Posted January 6th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Portrait of Alan Doyle
I consider the daily editorial cartoons to be my day job, but in recent years, the whimsical wildlife portraits have become that as well, which is a little sad since I never wanted those to feel like work. While it’s great that people like my painted animals, that the prints sell well in zoos and galleries and I’m finding licensing opportunities, that part of my work used to be the escape. Now, not so much.
I’ve been quite candid recently revealing that I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety, a direct consequence of years living with OCD. While people most often associate that with germophobia and checking things, 95% of my particular version is not visible to other people. While I’ve no intention of going down that road in great depth in this post, I’ll just say that these past few weeks have been the most difficult of my life. It is my nature to want this fixed NOW so that I can move on and get back to normal, whatever that is. Apparently it doesn’t work that way and I must be patient. This will be a long road back and I have to stop thinking of it as a destination and simply as something I need to learn to live with.
While I’m not anywhere near there at present, I am moving in the right direction. I’ve found a therapist who understands OCD better than any I’ve spoken to before, and while I haven’t ruled it out, we’ve agreed that medication is a last resort for me and doesn’t look to be necessary at this time as other tools are producing results.
This experience, however, has granted me some much needed perspective. I’ve been working too hard when I haven’t had to. I’ve made it all about becoming more successful and producing more work at the expense of having a life. While I’ve had wake-up calls before, this has been more profound and frightening than any that have come before.
Artists. We’re such drama queens.
In hindsight, it seems I look to portraits of people as island escapes when the seas get too rough. I was in a similar frame of mind when I painted Martin Sheen a few years ago.
I’ve wanted to paint Alan Doyle for a year or two, but just kept putting it off for the work and the deadlines. With workmen currently in the house installing new floors, my office taking up part of the kitchen and not being able to count on any routine right now, this painting was a necessary diversion.
My buddy Darrel and I went to see Doyle play in Calgary a few years ago when he was touring with his first solo album, ‘Boy on Bridge.’ It was a real treat because the tour was playing small venues across Canada and we ended up at a front row table at the Ironwood Stage and Grill in Inglewood. Had we wanted to, we could have put our feet up on the floor level stage.
It was the type of venue where you’d expect to see up and comers before they’re well known. Had Doyle been touring with his band, Great Big Sea, the venue would have been much larger and when he came through Calgary again with his second solo album ‘So Let’s Go,’ he moved up to the Jubilee Auditorium.
I’ve long been a fan of Great Big Sea, but to be honest, I like Doyle’s solo albums better and hope they’re just the first of many. He’s playing with some great musicians and that experience at the Ironwood felt like a special opportunity, reminding me of the days when Darrel and I used to hang out at pubs in Red Deer more than twenty-five years ago, listening to live music.
It occurs to me that perhaps I might paint some more Canadians this year, musicians, actors or average folks like me. Maybe I’ll call it a Canada 150 project, purely to find some joy in painting again, and an escape from the work. I won’t be taking requests or entertaining suggestions, nor will I be putting it on a schedule or trying to get a certain number completed. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.
I could have spent many more hours nitpicking this one, but I deliberately stopped myself before it became an exercise in frustration. It’ll never be perfect, so why bother trying?
I listened to Doyle’s albums and some Great Big Sea while painting this. Here’s a favorite, ‘My Day’ and the video from where I got the reference for this painting.
And if you get a chance to see him live, don’t pass it up.
Posted November 30th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Demons and Dark Corners
When we returned from Germany when I was fifteen, my parents sent my sister and I to the Catholic school rather than the larger generic version across the street because we were used to small schools and I think there were less than 400 in the one I ended up at. Memory is weird, so I can’t say for certain. High School wasn’t so tough for me, although I was a horrible student. I just had no interest in it.
Anyway, good call on their part. Even though I never really fit in throughout my three years there, I never had any problems with bullies or fights or feeling ostracized. Sure there was the odd asshole, but that was the exception, not the rule.
No, those first couple of years, my friends were mostly on the military base, that’s where the majority of my life was. At first, it was just like fitting in anywhere else, but military kids do that well. I was an awkward teenager. Hey, in one form or another, weren’t we all?
My parents were still dragging me to church and while I was an altar boy in Germany and at the beginning in Penhold, I ended up playing the organ for mass, too.
Organ. In church. Here come the pedophile priest jokes.
Funny thing, because we had one of those and he set his sights on me, although I didn’t know it at the time. It felt like a big brother kind of thing. He took me skiing at Canyon ski hill, bike riding, etc. No alarm bells went off or anything, proving we aren’t the same people as teenagers that we are as adults, because all of the clues were right in front of me.
I even remember him making the comment once that I had ‘big hips.’ Tell me that’s not a red alert right there, but I was naïve and stupid. Nothing ever happened that I can recall, however, but my parents later told me that he wanted to take me camping once and they said, “No,” because by then, THEY were seeing the signs and got me away from him.
My parents told me that when they told me No, I was really mad and we had a big fight about it. I don’t remember any of this.
