Friday, 1 May 2015

An Interview With Russell Thomas

Russell Thomas has been a part of the Wood Buffalo Community since 1996. He is a popular blogger, writer, and maintains a powerful following on social media. He is volunteer and an advocate for the arts. He assisted in the creation of interPLAY, a popular summer theatre festival that Russell managed and grew until it led to the creation of Events Wood Buffalo. He has been everything from a radio DJ to a Municipal Councilor but the one title that defines Russell the most is, Artist.

Russell’s artistic talents stretch from the visual arts to theatre. Well known for his performances as an actor on the Keyano Theatre stage he has recently move behind the scenes directing the Odd Couple, set to open on May 14th. Russell is also a talented painter creating memorable and heart touching portraits from celebrities to everyday people. His most recent painting of Dr. Clark was auctioned off at the I Love Oil Sands banquet in support of HALOS, a local charity, to Robert Vargo for $10,000 who then donated the painting to Dr. Clark School.

Culture Coordinator Michael Beamish sat down with Russell and interviewed him about his art, life and love of community theatre.

Michael Beamish: Can you describe yourself as an artist using three words?

Russell Thomas: Colourful, connective and context.

MB: Why context?

RT: I think that is what is different in what I am doing. The paintings I do all have context in terms of time, relationship, circumstance. Most of them do, not all of them, most of them. The ones of everyday people there is always a story. A context, a death, dying, marriage, love, there is something. When you add that context, these marvelous amazing things happen. It’s deeper than a painting its interpreting life, chronicling life in a different way

MB: So when you know the context of the story or the story of the person you are painting, how does that impact your work?

RT: It impacts it a lot. For example this one time I painted a local resident holding a dog in a hospital room. His son had asked me to paint it. He specifically wanted his father in a hospital gown holding this dog. I said, “Are you sure? You don’t want him in a tuxedo or anything?” Because his dad was a ballroom dancer. He said, “No I want it like that”. So I did the piece and I knew his father, we have some shared history together. He was not well and was not expected to make it. So that was the context as I understood it. I found out after the painting was
done, my presumption was that dog was his Father’s dog and I saw the connection between the dog and him. I could see it and I felt it through the whole process of painting the picture. Then I found out it wasn’t his dog, in fact his son had asked him is there anything I can do special for you. He could of asked for anything and instead he said I would like to hold a puppy. I haven’t held a puppy since I was a boy. And so the son put it on Facebook that he needed to borrow somebody’s puppy. He got tons of requests and offers. He pick a puppy and smuggled it into the hospital. His Father got to hold him and that’s the moment I captured in the painting and to this day this painting hangs in his Fathers hospital room within his eyesight where he can see it and remember the puppy. Sometimes paintings have a personal connection. I knew the fellow but I also have very strong feelings about my own father. The son who commissioned the painting is about my age so I had deep understanding of what he’s feeling.

MB: How is your dad doing?

RT: My dad is doing really, amazingly well. You know he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and given eight months to live and three or four years later he is doing fine.

MB: So you were in the son’s position?

RT: Totally, it was a pain and hurt that I have never felt before.

MB: What was your childhood like? You are from Saskatchewan?

RT: Yep from a place called Kamsack it was a small town then 2500-3000 people. Grew up in town. I was from a family of farmers but I was a townie. I still have in my box of memories all the drawings I did as a kid. It was mostly drawings but I did a lot of it, constantly. I held on to them.

MB: Has it always been a part of your life?

RT: It has, at some level. I have never, up until quite recently, considered myself a quote on quote artist. But obviously it’s always played a part in my life and my son Ben particularly, I see a lot of myself from an art perspective in Ben. He has a natural gift even more so than I have.

MB: Were you a quiet kid that liked to sit and draw?

RT: You know I don’t think anybody would peg me as a quiet kid even though I think I probably was. I did everything; drama, band, sports. I was a regular prairie kid but I did draw a lot. Now looking back, I am an introvert and that was my way of gaining strength. I would not have interpreted it that way back then but that’s probably what it was. My way of reenergizing.

MB: So was there a person in your life growing up who encouraged you to pursue art and theatre?

RT: I had a couple of cousins that were artistic. My parents were always supportive of anything we wanted to do. You know when you draw something and they frame it and hang it on the wall, that’s always something special. There was always an appreciation for the artistic side of what we did. Theatre was always a part of that and music. Writing less so, writing is something that came later as an art form for me. It was Julie Brown who was the general manager of the theatre at that time who pushed me to write.  I was about to start my new job as the Marketing Manager for the Communications Department at Keyano College. Julie was talking about me with the president and she said, "Oh he’s really good he’s really good but he’s not the best writer but he is really good". Well that just stuck in my craw and I become a very good writer and that’s always in the back of my mind as a piece of inspiration.

