve wanted to paint one for many years. They’re a common sight around Alberta, often seen on fenceposts along rural roads or highways. However, whenever I’ve spotted one, it’s been in heavy traffic or on a road without a shoulder, and it was unsafe to stop my car.

I took over 2400 shots this week and spent a few hours Saturday morning sorting through them. As is often the case, most of those shots end up being useless to me, either from poor lighting or focus or uninspiring captures. I whittled them down to around 300 and will likely discard two-thirds of those of a second pass. This still leaves me with plenty of ‘keepers,’ and I was happy to discover dozens of reference photos for paintings among them.
Best of all, I finally have more than enough shots of a red-tailed hawk, so many good ones that I’ll have a hard time deciding which to use. Or maybe I’ll have to paint more than one. It’s a good problem to have. Feathers are much harder to paint than fur, especially when intricate patterns are involved, so don’t expect a painting anytime soon. It’ll likely be a winter project, but one I’m eager to start.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre is open until Labour Day, and if you’re looking for one last summer southern Alberta getaway, or you find yourself on a road trip in that part of the province, it’s well worth a visit.

However, if that’s not in the cards, please visit their website, look at the great work they do for wildlife conservation, and consider donating. Every contribution helps, and your support is greatly appreciated.

Cheers,
Patrick

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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