But it turns out he took a couple of other boys camping later on and ended up in jail for it in Ontario. I still wonder, though, because I have a visceral reaction when the subject of child sexual abuse comes up. It triggers my OCD like you wouldn’t believe. Last month, I watched the documentary ‘Call Me Lucky` about Barry Crimmins and his dealing with abuse and it set me off. I spent days in a deep dark funk, some tears, angry and bitter, but no specific memories. It’s still bothering me a month later.
Having spent way too much time researching child sexual abuse over the past couple of weeks, (that’s what my OCD does), I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a clouded memory in there somewhere as many years of my childhood memories are just snapshots and I have some of the symptoms often associated with adult survivors of that shit. The fact that I have long dealt with anxiety disorders, depression, and am quick to anger could be indicators. I don’t like being touched much. When somebody touches my arm or leg, it creeps me out and I startle quite easily.
Although oddly enough, I’m a hugger. Man or woman, I would prefer to hug somebody than shake their hand.
My folks are adamant there wasn’t any indication of ever having been molested, but busy people with busy lives with the best of intentions can’t be everywhere. I hope they’re right. I suspect they’re not. Just a gut feeling.
What much of the research says is that you shouldn’t go looking for an incident if you can’t remember it, because the mind is a funny thing and my overactive imagination might fill in the gaps. Who knows what shit I could dig up and how much of it would be real? Everybody’s got problems and the root of my craziness could be any number of things, from a genetic cocktail gone wrong to too many Stephen King novels at a young age.
So I stopped going to church shortly after, but it actually had nothing to do with the creepy clergyman. When I’d just turned 16, going to church was a chore, especially since I had no real faith in it and am an atheist now. My parents still went but they didn’t fight me on it and I got on with the business of being a teenager and growing up.
It’s been thirty years, pedophile priest dude is dead now and I’m pretty sure he never got his hooks into me. But he sure as hell was grooming me for it, no doubt in my mind about that now.
And at least he didn’t ruin camping for me.
Posted November 29th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A long time ago…
Shonna and I wanted to see the new movie Arrival (highly recommend it) on the big screen, she needed to buy a few things and I realized I could use something new to wear for her upcoming office Christmas party. After we bought a few shirts for me, Shonna went off to shop and I wandered the mall, dealing with my agoraphobia, which in my case is not so much a phobia as it is an aversion to other humans.
While leaving The Bay, however, I came across a small display of Star Wars toys, specifically the new Air Hogs remote control Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and Tie-Fighters. I paused and looked at the boxes while my inner child tugged hard at my jacket asking, “Can we get one, can we get one, can we get one?”
Walking out of the store, I remembered one of my best Christmases, back when I still liked the holiday. We were living in West Germany at the time, it would have been ’81 or ’82, I think. I had the Star Wars figures, the X-Wing Fighter, the land-speeder and some weird pod-like craft that I have never seen in the movies, but the marketing team at Kenner somehow convinced my parents to buy for me.
I played with them all. The lightsabres that slid out from the arms were missing, as were the capes and the little guns, the paint was scarred and scratched from all of the battles I put these poor action figures through. They would fight on the blanket planet, the dresser plant, the under the bed cave, the forest planet out back (a coniferous bush of some sort), the sandbox planet. Those toys really got around and rarely had any time for a drink in the cantina.
The X-Wing Fighter wouldn’t X anymore, because I broke the wings and my Dad had to glue them back together in the closed position. The cockpit lid would come off on a regular basis as would the guns. A battery had broken open inside the compartment, rendering that useless, so it wouldn’t make any noise anymore. And I didn’t care. I still had fun with it.
But the best toy I ever got for Christmas was The Millennium Falcon. It was the original, the one that came in that first printed cardboard box. I never got the tie fighter or the Death Star playset or the carrying case for the figures, but the Millennium Falcon was the prize, that was the best toy in the whole collection.
This was back before everybody had a credit card, so I remember going to the Canex department store with my Mom. She would often head to the back of the store to the little office kiosk, tell me to wait over by a corner so I was out of earshot and couldn’t see anything. All I knew was that she was making a layaway payment, whatever that meant.
Yes Virginia, there once was a time where you had to budget for Christmas, make deposits ahead of time with real money and you didn’t get your stuff until it was paid for.
I loved that toy, and I beat the hell out of it.
By the time I had outgrown those Star Wars toys, the Falcon’s lid had been cracked and glued more than once, the hidden floor compartment cover was missing, as was the little light-sabre training ball, the cockpit hatch regularly came off, none of the electronics worked and it didn’t even stand up straight as one of the legs wouldn’t fully extend.
A number of years ago, my parents opened a box in the basement, found a bunch of that stuff and asked me if they could get rid of it in a garage sale. I told them sure as I had no use for it. I’m not a collector of anything and while I’ll still watch the Star Wars movies, you’ll never find me lining up to see one or dressing up as a character at Comic-Con, but I also don’t judge anyone who does. If you’re having fun and not hurting anybody, do your thing.
Over the years, whenever I see articles or hear people talking about how much those old Star Wars toys are worth, especially if they’ve never been opened, I just shake my head.