MB: Do you have an idol or an artist that inspires you or you look up to?

RT: That’s a great question. Not a specific one. I get excited by artists and art in a way that I didn’t 
before. Ever since this renaissance that happened back in June of last year.

MB: When you started doing your portrait paintings?

RT: Yes. So when this thing really took off, everything changed in terms of how I saw myself and how I saw other artists in terms of art. We were standing in a gallery in Sedona Arizona and there was this large painting of a cactus. That’s all it was, a cactus at sunrise. There was something about it and it was painted in bright colours, similar to what I do but it was a plant not a person. I actually started tearing up I was so moved by it. In talking to the gallery owner it was an aboriginal artists who, very much like me, paints very quickly. I connected so deeply with that piece and other pieces from that same artist. So I find myself drawn to certain kinds of art and even on Instagram I will see people doing things very similar to what I am doing but different. I am so appreciative of it. Even yesterday I was teaching a portrait workshop for a grade six class at Dr. Clark and I could see the seeds of brilliance in a couple of those kids. They were not perfect portraits by any stretch of the imagination but there was some amazing artistry there, So my appreciation level has changed and deepened. There isn’t one thing that inspirers me, I am inspired by a whole lot of things.

MB: So every day you find new inspirations?

RT: Totally, everything from an amazing photograph taken by Erin Stinson to a photographer called Tracy Collins from Fort McMurray who always blows my mind. Kerri Nash, Kerri Nash is one of the most brilliant photographers I think that I have ever seen. There is a guy, a young guy named Paul Swanson who came to town. He was working on a project for his  BFA class and he was the one that took the photo of Jack Avery, the one I painted. He has a gift of composition no fancy tricks or lighting. I get inspired by all kinds of artists.

MB: You said your portrait paintings took off in June of last year, how did that happen?

RT: Sure so everything began for me when I started at the United Way. Days after. I had been through a period of professional uncertainty. I was not sure where I was heading professionally. Then I started with the United Way in June and right around the same time, I can’t remember the exact timing, but it was in June when I did the mural of Elsie Yanick on the shed.  It was on a whim, a sudden thought. My shed had been tagged by a young tagger and I want to do something to cover that up, create something beautiful. The first person who popped in my head was Elsie. I painted her mural then invited the media and Elsie to see it. It ended up on the front page of the Today paper. Justin Trudeau came to visit and saw it. He took a picture with it and it became the selfie with Elsie. There was all this positive energy at a time in my life when I really needed it.  

Then I painted Dorothy MacDonald, former Chief of Fort McKay and a mural of my neighbor Norm shortly after that but then I started doing smaller pieces on whatever sub straight I could find. I had no canvases so I just used whatever. I used a piece of pine and album covers for the first couple things I painted.Phil Meagher’s portrait was painted on a record jacket. Then I finally bought my first canvas and painted Bob Dylan. I started working with canvas. Somewhere in that period of time there was a significant shift where all of a sudden I felt comfortable thinking and calling myself an Artist. It was in the summer of last year. I was in a gallery in Black Diamond and I realized that the stuff I was doing could actually be in a gallery too. I felt that. I began to see myself differently and then I crossed that bridge of selling stuff. Up to that point I wasn’t comfortable selling my work. I would just give my stuff away. I realized that there is an interest in what I was doing and I began selling pieces one after another. Painting is a fun activity, it’s good for my health and one day when I retire it might be a really good retirement income. So I promised myself that I wouldn’t give it up or walk away from it.  

Previously I went through painting periods, watercolour portraits but then I would get busy and life would slip away on me and I would not paint for eight or ten months. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that. I set myself a target that I would paint at least one portrait a week and it ended up becoming three or four a week. I’ve painted 70 or 80 portraits since that time. It’s just part of what I need to feel healthy and balanced. There is certainly no end of interest in what I am doing. Every painting that’s slightly different generates new interest. If all of a sudden I paint a dog its “oh my-gosh you do dogs”. There is one coming out that hasn’t been released yet of a pretty prominent sports figure, local sports figure that I know is just going to generate even more interest. All of a sudden people want to buy an artistic interpretation of real people. It is exciting for me that there is an interest in my work.

MB: You are the social media guru of Fort McMurray. How have you married social media with your art and how has that effected your work?

RT: When I painted Kurt Cobain I posted it for the first time on the Fort McMurray Everything Goes page and the response was unbelievable. One person said you need to start a Facebook page because up until that point it was just on my personal Facebook page so if people were not connected to me it was hard for them to get to my stuff. I have a website but nobody knows where that website is. Of all people I should have known that I should have created a Facebook page for my own work. I should have done that at the start but I didn’t. So when I started a Facebook page for my art within 24 hours it had 500 likes.

