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Realist wildlife artist Nicole Ruuska discovers new species to paint in Nova Scotia

 

Self-taught wildlife artist—and newly-minted Meadowvale, NS resident—Nicole Ruuska has always felt a profound attachment to nature. Born in the tiny community of Shabaqua, Ontario, Ruuska’s playground was “all trees and nature.” She became infatuated with birds, animals, and the natural habitat.

At the age of two, Ruuska moved with her family to nearby Thunder Bay on the shores of Lake Superior, which continued to fuel her passion. “I have to live with nature,” she says.

Ruuska’s interest in art emerged from watching her mother “doodle”, often while on the telephone with friends. She began to do the same as soon as she could hold a pencil.
She didn’t realize her talent for painting until she was in high school, and her brother and sister gifted her with a paint set. Nicole’s sister gave her another valuable gift—a book by wildlife artist Robert Bateman, filled with his iconic, realist paintings. “I couldn’t believe anyone could paint so life-like and ever since then I’ve just strived to learn,” Nicole says. “He has always been a great motivator to me to try to push myself.”

It was a vacation in the Canadian Rockies—while working as a chiropractic assistant in Thunder Bay—that led to an unexpected life path, explains Ruuska. “It was a spiritual journey my soul needed. Driving through the Rocky Mountains really spoke to my inner spirit. I felt I had to live there, in the mountains. It was like I was home.”Following her heart, Ruuska moved to Cremona, Alberta, where she basked in the splendour of the foothills for seven years.

Next stop: Calgary, where Ruuska fulfilled another dream to work as a flight attendant. Not having the requisite French as a teen in Thunder Bay, she was elated that at 32 she could make that dream come true. She joined WestJet and worked for the company for 18 years, retiring in 2021.


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Calgary brought blessings. It was there that Ruuska met her idol, Robert Bateman, during a print-signing at a local gallery. She gleefully encountered him a second time at a fund-raiser where Bateman was keynote speaker.

Not one to stay deeply rooted, Ruuska next settled in Harrison Mills, British Columbia where she stayed for 12 years. Surrounded by mountain peaks, lush forest, and salmon-rich rivers, she remained in her natural element.

Oregon-born wildlife painter Terry Isaac was another mentor to Ruuska. Isaac became a protege of Robert Bateman’s whom the two met at a workshop in Montana in 1987. Bateman was so impressed with Isaac’s work that he recommended him to Mill Pond Press, the company that produces Bateman’s limited-edition prints.

Serendipitously, Isaac moved to Penticton, BC, where Ruuska took courses from him at Apex Mountain Resort. The two remained friends and were planning an art workshop together, before his sudden passing in 2019.

Although Ruuska paints primarily on canvas, she has expanded her craft to include other natural surfaces like rocks, tree fungus, oyster shells, feathers, and driftwood. That diversity was spawned while camping in Bear Creek, BC. Noticing her painting alone at a picnic table, a campground operator challenged her to paint something on a piece of tree fungus. She accepted that challenge, and created a hauntingly realistic raccoon.

Ruuska also practices “scratch art”, created on mason board with kaolin clay and India ink, using a sharp implement to carve out the subject matter.

Why is she calling Nova Scotia home now? “The first time I came here was 30 years ago for a wedding,” says Ruuska. “I fell in love with the ocean, the people, and I thought I would love to live here. With WestJet, I had overnight trips to Halifax, and I vacationed here a few times. I fell in love with the Annapolis Valley, the Bay of Fundy, so when it was time to retire, this is where I wanted to be. I felt that same feeling I did when I travelled through the Rockies. My soul was “home” again.”Nicole continues, “Now that I live here, I am so excited to paint the local wildlife. We don’t have cardinals in B.C., and I’ve never painted lighthouses before. We don’t have blue jays either, though in Ontario we did. I would also like to create ocean and landscape scenes of Nova Scotia in oils.” She just painted her first puffin.

Ruuska works full-time on her art from her home in Meadowvale, which she shares with fiancé, Damian Brennan. Her work can also be found at Oceanside Artland Gallery in Cornwallis, NS and the Artist Circle
in Margaretsville.

 

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