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Pandemic prompted Sundre artist to shift from portraits to wildlife

Laara Cassells has exhibit on display at Sundre library featuring new series called Animalis

SUNDRE – Early on during the pandemic when public health measures meant avoiding crowds and simply staying put at home if possible, a local artist – who at the time had recently completed a series of portraits – decided to make the most of a bad situation and turned her attention to the great outdoors.

“Since I retired to the ranch, I’ve been very aware of all of the wildlife that surrounds us here; especially in winter when we have all of the tracks,” said Laara Cassells, a retired art instructor who lives on a ranch north and east of Sundre toward Eagle Hill.

“We’re surrounded with moose and elk and deer and squirrels; I’d even seen a bear once and a cougar once and of course coyotes every night,” said Cassells, adding she’s also seen a wolf on a couple of occasions.

“I’ve been concentrating on wildlife for about two years,” she said.

Asked whether that was the result of COVID-19 mandates, she said, “Absolutely.”

One to look for the silver lining amid challenging situations, Cassells found that while the door to continue portraitures had at the time been temporarily closed, another door inviting her to study her own backyard suddenly swung wide open.

“As we were kind of forced to stay home, I thought, ‘Well, what a lovely opportunity to look at the animals that are all around me,’” she told the Albertan.  

“I didn’t really want to be doing two years of self portraits, that was for sure,” she added with laughter.

But as abundant as the diversity of wildlife is on her ranch, wolves seem to rarely frequent the property. And finding them in the West Country’s vast expanse is no easy feat.

“You could wait around with your camera for a very long time to see them in the wild,” she said.

Fortunately, a friend of hers has some wolves on another ranch in the Bowden area.

“She has a wolf sanctuary,” said Cassells, adding the animals do not wander in from the wild.

“She lets me go photograph them and she lets them out to run in the woods,” said Cassells, adding that provides a perfect opportunity to capture the animals in a more controlled yet still largely natural environment.

She then uses the images as references for the series of paintings. Although sometimes, Cassells changes out the back drop with photo references from her own ranch, which features similar geographic traits boasting spruce, poplars and hills.

“I can get lots of landscape photos and then plop (the wolves) in if I need to,” she said.

In that situation, Cassells explained her focus when photographing the background is less about the landscape itself, and more about composing an open space that will act as a stage upon which to superimpose the wolves later.

“I’m not really photographing the trees as such as photographing the spaces between the trees or in the undergrowth where wolves might come out of,” she said.

“You’re kind of photographing a negative space rather than photographing the landscape. It’s more like looking for the hole in the universe where a wolf might appear rather than a landscape photograph. So, that’s fun.”

In 2020, when a family of foxes moved in under a barn on her ranch, Cassells enjoyed observing the animals grow – especially one curiously brazen fox she eventually called Bobby the Bold – and eventually loaded her camera.

“He used to sit and wait on a little hill outside the back door to see when we were coming out,” she said.

And last summer, another fox family moved in, she said.

“I spent many hours hiding behind a tractor with my long lens waiting for them to come out and play in the evening,” she recalled, adding another fearless fox from that den earned the name Bobby the Brazen.  

“There’s always one that seems to be quite happy to come out and play, and drags ropes and straps out of the barn; they’re funny,” she said.  

The Sundre Municipal Library is hosting her new exhibit – dubbed ‘Animalis’ – which champions both wild and domestic animals as its focal point. Foxes and wolves make the subject of many pieces, but so do several domesticated steeds.

There are 18 pieces on display – four prints of original paintings on canvas as well as 14 prints on luster paper framed behind glass. There’s also a free giveaway piece at the library’s entrance that people can put their name in for a chance to win, with the draw taking place at the end of April when the exhibit comes down.

“You just have to put your name in the jar,” she said.

Cassells said she named the series Animalis in light of a show she had recently presented this past September in Calgary.

“I had just put in original paintings of foxes and wolves for that, so I called that show Wild Albert . . . and I thought I would include horses in this one,” said Cassells, adding she’s the proud owner of an Andalusian as well as a thoroughbred that she boards at a ranch in the Water Valley area.

The four prints on canvas will also be going on display at the Signal Hill Library in Calgary.

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Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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