MB: Wow.

RT: Because I have a very wide network on social media it gives me a platform for sharing stories. There is one painting I did of Bruno who is a homeless guy from when I was growing up that I shared online and it organically took off in east central Saskatchewan. Thousands and thousands of people began communicating and talking about this guys that had died a long time ago. It was through social media that it happened. The power is in other people sharing. My most recent portrait of Luke and Memphis is very different than anything I have done. It still has bright colours but the composition and the emotional contact of that picture is different. I posted Luke and Memphis on the Fort McMurray Everything Goes page and it received a 1000 likes. That is a huge amount of people that have never seen my work. Sometimes its timing. When I did the first Robin Williams, that one everyone remembers. They don’t remember who the artist was but they remember the painting because of what had happened and the timing of it. Every painting has a story and that one was a classic example. I am a storyteller and I was able to tell that story both in short form, in a tweet or a Facebook post, and in long form on my blog. People connect with stories and the story with Robin Williams. I had no idea he died it was Dylan, my eldest son, who told me he had died. Dylan was partly named because of Robin Williams and his character in Patch Adams. I painted that picture that same night, like hours after he had died. I paint quickly when the emotional part of something is still there

MB: So for you it’s very much about the emotional connection you have with the work. Do you have to feel the emotion before you paint?

RT: No not necessarily. It’s not emotion but contexts is important. When Leonard Nimoy died I painted him the same day. I had no emotional connection to Leonard Nimoy but I know a lot of people that did. In a way it’s almost like a journalistic approach. This person has died, I am going to capture a piece of history in the moment. When I painted Guy Boutilier, Guy and I were political rivalries, but I painted Guy from a place of honor. It is a slice of Fort McMurray history.

MB: So when you paint a painting it’s really the
emotions of the audience that you are tapping into and that’s the context.

RT: And the gift to me is when I get stories of the impact. Luke and Memphis, when Luke got that painting he wept openly. When I painted a fellow named Hobb, his wife looked at that painting and cried for two hours. I mean it’s not always sad but there is this emotional. When I painted Joey D, I had a number of comments from people who said, “You have no idea what this meant in terms of us being able to deal with this loss”. To be the facilitator of that, I feel incredibly honored that I get to do this. It’s not something I take lightly. I take it very seriously and there are times when I drop everything to do a painting.

MB: You have been a huge part of the theater community for a long time well since you moved here in-

RT: ’96.

MB: Currently you are directing The Odd Couple, how many shows have you directed?

RT: You know, I haven’t directed a lot here but I directed more when I was younger. I’ve directed in Stettler, Drumheller, Qualicum Beach, and Saskatoon. I felt like a fish out of water at the first rehearsal to be completely honest. It has been a long time since I had done it. As we have gone along its come back to me and it’s been fun to see the growth of the play and the actors. I think this is one of the strongest comedic ensembles Keyano Theatre has ever had. It’s a dream cast in a lot of ways and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the audience.

MB: In your long history with Keyano Theatre, do you have a favorite show that you have performed in?

RT: Wow, that’s a hard question.

MB: How about a favorite moment from a Keyano show?

RT: I should never call it a favorite moment but it was a moment, a story I told dozens of times. I was performing in Death of a Salesman, it was closing night about, forty minutes into that very long show and I fell into the wings. I continued to do the rest of the show. I found out the next day I split my Achilles tendon. There are many moments, Christmas Carole was very special for me, as was Hometown the Musical, and Les Miserables. There were moments in Les Miserables that my heart just soared with the actors performances.The Christmas Carole was really really special for me. It was difficult. It was a very challenging role for me. Probably more challenging than anything I have ever done and to be able to do that with my youngest son Ben, yeah, those are some really proud moments.

MB: What has community theatre meant to you as a person and in your life?

RT: Keyano is the reason I am here and not a lot of people know that. I was on a tour of the community when I was being courted for the radio job and up until that point no job had ever involved a significant interview process. There was a panel and a tour. Kelly Boyd took me to Keyano Theatre because back in that day it was the jewel of the community. Still is in many ways but at that time it was one of the things everybody showed people on tours. In that moment I knew I had to accept that job if it was offered to me because that was the most beautiful, stunning space that I had ever seen. The gift of being able to engage with theatre artists of every kind over many years has been invaluable to me. We can never take it for granted, Keyano Theatre something we can never lose, no matter what happens to the economy. The value to the economy of what happens at Keyano Theatre is so important. We’ve seen it particularly in the last three years, Hometown, Les Miserable, Chicago, we’ve seen this re-renaissance of interest in the theatre. We see more people coming out to auditions than ever before. We have an abundance of men which we have never had before and people are being more deeply connected to community theatre and the experience of doing something collectively. There is such value to that. The quality, the professionals we get to learn from I just don’t think there is anything that compares in Alberta. In terms of a model that works. It really is something that needs to be funded, it needs to be supported, and celebrated on so many levels. Really we just have just tapped the surface.