When I was looking at the new versions of those toys on Saturday, the ones that actually FLY now, I wasn’t thinking of the investment potential, what they’d be worth in thirty-five years or where I could store them.
I just wanted to play with them.
Posted November 27th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Dabbling in Something New
Before I became self-employed full-time, I was the admin assistant for a physical therapy office here in Canmore. For a lot of the time, it was just my boss Shane (the physiotherapist) and occasionally a massage therapist working there in the small clinic. If I recall, Shane and I are close to the same age, both into technology, and he was well aware of my eventual plans to work for myself, as my business was thriving part-time on the side. I only worked for him for a little over two years, I think, and I often tell people that it was the best last job to have. That was more than ten years ago. I left on good terms and when I run into Shane on the street once in a while, I’m always happy to see him.
Because we talked about our mutual interests a fair bit when it was slow, he knew that I had been looking into 3D modeling. I had no designs on getting into it hard-core, but just enough so that I could occasionally add some 3D to my editorial cartoon work. At the time, I wasn’t painting more than the occasional caricature for a client and definitely no animals. I was still exploring my options, however, dabbling in Flash animation, trying new things to see where my career might take me.
My first year working for Shane, he ended up buying me one of the earlier versions of Carrara by Daz3D as a Christmas bonus. He and I had talked about the software earlier and I remember thinking that was quite thoughtful. Instead of just a cash bonus, he bought me something I wanted but really couldn’t prioritize as a valid expense as I was still very much a struggling artist and it wasn’t cheap.
Shane now has a much larger clinic in another location, with a number of physiotherapists, massage therapists and staff working for him and I’m glad his business is such a success. Both Shonna and I have gone there for physiotherapy since.
I loved working with Carrara and bought a supplement for it called Hexagon, which was a basic modeller. Stuff I created in those programs ended up being part of a number of editorial cartoons. Rather than search for reference or work out difficult perspective on some things, I just built basic models of what I was envisioning, brought them into Photoshop, traced over the bones and moved on from there.
Sometimes, I just built the whole cartoon in 3D, like the chess pieces below. It was a real time saver. It also allowed me to move models around to get better angles, more interesting perspectives and revealed possibilities I might not have considered. Four of those cartoons you can see in this post, all built in 3D, with some drawing in Photoshop after the fact. A few of these were way more complicated than they needed to be, but I was also experimenting.
This Checkmate cartoon was for the Alberta PC Leadership race. Not knowing the outcome, I was able to create three different versions, with the names changed to reflect all three possible winners. When the result was in, I just sent out the correct one you see here.
Over time, I stopped using 3D because I wasn’t interested in doing more than I was doing with it, every new release of the software involved learning new things I didn’t need, and a simple process I enjoyed became a complicated mess as they often fixed software that wasn’t broken. Eventually, the software wasn’t being supported anymore and I just let it go. I had also moved on to doing a lot of painting and the animal work that is now such a big part of my life.
Every so often, however, I’ll start drawing an editorial cartoon and think, “this would be so much easier if I just built a 3D model first.”
That’s been popping up in my head more often the last couple of years. I’ve also thought that it might be fun to build some 3D caricatures of both people and animals. To be honest, it’s been some time since I’ve yearned to learn something new, even though this would actually be revisiting an old interest with new tools and a new perspective.
I’ve investigated other 3D software here and there and it’s often too expensive to justify and too complicated for my needs. It would be like learning to fly a Boeing 747 when all I need is to drive to the grocery store. I have limited time to learn new things and keep up with everything else I do. I also knew that I would lose interest in it fast if I had to essentially follow stereo instructions just to create a flower pot.
One of the best programs out there, however, is one called ZBrush. A lot of professionals use it in conjunction with other software and some of the results I’ve seen are incredibly impressive. But for the cost and learning curve, it looked like the same story. Too big.
In recent months, however, I’ve been hearing a lot about the recently released ZBrushCore, which is a trimmed down version of ZBrush. I’ve watched a number of videos and it reminds me a great deal of Hexagon and Carrara, those early pieces of software I enjoyed so much. The difference is that it’s more sophisticated, streamlined and offers more functionality without being a complicated mess. Few artists are programmers and when it goes so far toward the tech that it no longer feels like creating, then I’m lost.
After watching a number of tutorials the past couple of days, I bought ZBrushCore this morning for $200 Canadian, which I consider very affordable.
I’m a little excited about this, and while the challenge will still be to make the time to learn it, use it, and have fun with it, I’m optimistic. Learning something new this winter might also be a partial antidote to my usual seasonal doldrums. So, it’s likely I’ll be adding some 3D elements to my editorial cartoons in the coming year, and might even try out a funny looking animal or two. If nothing else, I hope to have a little fun sculpting.
Posted November 24th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on You Don’t Say
“You should draw children’s books!”
I hear this a lot from people, along with other ‘suggestions’ from out of the blue.
I could draw children’s books and I’ve had many offers to do so over the past 15 years or so. One of those ended up being very successful for the author and the illustrator to whom I introduced her. They were a good match and the books they’ve done turned out great.
