The first few months of COVID gave Russell Thomas an opportunity to visit his childhood home in Kamsack. It inspired the Okotoks, Alta. based artist to explore some local landmarks through his wild colour portraiture.
After years serving as a municipal councillor in Fort McMurray, Alta., Thomas lost an election and knew that his professional career going in the wrong direction. He was working for the local college at the time and he knew that a change was imminent. He spent just 24 hours unemployed when he was given a job working with the United Way and just days later began this painting journey.
“I started painting 6.5 years ago. I was 47 years old when I started painting. By the age of 50, I started painting full time,” said Thomas.
“All of a sudden I felt like I was in a better place. I never had any dreams or aspirations of being an artist. I’ve always dabbled. Working for the United Way, it helped weave philanthropy into my art and all of a sudden, because there was an interest in my art, I was able to raise a lot of money for community projects.”
Thomas began to use his art to fundraise for various charities and non-profits including his own special interest in a charity in Cambodia where he is personally involved as a board member.
“I was painting in front of large audiences and my work would get auctioned off for really great projects. I was raising tens of thousands of dollars,” said Thomas. The money he raised went to the Vancouver Autism Network through the Vancouver Canucks. He was doing so well that he and his wife went on to purchase their dream property in the Okotoks area just over a year ago.
“We have two buildings on the property. It is a studio with an artist’s loft and we have an Airbnb where we host artists to come and stay with us and paint with us,” said Thomas. “It’s a dream we always had and it came true and things turned out really great.”
Thomas said that he has become known for his colour paintings.
“I use a lot of interesting colour in portraiture and landscapes. I fell into this style and anyone who follows me will notice it right away. There is the odd time where I work in black and white. There is a coffee shop here that was designed in a black and white theme and I did some paintings for them. I do quite a bit of memorial type portraits, there’s always an interesting style that emerges. Some artists do really life-like paintings but that’s not my style. I like to use colours that are not what you’d expect. People seem to enjoy it.”
It had been several years since Thomas and his wife had returned to visit his parents at his childhood home in Kamsack. Busy with the change in his lifestyle, Thomas became involved in establishing his art career and this summer made the trip to Kamsack to reconnect with his parents.
“They are still living in the home I grew up in. It’s nice to be back. I took a lot of pictures. I’ve always been inspired by Kamsack and the role that it plays in my life. There are a number of paintings that have been done about Kamsack,” said Thomas.
“Just the other day I painted the water tower. It is so iconic in Kamsack. Everybody knows about the water tower. I always wondered what that thing was for. I googled it while I was in Kamsack and I feel much more informed now.”
Thomas made the trip in the beginning of October, stating that it’s a beautiful time of year to be back.
"We hadn’t been able to come home, I wanted to see my parents. Traditionally, we try to come back once a year but it had been at least a couple of years. It’s always interesting to see how things slowly evolve and change, such as going to my former elementary school which is now a field. To stand where there used to be a school and reflect on that, it’s interesting when you’ve been away for a while and remember. It’s what Kamsack is to us. It’s the old various stores on main street. I always come back with camera in hand not knowing what might emerge of a painting down the road.”
Kamsack has been an inspiration to Thomas. He has painted the old Doukhobor prayer house south of town and did a portrait of Percy Goodland.
“He was a First World War veteran who lived about a block from where I grew up. He was the guy that ran the candy store when we were kids. He was very involved in the cub scouts, one of those real Kamsack legends. We called the candy shop Percy’s but at one time it might have been a movie theatre in town.”
“I’m making myself sound old to know First World War vets but he was a good guy. I had cousins who were from the big city, they would come from Montreal. They still talk about the home made root beer that they got at Percy’s. They never forget that.”
The portrait of Percy Goodland was donated to the Kamsack Power House Museum.
“The elevator that I painted, I didn’t know the back story of it. It was two blocks from my house. I found out that it was purchased by a local farmer which is why it has the LTS farms on it. I had no idea about any of that before doing that painting.”
He is learning about the history around his childhood home through his painting, while exploring other parts of the world.
“I enjoy the act of painting. It’s now my job, my work, but the interesting thing is when I need a break from my work, I get commissioned to do specific things but I am quite happy painting something that inspires me. My work is also my pleasure and that’s surprising. I’m really grateful for it because it’s something that travels well. This particular pursuit travels well. It’s easy to pack up your paints and travel.”
Before COVID hit Cambodia, Thomas was planning to travel with his painting.
“It’s such a joyful thing to do. It’s fulfilling to think that these paintings I’ve created are literally all over the world.”
He says his painting was not a planned thing and that he started way later in life than normal artists do but it’s turned out to be something he enjoys doing.
“I do it every day. I have built up a fan following that reaches across the country and around the world. It was by accident and I am so grateful to be able to do this every day.”