MB: Both of your sons are involved in theatre. Les Miserable you performed with both your sons. Ben is also a visual artist.

RT: Yeah Ben is a gifted artist to be honest. He has a gift. I will never forget we were driving on a family holiday and he decided to sketch the Eiffel Tower in the car. You know it’s hard to draw in a car it’s bumpy but that drawing of the Eiffel Tower is unbelievable. Dylan has found a great love for theatre. Having grown up with Cerebral Palsy it has been a bit of a struggle for him to figure out where his place is in life but somehow he has found this connection to theatre, theatre people and the process of doing it. He loves it. He is off today for the Athabasca Regionals and he was up at the crack of dawn ready to go. He is very motivated. Dylan was born of the theatre. His mother went into labor in the theatre when I was on stage. During Les Miserable he had his fifteenth birthday. Here he is in a play with his father and his brother in thetheatre he started his life in, celebrating his birthday fifteen years later, it was an unbelievably magical moment. I will never forget ever that moment when the music director started plunking Happy Birthday on the piano and the 50 member cast started singing Happy Birthday in five part harmony, organically, with no practice and then they gave him this 50 person hug and the tears, it was incredible powerful. To be in that show, which I think most people would say that was the most exquisite thing they have seen on that stage. There has been a lot of shows over the years but that one topped them all in terms of power. It was amazing. Both Dylan and Ben love it, both of them.  Ben is a natural performer, he did great in Christmas Carole, and he stole the show in a lot of ways.

MB: Anyone that has been at a Keyano show knows that half the fun is being backstage because it can be a fun rowdy time. Do you have a favorite backstage story?

RT: You know I am not one of those guys because I am a creature of habit so I get into a pattern in backstage which to me is really important and just as fun but I am quite serious in terms of my approach to theater. There could be chaos around me, people goofing off and playing around but I get really focused and that’s just what I do. But I still enjoy it tremendously. So those moments become part of the journey. Every show is slightly different and there’s always the trying to figure out what your track through the experience is going to be. A number of us I think are like that. I know I am not alone, there is a number of performers that that’s what they relish is establishing ok where am I, what part of stage am I coming in, what time do I put my makeup on, what time do I do my warm up, what do I do with my warm up.

MB: Do you have a ritual.

RT: Absolutely.

MB: What is your ritual?
RT: Well I find my spot in the warm up. Typically its stage left front of the stage, ill bump somebody out of my way. I find my spot and that’s where I do my warm up from, all the time. I will establish sort of the timing of everything from when I put on makeup to when I put on a piece of clothing, through the entire experience. Through that I get comfort and confidence I guess. I am like a hockey player, Ken Dryden used to do certain things, Gretzky used to do certain things he used to put baby powder on his stick to make his passes softer, yeah I have those.

MB: Does it change with each character?

RT: It changes sure it does, every time it changes. What I do for a warm up changes. Farnsworth, I can kind of remember what my warm up was because there was different lines that I would say as part of my own vocal warm up. Other parts perhaps had more of a physical warm up. It changes every time but there is always sort of a pattern and the pattern is established and stays the same through the run. I get a little bit antsy if something happens to interrupt my process. Can be a bit of a pre-Madonna that way.

MB: You have built your life in Fort Murray and everyone that knows you knows that you are very much connected to this community and you are a huge part of this community. You have been everything from radio host, to marketing, to a Municipal Councilor, to an actor, an artist, you seem to juggle so many roles at once. I am curious how do you as a person find balance?

RT: People may think, well how the hell do you do all that stuff, when I really do have great balance. I paint in my yard in a low stress environment listening to good music within a stone throws away from my family. I write early in the morning, generally speaking, before anybody wakes up. I have a great day job at the United Way that gives me incredible flexibility and allows me to build a better community. I have contracts I do that again serve my passion for the arts, communication, and storytelling. I feel that today like I have the best collection of activities in the world.

If you would like to check out Russell’s paintings please visit his Facebook page . To learn more about Russell and his life subscribe to his daily blog, Come see Russell’s latest show, The Odd Couple, opening May 14th at the Keyano Recital Theatre. For more information or tickets please visit

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