So why didn’t I draw them? I don’t like being around children. I’m not a parent, never wanted kids, and you won’t find me attending the birthday parties that friends have for their kids. Shonna is the same way. We’re monsters. We know. We’re OK with it.
When you create a children’s book, you have to promote it. That means doing readings for children, attending events for children, going to schools where there are children and pretending you want to be there. If I produced a children’s book, there would be a large crowd of people who know me well, shouting, “Hypocrite!”
And they’d be right to do so.
Occasionally I will speak to school classes. I even mentored at the school for a couple of years some time ago, a worthwhile program for kids who showed aptitude in the arts. Once a week, I would go to the school, meet my student in a room near the office and spend an hour on drawing exercises. We’d come up with a project that they’d then present to their class at the end of the program.
I did it because it’s something I would have enjoyed at that age and out of a sense of community guilt, felt I should contribute in some way. There were some good kids, I did my best for them, but it wasn’t personally rewarding and felt like another obligation. Because of that flawed perspective, I won’t do that again. But I will still speak to classes from time to time.
I could have been more politically correct here in my explanation, but I erred on the side of honesty. Feel free to judge me harshly. It’s what makes the internet go ‘round.
“Is this digital? Ohhhh.”
That “Ohhhh” is usually incredibly condescending. What it really says is, “You must have a really good program that changed a photo into whatever this is.”
If I tell them I did it with Photoshop, then they’re even more certain that I’m a fraud.
There are still those who figure if you do your work on a computer, then you’re not really a skilled artist, you’re more like a programmer who just knows how to press all the right buttons.
I could explain at great length about the countless hours I’ve spent working to improve my art skills, through practice, study, and a ton of happy accidents, but I usually just smile and let them have their illusions. As I heard Katey Couric say on a podcast recently, “People aren’t looking for information these days, they’re looking for affirmation.”
You think the computer creates my artwork? Give it a shot.
I’ll wait here.
“Are these photos?”
No. They’re not photos. I use photos for reference, but no photo is ever part of my work.
“So what do you do for your real job?”
This is it. Drawing, colouring and answering stupid…
Sorry. I’ll be nice.
“You should draw an Elephant, Hippo, Badger, Horse, Ocelot, Orangutan, Marmoset, Jellyfish, Narwhal, Praying Mantis, Spider, Kangaroo, Duckbilled Platypus, Anemone, Sloth, Barracuda, Goldfish, Parakeet, Boa Constrictor…(it’s an endless list)“
And will you buying one of those when I do? Just checking.
“They’re all smiling!”
“I just love your work!”
“We bought a print of yours last year and it hangs in our hallway.”
“Is that new? I’ll take it!”
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Posted November 22nd, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Showing Up
At this weekend’s Calgary Expo Holiday Market, a neighbouring vendor mentioned that it’s probably healthy for us to get out of our own orbits, to network with new people, actually talk face to face with customers. While my instinct is to shy away from that, I know she was right.
She added, “Besides, it’s nice to listen to people tell you how much they like your stuff for an entire weekend.”
Over the course of this weekend, I found myself questioning the value of trade shows, mostly because I’ve gone from doing only the one each year, adding another and am considering more.
So you don’t mistake the following mixed feelings with a misconception that this here hermit artist just doesn’t know how to talk with people, I’ve worked more years in customer service than I have as an artist. I know how to play the sales game.
I was in retail and hotels for years before I became self-employed. I managed a waterslide facility full of screaming children and worked a hotel front desk over multiple Christmas holidays and sold out summers in one of the busiest tourist towns in the world. I’ve smiled through a guest check-in while they’ve told me everything had better be perfect, and again during their check-out when it wasn’t.
I didn’t sit down while in my trade show booth, not once through the entire weekend. Sitting down tells people they’re bothering you and most will just move on. I wasn’t on my phone all the time, or sketching, or standing with my arms crossed. When somebody walked by the booth, I smiled, said Hello, engaged them in conversation, made small talk. If I noticed people looking, but they hadn’t approached, I invited them over to take a look. They most often did and often bought as a result. No sales pressure, just being friendly.
I tell you this not to sound like a martyr. Most people who work customer service know they must do the exact same thing, or at least the successful ones do.
As this Holiday show was put on by the same people who do the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in the spring, they marketed it to their regular attendees. From this vendor’s perspective, that was great as I’ve gotten to know a number of customers over the four years I’ve been doing Expo. Many have purchased more than once and have become collectors of my work. I do look forward to Expo each year, because prior to being a vendor, I was an attendee. It’s an event I enjoy.
There were a number of familiar faces that approached me, asked what was new and bought some more prints. One gentleman, who owns a few of my prints already, bought his first canvas print. A couple of my Facebook followers came by to visit and both bought prints. Up until now, they’ve been names I recognize from likes/comments. It was a real pleasure to talk to them in person and I was flattered that they made the time to come down and see me.
I was able to chit chat with my neighbour in the next booth and as she’s a regular Expo vendor and sells at many other shows, her insight was valuable.
These are the benefits that are hard to quantify. There is no specific dollar value, nothing that can be put on a balance sheet, but the information and connections you gain from networking will most definitely contribute to the bottom line in the future.
