Photographer Ray “RJ” Belcourt of Leduc, Alta., collaborated with artists across the country to produce incredible pieces of artwork that combine lens and brush
Photographer Ray (RJ) Belcourt, in collaboration with artists from across the country, produced incredible works of “mixed media” art that showcase Canada’s beauty.
Ihave lived in Alberta for almost 40 years and consider it my home. My youth, however, was spent in northern Ontario with most of my leisure time spent fishing, hunting and trapping along the river that bordered my family’s farm. My love of nature, nurtured by the limitless beauty of the boreal forest, likely contributed to the development of my eye for landscapes and natural form.
In the early ’80s, I moved to Western Canada, where I dabbled in photography as a hobby. About 11 years ago, my friend and mentor, Ignatius Fay, encouraged me to pursue my talent more seriously by collaborating with him in publishing an art book of Japanese poetry. The experience was so rewarding, I decided, with his help, to move on to a much larger art project. Now, I spend most of my spare time pursuing my passion for the arts.
I love beautiful landscapes. Alberta’s scenic mountains and vast plains served as the seeds of a project that quickly grew to encompass the entire country. Drawn by the diversity and depth of the Canadian landscape, and the added bonus of meeting some wonderful folks, I set out to take photographs.
My original intention was to produce a work of digitally manipulated photographs, but I soon realized they had no soul. They lacked a human touch. I decided to collaborate with Canadian painters, one from each province as well as the Northwest Territories—although I still intend to include the Yukon and Nunavut—to mesh their media with my photography.
The process involved taking a series of trips to explore the Canadian countryside, snapping representative scenes of each province along the way, scenes I felt had a certain artistic appeal. At the same time, I had to find talented artists who might be interested in a mixed-media collaboration. The idea was to have the artists paint over portions of
my photographs in their own unique styles and media. The participation of these artists brought the human dimension, adding life and personal interpretation to a one-dimensional digital print.
I began by printing the photo directly on canvas, omitting portions of the image as selected by the artist, who in turn interpreted the missing portions in his/her chosen medium on the same canvas. The results are landscape illustrations that seamlessly merge photography and various styles of painting.
One of the highlights of my travels across Canada was meeting and chatting with wonderful people. I soon discovered the traits and characteristics that define Canadians vary from province to province, and even within provinces, yet folks throughout the country shared attitudes and ideals that defined them as uniquely Canadian.
On the road, I had several particularly memorable experiences, one of which occurred in St John’s, Newfoundland. Flying from Edmonton, I was met at the St. John’s airport by René Pike, the talented artist who agreed to represent her province for the project. We had only communicated with each other by email to this point. As she approached me, I was captivated by her youth and beauty, but was not ready for the distinct, thick Newfoundland accent that enveloped her greeting. I couldn’t help but chuckle,
but I soon found the accent only added to her remarkable charm.
Next morning, René and her husband, Marty, picked me up from the hotel before dawn and handed me a fresh cup of coffee. We set off along the southern shore highway of the Avalon Peninsula seeking the perfect photo-composition for our canvas. The view was spectacular— the natural beauty of the jagged cliffs and craggy shores, the endless sky extending out over the Atlantic and teeming with seabirds beyond counting. We enjoyed a wonderful drive, chatting and laughing, randomly turning off the highway onto countless old, well-worn trails that all led ultimately to the ocean.
I carried a backpack containing my laptop, as well as several expensive lenses and miscellaneous photography equipment. On each beach and cove, René and Marty patiently waited while I set up my tripod and shot away. We continued along the highway searching out spot after spot. The hours flew by.
