Don't mess with a soprano  

Ravens inspire teacher-artist

Ravens are clever birds that can be harbingers of death or heralds for good omens.

They can even mimic human speech.

The Pacific Northwest Native American legends portray the raven as the creator of the world.

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, didn't help its reputation. I first heard the poem when I was in Grade 6, and my skin crawled with the insistent tap, tap, tapping, and with the word nevermore.

It was a great poem, a bad rap for the raven, but a great subject for a series of drawings.

Jim Elwood, an artist, and art educator, is creating such a series on the raven.

Conservation of our animals and land is very important to him. “Realism drawn with energy gives back energy,” he said.

Jim grew up in Delta among ravens and boats. He was part of a sports family, so his love of drawing was second to soccer, competitive swimming, and rugby.

A junior high school teacher and a part-time drafting job inspired him to look at art as a career.

He graduated with honours in 1986 from the University of Victoria with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and then attended the International School of Fine Arts at Banff on a full scholarship.

After the program, he started working at the Mount Pleasant Art Centre in Calgary.

Two monumental discoveries happened that changed the direction of his life.

  • He met his future wife, Lorri, a heritage consultant
  • He taught for the first time.

He’s an introvert and should find teaching daunting, but it was “a natural fit.” He soon received an education degree from the University of Calgary.

No cushy first teaching job for him, he began teaching in the Forrest Lawn district of Calgary, the roughest, toughest inner-city school in the city.

Jim described fires in plastic sinks and regular fights. “They were like wild animals, they watched and would eat you alive or let you live.”

He loved it, and lived to tell me about it.

But they were forced to leave Calgary when then Alberta premier Ralph Klein laid off teachers, and Elwood was low on the seniority list. They moved to B.C. because Lorri's family was in Vernon, and they had heard, incorrectly, that Kelowna was hiring teachers.

He did, however, get a job, and has taught in Kelowna for 28 years, including 15 years at Mount Boucherie.

He likes that art doesn’t have a dedicated curriculum, which allows him to grow with his students.

Teaching has allowed him to bring art and his love of conservation together.

He has introduced nature-scaping, the reintroduction of native plants into the environment, to his students.

He also taught his students to built bat boxes. You can find them at Fintry.

He also teaches at the Kelowna Art Gallery and loves to help adults through the “art trauma moment.” This is the story of when that adult’s art expression was squelched. Unfortunately, many people have such a story.

“I like taking the competitiveness out of art. To get them to realize they are only competing with themselves,” he explained.

In 2017, with his wife, he travelled to London and Scotland. He had time to sit, observe with no running around, draw, and paint.

Lucky for him, Scotland was full of boats, his favourite subject. His website has some of the boats from that trip

This trip took them to the Isle of Skye, where an idea came to him.

When he returned to Canada, he contacted Steve Tinney, a sculptor and teacher at Portee High School on the Isle of Skye.

They began sending students’ artwork back and forth, which culminated, in 2019, with the two schools doing a joint show. He traveled to Scotland with the students’ work and helped set up the show, attend the opening, and spend some time there.

He is a passionate teacher, but also a passionate artist.

His personal art journey always centres around drawing.

Although he loves to draw, his watercolour and oil paintings are riveting.

I also grew up in the Pacific Northwest and his watercolours of boats bring the squawks of seagulls and the briny smell of the water to mind.

His oils of sunsets bring back that moment when you try desperately to capture the vibrance in the sky only to have it disappear into the night.

What he is working on right now is two-fold. He is:

  • Working as a facilitator with indigenous elders to bring their history and story to our youth.
  • Doing his series on ravens.

Teacher or artist, these two things are interwoven in the fabric of his life.

Would you like to experience art through his teaching?

He is offering an outside class, Responding to the Landscape, this summer through Kelowna Art Gallery.

Perhaps you will encounter a raven while on the course.

The raven is a remarkable bird, but not half as remarkable as Jim Elwood.

Mud pies and hot wax

I loved playing in the mud as a kid.

I spent hours making mud pies, squishing mud between my toes and forming grotesque creatures was my kind of fun.

Luckily for my mom, I grew up and traded mud for sand and started making sand castles.

Too bad I didn’t know about encaustic painting and sculpturing; it sounds like my kind of mess.