As for the cons, those are more personal. I’m a results oriented person, which often isn’t associated with people in the arts. If I’m not using my time well, then I view that time as wasted.
When I go for a hike, it’s because I know that my senior years will be painful and difficult if I don’t stay fit. Most days, I’d rather just stay in and work, but I force myself to get out and walk those 6-10km, often with a 20 pound backpack which includes a couple of cameras. If I see a squirrel, bird, or something larger, I can take a photo that might end up being used for reference. I also come up with cartoon ideas on my walks. I’ll walk downtown on an errand, rather than drive, not because I’m being environmentally conscious, it’s just multi-tasking.
I don’t do idle well. So while I’m standing in the booth in a slow period, saying Hi to people that walk by, just looking ready to engage, I’m thinking that I could be writing on my iPad, or drawing a cartoon in my sketch book, or perusing the news on my phone. But that would make me look unapproachable and that’s bad for sales.
While some can relax for days on end while on vacation, lying on a beach doing nothing for longer than an hour is torture for me. Let’s go tour a ruin, learn something new or have a new experience. Thankfully, my wife has the same outlook.
The trade show experience, as a result, feels like I’m wasting a lot of time that could be spent producing more work. It took me almost four hours to set up my booth on Friday and two hours to tear it down and pack the car Sunday evening. There was also the drive time to and from, which amounted to three hours total for Calgary.
I could have gotten a lot of painting done in that time, a blog post, or a few editorial cartoons.
The idea of doing multiple Christmas shows fills me with dread. I don’t set foot in a shopping mall between now and January to avoid the madness and festival frenzy. The idea of going on tour to different cities to experience that very thing seems horrific to me. Luckily the weather was great this weekend, but I thought about what it would be like doing this sort of thing when there’s a whiteout on icy roads in a packed car, sharing the road with aggressive Alberta drivers looking at their phones. Sugar plums dancing? More like animal prints littering the ditch.
We canceled our Thanksgiving plans this year because the roads were treacherous. Canceling a booth with all of the associated costs would be pricey.
A period of evaluation lies ahead of me. How much of this do I want to do? How much of my best energy (the stuff I rely on to create!) do I spend on this sort of thing, especially at a time of year when that energy is in shortest supply? Psychologically, winter is when I struggle most, when I am much closer to the bottom than the top, for months at a time.
There is a certain amount of self-doubt about this where I think, “Am I just shying away from this because it’s different, out of my comfort zone, or a foreign experience?” But then there is also the confidence that comes with age where you also know who you are and that what works for one person might not work for you. I’m an atheist, but the serenity prayer comes to mind.
Living your life by somebody else’s playbook, especially in a profession where being unique is the ideal, doesn’t make any sense.
On the surface, sales were decent, but if I factor in everything from my print costs, hotel, food, parking, booth rental and power, then my end profit amounted to less than a minimum hourly wage for all of the prep, setup, time on site, tear down and post-work at home. When I looked at that final number after calculating all of the expense, I thought, “That’s it? For all of that work?”
I don’t feel that way when I get my payments for editorial cartoons, licensing royalties, commissions from the galleries or payments from the zoos. Because when somebody else is selling my work, I’m producing more work.
I’ll be overthinking this for some time. It will factor into whether or not I add more shows or commit to a season of the Canmore Market next spring, summer and fall. I lost money on the first Expo I did and barely made any money on the second, but if not for those first two, I wouldn’t have made money on the next two and this past spring Expo was a really great year. But I also like doing that show, and that matters, too.
As with most decisions in self-employment, there are no easy answers. There’s no map. Most of the time, it’s just feeling around in a dark room looking for a light switch. And when you finally find one, it illuminates a very small area and you’re once again squinting into the dark, looking for the next light switch.
Posted September 27th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on All About The Jags
One of the unexpected, but welcome consequences of painting my whimsical wildlife images is my growing interest in learning more about the animals I paint.
Initially, my first concern was finding enough reference. For that I relied on generous photographer friends and stock photos. As time has worn on, I’ve found that I quite enjoy taking my own photos as it makes me feel more connected to the painting from start to finish.
In keeping with that theme, I’ve been spending more time on wildlife excursions, at the Calgary Zoo and at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail.
Last year, I went on two behind-the-scenes…well, I’m just going to call them adventures…with their lion cubs Griffen and Zendaya. I’ve painted Zendaya, but have yet to paint Griffen and might wait until his full mane comes in. Right now, he looks a little like a teenager with awkward hair issues.
This year, the focus of my park visits has been on black bears and I’ve had two memorable behind-the-scenes visits. I’m saving that part of this story for another post.
I’ve been getting to know the keepers pretty well and I am obviously not making too much of a nuisance of myself or doing the wrong things, because after my time with the bears, I’ve twice been invited behind the scenes with their jaguars. It was great to get closer than usual to take pictures and to learn more about their care. Who’s going to say No to an offer like that?
