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Remembering Bruno

If you have lived in Yorkton long enough, you probably remember 'Bruno'.

If you have lived in Yorkton long enough, you probably remember 'Bruno'.

Bruno was as close to a street person as this city has had over the years, and most will remember the man, his hair long and in braids, his clothes weathered and dirty, a sack of possessions over his shoulder.

The man has now been captured in startling colour by artist Russell Thomas of Ft. McMurray, Alta.

"Mark Herbster from Kamsack, after having observed my recent spate of colourful portraits on Facebook, suggested that I paint a portrait of Bruno," said Thomas.

"The moment he suggested it I knew he would be my next subject. I had a photo in my archive that had been shared online about four years ago. It became my reference for capturing this interesting character who loomed large in my community.

"It was only after the painting was done, and after having done some research, that I discovered it was a Yorkton-based photographer named Mitch Hippsley who had captured the amazing shot."

Since then the artist has been in contact with the Yorkton-based photographer.

"I sent Mitch a copy of the painting. Unfortunately, we've been playing phone tag all week, as it is really important to me to touch base with him, not only thank and acknowledge him for the inspiration, but to hear his recollections of having taken the shot. It is a beautiful photographic portrait," said Thomas.

A few days later Thomas reported, "I finally connected with photographer Mitch Hippsley on the weekend. He was incredibly gracious, and shared with me the story of how he came to photograph Bruno. While it is his story to share (or not), I will say that it was truly a gift to hear it."

Thomas said his own memories of Bruno are scant.

"My memories of Bruno are limited to my early Kamsack years," he said. "He was very present in our community in my teenage years and would often be seen walking around town, sharing stories with people, and his faith.

"Up until this process, I was unaware of the fact that he resided in the Yorkton area for so many years."

The art work is dramatic in its effect.

"I begin by sketching out the subject on the canvas (or wall), getting the drawing to the point that it is a reasonable likeness," said Thomas who was born and raised in Kamsack. "Then I go over the pencil lines with a black Sharpie.

"From that point I start to paint, always starting with yellow, and moving from light colours to dark.

"It's an instinctual process that doesn't take a long time, usually three or four hours from beginning to end."

Thomas' interest in art comes from within.

"I am a self-taught artist," he said. "I began exploring these colourful portraits a couple of years ago after sitting in on a watercolour lesson my father-in-law was giving my son. I had two creative spurts that resulted in an interesting series of watercolour portraits. "

Thomas said he left Kamsack, and the area, in 1985 to pursue his education and career, though he returns every year to visit my parents and other family.

The style evolved from a rather recent experience for Thomas.

"In June, I discovered that our back shed had been tagged with some graffiti," he said. " It had been about a decade since I had attempted a large format painting, so I thought it would be appropriate to paint over most of the tag (I left a wee little bit showing) with white paint and do a large portrait.

"My subject ended up being a 96 year old Métis elder named Elsie Yanik.

"It was a proud moment when I was able to bring her by to see this eight-foot tall likeness of her.

"It was also pretty amazing when Justin Trudeau popped by to get his #SelfiewithElsie. That portrait led to many other over the course of the summer, a mix of global and local celebrities, in a style reminiscent of Fauvism, with bright and unexpected colours

"A mural of Alberta's first female Aboriginal chief (Dorothy McDonald) followed.

My work became more widely known when I painted a portrait of Robin Williams on the day of his death. That piece went on to raise $2,500 for a local charity that works in the mental health field."

Thomas said he came to live in the northern Alberta community after something of a gypsy trail across the west.

"I had worked in a number of small communities in Western Canada in the radio broadcasting business. In 1996, I traveled up to Fort McMurray for a job interview. Despite the fact that it was -43 when I arrived, I fell in love with the place, and have lived there ever since," he said. "I eventually took a job with Keyano College and spent 15 years in a number of different roles there before recently accepting an exciting communications role with the United Way."

In the case of the Bruno piece, Thomas had a little help with the final look.

"I thought I was done with Bruno," he recounts. "The painting was up on the mantel when I asked my 11-year-old son Ben what he thought of it. "It's missing something," he said. "What?" I asked. "Splatters."

"I told him to come with me out to the studio, and I had him do the splatters - the first time he had assisted me. He thoughtfully and methodically chose his colours and the amount of splatters to apply. I really feel the painting came alive at that point."

Thomas said the reaction to the Bruno piece has been amazing.

"Remarkable, especially from people - all strangers - who had a personal connection to Bruno," he said. "It's remarkable how much information and anecdotes came in shortly after I posted 'Just Bruno' on my blog site."

As an example Thomas said, "I had one story of a fellow whose wife had woken up in the middle of the night to care for their 1 year old baby. She saw the post on Facebook and shared it with her husband. A former resident, now living in Toronto, he shared that he was very moved by both the painting and the story. He also shared that being moved is not something that normally happens to him. He expressed an interest in the painting, and wanting to put it in a place of honour in their home.

"'I have always believed that art should provoke conversation, inspire thought and draw upon emotion. This creation truly has for my wife and I'."

The piece also holds a special place for the artist.

"It is among my favourites," he said. "This was a very personal piece for me, made even more personal by the response I have received from so many people in the Yorkton-Kamsack area, and those from across the country who are from that part of Saskatchewan. So many people remember Bruno. It's amazing."

Asked if more Yorkton-inspired pieces might be forthcoming, Thomas said as an artist anything is possible.

"You never know. I'm a portrait painter. I'm always open to suggestions," he said.

'The Bruno Project' will be sold on auction at a fundraising event called the KD (Kraft Dinner) Gala run by the Centre of Hope, a centre that provides care and support for people experiencing homelessness in the Fort McMurray region.

You can follow the works of Thomas through his blog