Angela Hansen, an encaustic painter/sculptor, knows all about this form of art.

Encaustic means to burn in or fuse.In art, it blends beeswax and tree resin and melts them together. You can add pigment to this molten goop and then paint and sculpt with it.

This combination is durable and moisture resistant.

The ancient Greeks used this method to waterproof their ships, and often added pigment and painted them with bright colours.

Greeks who settled in Egypt brought this knowledge with them. They began to paint portraits on wood and put these panels on mummies.

The Fayum Funeral portraits, which date from 100-300 AD, were attached to upper class Egyptian mummies and are in pristine condition today.

How did Angela take something so old and make it contemporary?

She needed to find her visual voice first.

She was born in the 1970s in Cranbrook, but moved to Quesnel when her parents bought a ranch. She grew up among horses and few neighbours — and sketched.

She remembers an art teacher telling her about art schools. She had no idea there was such a thing, but knew right then, she wanted to go to one.

Age seven was pivotal for her. Emily Carr College of Art and Design (ECC) had an outreach program for promising young artists.

Her painting of a sailboat with neon fish and coral underneath was chosen by adjudicators as part of a travelling exhibit.

Her parents took her to Prince George to see her art. Heady stuff for a seven-year-old.

ECC is one of the most coveted art schools in Canada. Getting accepted is not a given, but the passion to attend was now firmly planted in her mind. She was accepted at age 17, after graduating from Quesnel Senior Secondary.

Her parents wanted her to study something that would get her a job, and in 1992, she graduated with a diploma in graphic design.

However, graphic design did not speak to her visual voice.

In 1999, she finished her Bachelor of Design degree from the newly renamed Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

The next few years were turbulent with many moves around B.C., working at jobs not related to her degree.

She had the unusual job of chord switchboard operator for Telus. She pulled chords in and out of a board to connect phones on ships.

Just like 1977 when she was seven, 2000 was decisive for her future.

She enrolled in a teaching and intern program at the University of Victoria, and interned in Kelowna. She has been working as a teacher in Lake Country ever since and received her 20-year pin this year.

Teaching was important, but there was a lost voice deep inside her, hungering to find a medium from which to speak.

In 2000, two other events happened.

First, she took a course with Thea Haubrich, who was elevating encaustic techniques from a craft to an art form.

Haubrich was instrumental in making B.C. an encaustic hot spot globally. Angela had found the perfect teacher at the perfect time.

Second, she took a course on abstract art with Shawn Serfas at UBCO.

These two mediums together woke up the sleeping giant within her. She has been on fire ever since.

She loves dancing between flatwork — painting on a flat surface — and making sculptures.

People have noticed how accomplished and inventive she is, including the judges at CanwaxWest, an umbrella organization for the national Encaustic Canada organization.

  • 2013, CanwaxWest — Award of Excellence, Best in Show, and Thea Haubrich Award of Excellence
  • 2016, CanwaxWest — Peoples Choice
  • 2016 CanwaxWest — Technical Excellence Award
  • 2018 CanwaxWest — Pushing Boundaries Award

I met Angela at the door to her studio. Normally, I sit down and get to work writing. Not this day. I stood gobsmacked.

The wall in front of me was an undersea vision. It was 18 feet long, with three-dimensional flora and fauna from the sea bottom.

For an old scuba diver like me, this was heaven seeing kelp and sea slugs made from this wax.

The work is named Breath, and it took mine away.

This encaustic art kept coming. Behind me was a wall-mounted and framed three-dimensional sculpture of folded arms across a chest with holes in the skin where you could see bones, muscles, and worms.

It is named Consumed and Overwhelmed. This is not easily forgotten.

Encaustic sculptures can also be made paper thin and can appear translucent when back lighted.

Please don’t make me chose between her sculptures and paintings; they are both unique.

Painting with hot wax; who knew? The art work looks like an oil painting until you touch it and look at the fine lines that are etched into the surface.

On another wall, she has a whiteboard chock-a-block full of upcoming events.

If I have tweaked your interest, you will be able to soon see her works.

  • May 21: At the Alternator Gallery – Rotary Centre of the Arts. Breath will be exhibited.
  • Artwalk: Lake Country — Angela has been a great supporter and participator
  • Laura Murphy: Essence of Muranny Retreat — Ireland. Angela will be teaching an online course on encaustics. Artists of all skill levels are welcome.