In July, I got to see how the jags are trained and witnessed their claws being trimmed. Training any animal with positive reinforcement requires plenty of patience and skill. With auditory signals and clickers, verbal commands, repetition and reward, I watched as each jaguar ran over to a specific spot by the fence, and put his paw through a small opening for inspection. When the behaviour was performed correctly, he’d be given a reward of a piece of meat on the end of a stick.
The keepers can go into the enclosures with many of the animals, including the lions and bears, but nobody goes in with the jaguars. All of the training is done through a chain link fence, which I find even more impressive.
While you might think the purpose of learning tricks is to entertain people, the real benefit of training is best seen when it comes to the health and well-being of the animals. Teaching them new tricks, hiding things for them to find, and changing up their environment is all part of their enrichment. This kind of stimulation keeps them mentally fit.
But it also makes caring for their physical well-being much more efficient. Rather than tranquilizing an animal on a regular basis for a health checkup, they’ve made showing up for inspection another learned behaviour, a routine they get used to. This leads to a long and healthy life because any problems can be caught early and remedied.
While his claws were being trimmed on my first visit with them, I noticed that Mia had a broken tooth. The head zookeeper, Serena, has explained to me that the jaguars have to open their mouths for inspection twice a day just to make sure everything is OK. In early April, it was not. There were no indications that he was in any pain, but Mia was scheduled for a root canal in July.
I had planned to write this post after that first experience, but got sidetracked and never got around to it. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited, because I get to share how it all turned out.
Last week, I had an exciting time taking more pictures for my upcoming Black Bear Totem but also got to go behind the scenes with the jaguars again!
I had forgotten about the broken tooth until Serena produced a toothbrush on the end of a stick while training Mia. He had been taken to The Calgary Zoo during the summer and that’s where the root canal had been performed. Everything went well, but now Mia must have the area around that tooth brushed three times each week in order to keep food, hair and other debris from causing any problems.
The benefit of training is clearly evident in that Mia will open his mouth for Serena to get in there with the toothbrush and then another keeper will reward the behaviour with a piece of meat. From Mia’s perspective, he’s just learned another trick. As they had allowed me to get right up next to the fence, I was able to watch this procedure closer to a jaguar’s mouth than will ever be comfortable, but it was thrilling.
No word on whether or not Mia will learn to floss anytime soon. I’ll keep you posted.
As anybody who has ever had a sick pet knows, you usually see a positive change in their demeanor once they’ve been treated. I asked Serena about this, and she said the vet had forecast that as well, but Mia hadn’t shown any initial behaviour changes, so they appear to have caught it before it had given him any real pain in the first place. All thanks to the training.
It’s true that my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park over the past year and a half has been out of the ordinary and you might think the best result of that would be all of the up close and personal reference photos I’ve been able to get for my paintings. Yes, that has been great.
But what I’ve enjoyed most about visiting the Park is all that I’ve learned. The keepers have been generous with their time and while I’ve been respectful, I’ve asked plenty of direct questions about animals in captivity, why the need for training, the meaning of different behaviours and their overall care. With every question I’ve asked, I’ve been given straightforward answers, ones that satisfy not only my curiosity, but also give me the confidence that I’m supporting a facility that has the best welfare in mind for the animals in their care.
If you haven’t been, I would recommend a visit. I plan to return often.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the individual zookeepers for generously sharing their time and knowledge with me. Serena, Mari, Denise, you’re aces. Thanks so much.
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Posted September 24th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on John C. McGinley – A Portrait
If somebody had asked me a few months ago what I remembered about the television show ‘Scrubs,’ I would have likely said that it was good, a funny show. I was a regular watcher during its initial run and had fond, albeit non-specific memories of it.
In recent months, I have rediscovered the show on Netflix. As each episode is just over twenty minutes, it’s something I’ve been able to watch while having breakfast or lunch, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around. I’d forgotten how much heart it had. It could take you from laughing out loud at over-the-top ridiculous story lines to breaking your heart in the final two or three minutes.
The story arc featuring Brendan Fraser as a guest star just killed me, as one example. Another wonderful rediscovery was the music. I bought a few albums in the last couple of months, just because I heard songs on that show that I’d forgotten; Jeremy Kay, Colin Hay and Fountains of Wayne, if you’re curious.
One of the characters I most identified with was Dr. Perry Cox, played by the incredibly talented (and underrated) actor, John C. McGinley. His portrayal of the character could make you hate and love him in the same episode. Without a detailed dissection, I’ll just say that Cox was damaged, protecting himself by putting up walls and keeping everybody at a distance. But every so often, you’d get a look inside at a caring individual who just wanted to make a difference, despite knowing he was fighting a losing battle.
No more was that evident than in the 5th season episode, “My Lunch.”
McGinley’s performance in that episode was profound. Without shame, I’ll admit that it moved me to tears. Not just a single tear down the cheek, but hitching my breath crying. I bought it completely and was at a bit of a low point in my own life at the time. It was cathartic.
I just felt the urge to paint that moment, the moment Cox shattered. When he finally reaches his broken and beaten mentor in the following episode, J.D. tells Cox how proud he is of him that “after twenty years of being a doctor, when things go badly, you still take it this hard.”