At one point, I looked around the back seat where I was sitting and, in horror, discovered my backpack was missing. My stomach sank. I had left the camera bag behind at one of the locations. I felt sick. How could I be so inattentive? In my own defence, I have to say that I was viewing such marvellous scenery that getting lost in the moment was easy. I had no idea where I had left it because I had ended up using the same lens
throughout the morning shoot. René exuded calmness. She suggested that we simply turn around, retrace our route and find the bag. Discouraged, I was sure the bag, with all that expensive gear, would surely be gone by now, and said as much. I didn’t want to waste any more of their time by going on a wild goose chase. René assured me that I was in Newfoundland, and whoever found my equipment would return it to me. I laughed nervously and pointed out that, even if that were true, I had no ID on or in the bag. It was gone.
Marty graciously stopped to check for the bag at several locations on the way back to the city, but we never found it. They dropped me off at the hotel and told me not to worry, repeating, “This is Newfoundland and someone will find and return your bag.” “Yeah, yeah, sure.”
I thanked them and shuffled into the hotel. Upset and dis- couraged, I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to calm down and clear my head. I surrendered to the fact that my equipment was lost, and tried to convince myself to be grateful I still had my camera and main wide-angle lens. After a couple of deep breaths, I realized that I should contact the police department in case someone found my bag and took it to the police station. I walked down to the front desk and asked the clerk for the use the telephone and the number of the local police department. He looked up at me and asked if I was Ray Belcourt. When I told him I was, he explained that a fisherman called from Mobile, a little town about half an hour from St. John’s, and said he had found my backpack. I felt the world lift off my shoulders; I could have jumped over the counter and kissed that boy!
Exhilarated, I immediately called the fisherman who ex- plained he had gone down to the seashore that morning, as he did every other morning, to collect kelp for his composter. He discovered the backpack on the rocky shore. At first he figured he should leave it, thinking perhaps the owner would return for it. He was a little leery, so when he found a hotel receipt in the front pocket of the pack, he decided to take it home and call me. When I said I would drive to Mobile to pick it up, he said he was coming into St. John’s the next day to get groceries; he would be happy to drop it off at the hotel—no bother. Thanking him for his efforts, I told him I was eternally grateful as I was beside myself for having lost it. I stood there for a minute after hanging up, a silly grin on my face, thinking how René and Marty were right. By God, this was Newfoundland and someone did return my backpack.
The fisherman and his wife delivered the bag as promised. I
shook the fisherman’s old weathered hand and thanked him again. To express my gratitude, I offered him a gift certificate for a steak and lobster supper at a local restaurant. He said he couldn’t take it for doing something anyone else would have done. I insisted, explaining that it would make me happy if he did. Hesitantly he accepted the envelope and drove away, with a smile and a wave.
These acts of hospitality, honesty and kindness by René, Marty and the fisherman are but a few of the traits exemplified by the people I met all across this great land. Canadians are often described and envied by other nations as polite, caring, generous people, ready to help others in need without hesitation. I have to agree.
My goal to share the beauty of our country with the world in a fresh, new artistic form resulted in the publication of a book,
I am so thankful to the team of artists who had the courage to trust me, to forgo the norm and to share my vision. I dedicate this photo essay to one artist in particular, Roman Gierek, who passed away in 2013; his talent, enthusiasm and kindness will always be cherished. And to all the other artists who took part, thank you; your talent, dedication and hard work are what made this project possible. n
Far left: “Country Wildflowers B&B“(book cover) by Mohamed Hirji, Alta.; Left from top to bottom: “Mount Rundle“by Darlene Adams, Alta.; “Emerald Lake“by Kathryn Mullaney, B.C.; “Playing in the Wind“by Jennifer Walden, N.W.T.
Clockwise from top left: “Offrande au Grand Esprit” by Lise-marielle (Fortin), Que.; “Moonstone House“by Gisèle Crites, Ont.; “Winnipeg Sunset“by Roman Gierek; Man.; “Ovide Barn“by Norm Krogstad, Sask.
Clockwise from far left: “Ferryland” by René Pike, N.L.; “Cap de Cocagne“by Claire Chevarie, N.B.; “Cavendish Winds“by Louise Mould, P.E.I; “Peggy’s Cove“by Dawn Oman, N.S.