In this world of having seen everything, it is so enthralling to experience something totally new by such a warm, inviting, and talented artist like Angela Hansen.

www.AngelaHansenArt.com; @angelahansenart; FB: Angela Hansen Art

The golden touch

Midas, the mythological Greek king who turned everything he touched into gold, has nothing on me.

I have the best job in the world. Every week, I'm showered with gifts of generosity, submerged in enlightenment by talented artists, and surrounded with priceless beauty.

Last week, I met Susan Burnham Neilson. She is an oil painter, water-colourist, artist, art educator, and lover of nature with a passion for conservation.

I was invited into her magical world of geometry, nature, and colours, and had a private tour of her paintings.

We then moved to her deck where I drank freshly brewed coffee and ate chocolate.

That sure beats a cubicle on the 19th floor working in front of a computer.

While sipping that coffee, I watched a red squirrel hopping from branch to branch.

OK, I became lunch for some mosquitoes, but that was a small price to pay for hearing Susan’s story.

She came from a family on the move. Her dad was an engineer and corporate executive, and they would move every three to four years to a new city in Canada.

She always sketched. It was the one constant during all the moves. She also liked sciences. “Physics was easy,” she said.

Her family — parents and three brothers — supported her love of art, but not for a profession.

During her last year at Lindsay Place Secondary school in Pointe Claire, Que., she found time for an art class.

“I loved that there were no right or wrong answers, so the creative possibilities were endless.”

She knew she wanted to pursue art.

She attended McMaster University in Hamilton after high school and began her lifelong pursuit of learning. The art program at McMaster was considered very classical. Her days were filled with life drawings and sculptures.

She has achieved:

  • Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts – McMaster University,
  • Post Graduate credit – Lithography and Printmaking
  • Bachelor of Education – Intermediate/Senior Art and Industrial Arts University of Toronto. She was the only woman in the program.
  • Honours Specialist Visual Arts – OISE – University of Toronto

She juggled all this learning while being married and raising two girls.

She wanted to travel, but this wasn't possible unless it was paid for by others:

  • She was a flight attendant for Ontario World Air, and visited museums in London and Greece during her layovers.
  • Kingsbrae Artists Residency 2019 — New Brunswick She painted Seeds of Change, a water colour painting with 23 separate sections
  • Offered a 2020 residency connected to Artists for Conservation -— Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. She was slated to teach a two-day workshop on painting on alternate surfaces especially natural materials. This has been postponed because of COVID

In 1991, Susan and her family came to the Okanagan in search of a great place to live. She had fond memories of visits with her grandparents in Vernon when she was young

She began teaching at Spring Valley Secondary School and continued to teach her whole career at various schools in Kelowna. She still managed to find time in the evenings and weekends to develop her painting. Oil paint is her favourite medium with watercolour a close second.

She loves experimenting with different surfaces for her paints.

"Drawing and painting are always a big focus for me, but not always on traditional surfaces, and not always on two-dimensional surfaces."

In a corner of her studio, tucked away near the entrance to her deck, is a baby deer painted on a four-foot-high strip of bark and wood, which was a left-over from de-barking a log.

The detail is masterful; you can almost feel the fur. Yet, the paint is so translucent you can see the wood grain throughout the image of the deer. The deer and the wood become one. Captivating.

I love the way her paintings are so realistic. Her detail of animals, birds, and fencing are phenomenal.

She also incorporates geometrics — circles, squares, and grids in her works.


Nature is full of them. Look at a cosmos plant; its leaves are made up of thousands of perfectly formed grids. These geometrics create a visual link between her love of nature and science-math.

We sat on the deck, observing Woodhaven Regional Park through her chain link fence. She explained how COVID has given her the time to combine her love of science, art, and nature with giving back.

“I celebrate the subtle balance of order and disorder in nature. My work is inspired by the resilience of wild survivors and by intricate connections in ecosystems right at our doorsteps."

She has become very active in the Woodhaven Nature Conservancy, the brainchild of Lori Janice Mairs. Friends of Woodhaven Nature Conservancy is a non-profit society to protect and improve the conservancy for all of us.