While I’m not a doctor, I get that, for so many reasons. It hit me deep. That’s what happens when you combine exceptional creators, writers, and performers, all delivering at the top of their game. Magic.
I worked on this in between the deadlines, so it was painted here and there when I had time. When it wasn’t working, when I didn’t feel it, I went back and watched that scene again and it refilled the tank, reminding me why I’d started it in the first place. I just watched it again before writing this and as I do, the painting is still not done. But it’s close. I could nitpick it for another week, I’m sure, and while it’s not as polished as other portraits I’ve done, that’s probably a good thing. It’s time to let it go.
Just as with every other portrait of a person that I’ve painted, this was a personal project. No deadline, no pressure, not something I’ll have to sell. I painted it for me, and it was well worth my time. I hope others like it, but if not, that’s OK, because I improved my own skills, took a break from the paying gigs, enjoyed myself and am now ready to move on to something else.
And I’m feeling pretty good.
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Posted September 16th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Red Panda Totem
I’ve been gathering reference photos of red pandas for a few years now at The Calgary Zoo, and while I’ve taken plenty of shots, I never seemed to get the ones that felt right for this latest addition to my series. Like so many other Totem paintings in recent years, I knew it would happen when the time was right.
Earlier this summer, I was in a pretty deep funk. Down in the dumps, stressed out, pissed off at the world with a black cloud hanging over my head. This happens to me sometimes, but rarely in the summer and not for this long. Part of it stemmed from too many obligations and the pressure I was putting on myself to get more work done.
I was having frequent bad dreams. A few were downright nightmares from which I’d wake up startled and sweating. Shonna even had to wake me up a couple of times.
Even though I’m usually looking for any excuse to paint, I wasn’t at all interested in drawing, painting, writing or any creative work. It was just work to get done.
Then I had a rather surprising dream. In it, I was sitting on a couch, leaning on one end with my legs out over the rest of the cushions. It was in the middle of a deciduous forest in the fall. All of the leaves were yellow, plenty on the ground, a familiar setting. I was brooding about something, feeling low.
Suddenly, a red panda crawled up over the back of the couch, walked up my legs, and put his paws on my chest, very much like a cat or dog does. I picked him up, put him further down the couch past my feet and said something like, “not now, I’m busy.”
He did it again, walked over my legs, crawled up and started putting his face close to mine. I moved him again, saying, “I said not now! Later.”
Finally, on his third attempt, I sighed heavily, said something like, “fine,” and started rubbing my fingers in his fur. He nuzzled my neck, squirmed around happily, curled up against my chest and suddenly I felt better. I woke up in a good mood for the first morning in quite a long time.
Most of my dreams over the years have seemed rather random, easily picked apart on examination. “Oh, that element is from a movie I watched, that part is because I was doing my bookkeeping this morning, and I can blame that weirdness on the chili peppers I added to the pizza last night.”
But animal dreams have always had a unique feel, a quality I can’t quite define. They’re just different. For example, that fall forest setting has shown up a number of times in past dreams. I recall one in particular; many years ago where I dreamt of walking through the same forest and was surrounded by a dozen or more black bears. None of them were threatening; they were just there, doing their thing. This forest is always well lit, the leaves vibrant and the scene is filled with a diffuse and pleasant light. It’s always fall.
I can trace back my entire menagerie of animal paintings to one dream I had in Banff, long before I had ever painted anything, before I’d even drawn my first editorial cartoon. It only makes sense in hindsight, but the symbolism is unmistakable. I wrote it down the following morning and still have it. Dreams like these are the reason my paintings are called Totems.
If all of this sounds flaky to you, that’s OK. I don’t need you to share my beliefs. We all seem to experience ‘the other’ in the manner that makes the most sense to us. We just need to pay attention.
Because I’ve followed animal symbolism for many years, and the same ones show up time and time again, I don’t always need to look them up anymore to know what each represents. When I do, I have a few different books that have served me well; most notably one by the late Ted Andrews called Animal Speak. I bought it in a mall in Anaheim in 1995, at a time when I was having frequent dreams about whales.
This is the first time, however that a red panda has shown up and it wasn’t in any of my books. When that happens, I can usually figure out the symbolism if I sit with it a while, but this one was easy, about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
I wasn’t making any time to play, and I’d forgotten why I chose this profession in the first place. I’m supposed to be freed by my artwork, not shackled by it. Sure, it’s work, but a lot of this stuff is supposed to be fun, too.
So I decided I might as well go through my reference and at least do a sketch painting of a red panda. Call it a thank you for the wake-up call, and I hoped it would help me climb out of the dark hole.
I found the right reference, came up with a pose and began to work on a sketch painting. Very soon after starting it, I realized I was painting the Totem. Every day I worked on it, I felt a little better. Yesterday morning, I cranked up the tunes, spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours finishing it, and it made me happy.
I guess that was the point.
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Posted September 12th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on This one time, at Drum camp…
My buddy Darrel has been my oldest and closest friend for more than twenty-five years. We both went to school in Germany around the same time and he now lives in Red Deer, which is where I went to high school and college. Our parents have been friends for so long, that his Mom and my Dad went to school together as kids in France when they were base brats. We have a lot of shared history.
