First impressions can have a lasting and life-changing impact.
Driven out of his home during the devastating Fort McMurray wildfires, Russell Thomas quickly got to know the kindness of a small town nestled along the Sheep River.
“We were living in Calgary and I decided to take a day-trip here with my two sons here to Okotoks to visit a long lost friend that I hadn’t seen in many years,” Russell said. “We were driving into the neighbourhood and there was three kids on the front lawn and they were raising money for Fort McMurray.
“I pulled over, got out of my car, had to say thank you. When I told them I was from Fort McMurray their eyes lit up. One boy holds out a $10 bill and goes ‘here.’”
Fast-forward three years, Russell and Heather Thomas have made Okotoks their home, as one of the newest members of the small business community on Elma Street, having settled in since late June.
Russell, a painter, and Heather, a healer, have brought their Birdsong Studio and Healing Centre to Olde Towne Okotoks.
“We hadn‘t experienced much of Okotoks. We’ve driven through once or twice,” Heather said. “We had been casually looking for a couple years, mostly Canmore area. But Canmore is overpriced and oversaturated for my work.
“We were looking for something big enough to sustain and have both of our businesses. That was number one, we’re not going to buy a house if we’re not going to work from one.
They found their dream home, with walkability, greenery and a welcoming community, on quaint Elma Street, home to a growing number of niche small businesses with a strong sense of community within a community.
“We’ve met more of our neighbours in a month than we did in 20 years in Fort McMurray and that’s not a knock on Fort McMurray,” Russell said. “There’ s an interest in the neighbours to connect and the small business owners to connect.
“And it doesn’t feel in any shape or form competitive, it feels collaborative and supportive.”
While the Thomases were still in the prospective buyers stage, they were welcomed, introduced and given the run-down on what Elma has to offer from Cheryl Taylor at Lineham House Galleries, among others.
“It felt like an embrace,” Heather said. “Like oh my god, we’re so excited you’re moving here, or thinking about it.”
Birdsong’s new locale is double the size of what it was in Fort McMurray, allowing ample space for Heather’s wellness work, Russellís art studio along with the carriage house in the back allowing for the rentable loft being used as an artists retreat.
“Part of our new business model is being able to offer our artist’s retreat,” Heather said. “Artists can come and stay in the loft, can come down and paint or write or do whatever they need to do rejuvenate themselves, that may involve working with some healing stuff with me or some yoga or having a workshop and playing around with paint.”
Playing around with paint started as a hobby and developed into a career for Russell, a self-taught artist specializing in acrylic portraiture.
“A lot of artists will tell you portrait is the hardest thing,” he said. “I started with the hardest thing and I’m now working backwards into landscapes.
“I love bringing out the character in people and using bizarre and different colours to paint people or animals. That’s what I enjoy.”
After a long career working in marketing and communications along with time spent as a Fort McMurray city councillor, Russell made the switch to art at the age of 47.
“I was too busy to do art,” he said. “Then I lost an election, my professional life was crumbling around me and next thing you know I started working for The United Way and days later I started painting. This journey started in 2014 and it just took off.”
Again, inspiration came out of the wildfire, and the community’s response to it, with an homage to the face of the firefighting effort as a fundraiser for victims.
“I painted a portrait of the fire chief, Darby Allen, on the Sunday, days after we were evacuated,” Russell said. “I posted it on social media at night, went to bed, woke up the next morning and it went viral and had been seen by almost a million people.
“That helped, people became very familiar with me after that.”
Heather’s journey into wellness work arrived through her own battle through an autoimmune condition where she learned first-hand the impact wellness treatment can have.
“The only thing that made me feel better was yoga,” she said.
“I took reiki and moved onto massage school because I knew I couldn’t just be a yoga teacher, I needed some variety, that’s the kind of person I am and I also wanted qualification.”
Heather, a coach, mentor, and healer, brings a wide range of expertise as an RMT while also offering craniosacral therapy, energy healing, ayurveda along with teaching yoga and meditation.
“I’m 12 years in now and I’m so happy with what I do,” she said. “It’s a gift to be able to do what we love every day and there’s nothing more special than being able to hold space for somebody else in their own healing journey.
“If we can help somebody else in their life, that’s why we’re here, whether it’s creatively, physically, mentally or emotionally or just having a conversation with someone about moving forward their business plans or their dreams, we both have some experiences that people can relate to.”
A big part of Birdsong’s story has been one of philanthropic endeavours.
The Thomases are heavily involved with Bracelets 4 Buildings, which uses funds drawn from painting sales to build houses for the very poor in Southeast Asia.
“This year I did something called the 19-day painting challenge where every morning I pull a prompt from a hat and paint something,” Russell said. “And at the end of those 19 paintings, all of them get sold to build a house for a family.
“When we go over to Asia I paint while we’re there and we gift the paintings to the recipients of the homes.”
Russell's studio will offer workshops and he hopes to get into the schools to help inspire the young artists in the community.
“I often get asked to do live paintings and I’m really looking forward to doing that in Okotoks,” he said. “I really enjoy going into schools and painting. Either the students paint with me or they sit-around, they watch and ask questions and see paintings come to life. I was doing that a lot in Fort McMurray as a community give back.”
Birdsong Studio has an open-door policy with an increasing desire to get to know its new community on every level.
Through just over a month in their new home, the Thomases are having anything but buyer’s remorse in Big Rock Country.
“We were looking for a community that would welcome us,” Heather said. “This is the biggest investment of our lives, at least the next 20 years of our lives, and with that mindset I don’t want to walk into a place I’m not welcome.
“To have that support from not just the neighbours, but the neighbouring businesses is huge. We feel like we’re already part of the community.”