Susan has also started a sketch club — Open Window Sketch Club — which is open to anyone interested in establishing connections and learning about nature stewardship.

As we talked, time slipped away without us noticing. Having the opportunity to explore art and nature with someone like Susan is what makes my job the best job in the world.

Sorry, you can’t have it. It’s all mine.

You can contact Susan at [email protected].


Feeding an addiction

I'm addicted. I can't live a day without feeling, rubbing or burying myself in it.

My fix?

Yarn. Some people hang out at bars. Me? A yarn store or even better — Eureka! — a sheep farm.

To feed my addiction, I visited Jan and Dale Hamby, who own the Fair Winds Farm in Quarryville, Penn., where they raise sheep and a 600-pound nak — a female yak — named Nora, who loves donuts.

She is the newest member of the four-legged producers of wool on this farm. Twice a day, Dale puts a halter on her and spends time with her so she gets used to humans. She has big horns and can move very quickly.

That’s where the donuts come in.

Dale is building a relationship with her so when he shears wool from her underbelly, he will survive the encounter.

Knitters covet yak wool and will pay any price because it is the softest, silkiest wool around.

Jan and Dale met in high school at the county leadership 4-H Club meeting in Ohio. 4-H clubs are youth organizations for engaging youth to reach their potential.

Jan grew up in Medina, the county seat of 10,000 people. Dale lived in nearby in Black River, a town that boasted one stoplight.

Even through neither lived on a farm, they both knew at this early age that they wanted to return to the land.

When university time came, they both needed scholarships.

In the 1970s, the military was actively recruiting, and offered scholarships for Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC). Its goal was to train college students for future service in the Army, Air Force, or Navy.

ROTC paid for college expenses in return for training during college and afterward.

Jan just wanted the scholarship, but soon discovered she loved the Navy. She stayed for her entire career and retired a two-star rear admiral. Her expertise was in computers, telecommunication, cyber, and space.

She was one of only 17 female admirals not in the medical service corps at that time.

Dale joined the Army and ended up at West Point Military Academy. He was commissioned into military intelligence.

They managed, with two different careers in two different services, to get re-acquainted, get married, start a family, get master's degrees and teach at West Point.

Jan taught computers and Dale economics.

How did these military people end up on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania?

When Jan was in Iraq in 2005-06, her twin sister sent her a care package. It contained double-pointed knitting needles, sock yarn, and a pattern.

Jan asked her what she was supposed to do with it.

Her sister said, “You’re smart; figure it out.”

Those were intense times in Iraq and she found knitting calming. Her love of fibre arts had begun.

Dale retired as a major in 1993 and began to teach. He narrowly missed out on the astronaut program for teachers in 2003, ran for the State House of Representatives, and worked for the department of defence and department of education.

They were working and living in Washington, D.C. when they bought property in Quarryville and started building their home on weekends.

The dream of owning a farm became a reality in 2013. They bought their first alpaca. They soon had eight.

They wanted a farm that went with Jan’s love of knitting. They wanted sheep. They chose Finnsheep — Finnish Landrace from Finland.

They are a great breed because:

  • They are compatible with alpacas
  • Dual purposed – raised for their wool and breeding,
  • Wool is on the fine end of medium and blends with alpaca

To make knittable yarn is more a labour of love than for profit.

Jan began her fibre studies to gain expertise.

  • In 2015, she went to Peru with Cat Bordhi, a world-renowned knit designer. They explored native techniques,
  • Studied forensic knitting — the study of how knits are put together, especially the use of yarns.
  • She studied a certificate program for wool graders and sorters.

"Artisan-produced wool is lovingly and intentionally created." said Jan. "Buying this type of wool gives you a direct connection to each sheep."

I visited Fair Winds Farm three years ago. I saw baby Finns, petted them, saw alpacas, and felt the beautifully finished skeins of wool Jan and Dale lovingly produced.

It was an unforgettable experience, and I am grateful that they shared their valuable time with me.

On any day, you will find Nora with her best buddy, Sophia, a miniature donkey, in the field, and Valor, the original sheep allowed to live out his days, keeping watch.

When I visit Fair Winds again, and see Sophia and Nora, I will definitely bring glazed donuts.

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About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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