Darrel and I don’t get together as often as we’d like, but when we do, it’s often camping for a few days.
Ask a bunch of Albertans where they love to go camping, most will answer, “the mountains.” Who can blame them? I live in the mountains and the views are spectacular. But every summer, especially on weekends, it fills up with tourists. When everybody else is coming here, we’re most often looking to get out. Or we go into hiding.
Darrel and I have gone camping in a few different places in Alberta, but more often than not, we end up at a small campground in the Badlands, northwest of Drumheller. It’s a different landscape, provides us each with a change of scenery, and amounts to about the same drive time for both of us.
Alberta weather hasn’t been great this summer, but this late in the season, camping is always a gamble. With kids back in school, it means a lot less people, however, so it’s often worth the risk.
Arriving on Thursday within a half hour of each other, we had the whole campground to ourselves. Though raining steady when we got there, we hung out in the cook shelter for a couple of hours, a couple of beers and some BBQ’d munchies, until the rain stopped and we were able to set up camp.
When my wife Shonna and I first bought our camping gear, she wanted a tent in which she could stand up. After initially dealing with leaking air mattresses and soggy foam pads, we then bought sturdy cots, something I highly recommend. Over the years, Shonna got tired of camping, as happens to a lot of people, but I still enjoy going out with the guys a few times a year. Not so many trips to make it worth investing in a trailer or camper, but enough to keep my gear in good order.
In July, Darrel and I were in Drum for a camping weekend before he got married and we not only experienced a steady rain for about ten hours one night, but some of the hardest torrential rain I’ve ever experienced anywhere. Darrel sleeps in a camper van, but I like sleeping in the tent. After that much rain, I was pleasantly surprised that my thirteen year old tent hadn’t leaked. So while I have a smaller popup tent now that just fits the cot, if there is even a chance of rain, I bring the large one, even though it’s pretty big for one person.
This time of year, it’s quite chilly at night, but with multi-layered sleeping bags and blankets, I’m usually pretty comfortable.
Darrel’s parents gave up camping a while ago, and from them he inherited an 11’ X 11’ dining tent. This one piece of kit has more than once been the linchpin of our camping trips. With mesh sides and nylon fold down flaps, it keeps the bugs out and makes a great shelter from rain and wind. Add to that my folding camp table, a couple of lawn chairs and our drink coolers, and we can sit in there for hours. When the mosquitoes are bad, as they were at times this weekend, it’s the height of camping comfort.
Now, I don’t want to pretend we’re roughing it when we camp in Drumheller. We drive into town every day, go have a shower at the pool, have lunch at a pub, stop at 7-eleven on the way back. Hell, we even went to Wal-Mart on Saturday because I needed a new belt. While not quite fifth-wheel trailer glamping, we’re not living off the land. We just pretend we are.
This weekend, we dealt with rain and wind on the first night and then two days of warm weather with plenty of sunshine. On the third night however, as expected in the forecast, the weather turned downright nasty.
We saw the storm coming up the valley and with the forecast of 30-50 km/h wind gusts seeming to be accurate; the dining tent began to collapse under the force of it. For a good fifteen minutes, Darrel and I held up the tent from the inside as the leading edge of the storm arrived and overtook us. When it finally subsided enough, we set to work adding more guy-wires to the dining tent and it held.
By the time we turned in, the weather hadn’t improved much, the temperature dropped and it was too windy for a fire. As expected, however, not a drop of water in my tent, so I still had a good night’s sleep. Despite little improvement in the weather by morning, we still managed to be in good spirits as we put our wet tents into black garbage bags for the trip home. Just took mine down from drying in the garage and packed it away until next year.
We all want perfect weather to go camping and when it happens, it’s very relaxing, a nice break and a welcome recharge of the batteries. But something that occurred to me on the drive home Sunday, those perfect trips aren’t the ones I remember most.
When weather turns bad, strange shit happens, the annoying neighbours run their generator for four hours, there’s car trouble, or unexpected challenges pop up, that’s where the stories are. Those are the trips you talk about later.
Years from now, Darrel and I will still be talking about the weekend of torrential rain this past July, when it fell so hard and fast that the dirt under our feet in the dining tent suddenly turned into a small river. We couldn’t even play Scrabble because water was leaking through the roof onto the table. It’s the rain with which we will compare all future rain.
“Could be worse. Remember that rain in 2016?”
There was our trip to Nordegg years ago when not only did we have to drive back 45 minutes to Rocky Mountain House because I forgot the propane, but we cut the trip short a day when it snowed. The trip Shonna and I talk about most is the one to Kananaskis where we were so cold we bought new sleeping bags the week after. And while it was a pain in the ass at the time, right before we got to the lake in BC for the first camping trip of the season last year, I had to make a three hour round trip back to Invermere to get a flat tire repaired, while the guys carried on to claim our site. Those events, however, now define those weekends.
So we didn’t have perfect weather for the last camping trip of the year, but we had fun. And most important, it was memorable.