Food for Thought

Home on the Range

Three generations of one family realize their ranching dreams with Island Bison Ranch

Portals, symptoms edges, and gaps are recurring themes in Leslie Dunsmore’s paintings—the tantalizing spaces between tree trunks in a forest, the dangerous-but-exciting edges of cliffs, the evocative darkness of caves and crevasses.  And every painting, she says, has a pathway that draws the gaze into the heart of the image.

Those same themes—portals, edges, gaps and pathways—have marked Dunsmore’s journey as an artist.  Though she didn’t grow up thinking of herself as artsy, didn’t study art at college, and headed off on a series of entirely unrelated career paths, she is now, in her mid-60s, a full-time visual artist with a busy schedule of shows and a steady output of paintings—approximately 15 to 20 annually, many of which sell throughout the year.

Dunsmore is one of more than 20 artists featured in the Denman Island annual Studio Tour on August 18 and 19.  Visitors can linger in her light-filled Denman Island studio, view dozens of her paintings, take a peek at her celebrated garden (she’s been on the renowned Denman Home & Garden Tour numerous times), and talk to her about her creative process, the intriguing titles of her works, and the ins and outs of life on this abundantly creative Island.

Dunsmore traces the birth of her artistic sensibilities to her free-spirited mother… and a pathway.

“My mother would do these zany things,” recalls Dunsmore.  “For instance: it’s midnight and my mom is shaking all five of us awake.  She says, ‘Get up from your beds.  We’re going out to the beach down a dark trail through the woods to where the moon comes up and we may find some magic there.’

“At the time I was kind of embarrassed by her.  I was the scientific, realistic type so I’d be rolling my eyes.  But now I love that kind of thing; I can now do right brain and left brain.  And I’ve since thanked my mom.  She gave me a childhood of utter freedom and creativity.  It informs everything I do now.”

Although Dunsmore didn’t know it at the time, she was learning how to play, how to break or ignore rules in the pursuit of aesthetic splendor, and how to step through portals into the potent unknown.

Dunsmore enjoyed making art, but in spite of her mother she headed into adulthood thinking of herself as rational and scientific.  She studied science and education at university.  A chance encounter in her early 20s opened a portal to the world of art.

Dunsmore had taken an administrative job in a remote community in the far North, lured by the generous pay.  Sketching was an enjoyable way to pass the time and connect to the bleakly beautiful Arctic landscape.  One day Dunsmore was sketching out on the tundra when a shadow fell over her sketchbook.  She turned around to find a stranger looking at her work.

This man was a British engineer working on a contract for a mining company.  He was also an artist and lover of art.

“Two weeks later he came back and brought me some art supplies,” says Dunsmore.  He told me I should sign up for art school, but I said I was earning money here and liking it.  So he instructed me to get ahold of some National Geographic magazines, find a photo I like, and mimic it.  I did that—and got totally animated!”

A month later Dunsmore’s mentor returned, and was impressed with what he saw.  He continued to nudge Dunsmore along her artist’s path, giving her feedback, introducing her to ideas, and recommending books.

“There were no computers back then.  We had to order books from the library in Winnipeg, 1,000 miles away,” says Dunsmore.  Six months later when the engineer left, he told her that she needed to be an artist and gave her all his art supplies.

That was a good thing, because Dunsmore was hooked on art. “Those were my first two inklings that doing art was a joyous experience,” she says.

Dunsmore has been producing art ever since.  She never did get to art school in a formal way, but instead found inspiration and education by following her own adventurous path, while working full time as a public administrator, mediator, bee-keeper and teacher.

“I’m a bit of a gypsy and have been in a quite a few places around the world,” she says.  “In every city I spent time in when I was younger, I’d book into a night class.  I have three favorites.  In London, England, I took a five-month course in the elements of design and composition.  It completely opened my eyes!  I learned to look at a drawing or painting and figure out what didn’t work and how to make it work—maybe the problem is the horizon line is right in the middle, or the whole thing should be just what’s in the top right hand corner.

“And in Vancouver, I attended the Vancouver School of Art where I learned to draw.  We did life drawing, anatomy, the human body—it was wonderful.”

When Dunsmore was 45 she treated herself with a trip to Europe.  “I went to Florence, Italy for two months’ study at Santa Reparata Graphics Studio, a program run by Emily Carr School of Art.  It was such a treat.  We were in the studio eight to 10 hours a day, and on weekends we had art history trips all over Italy, including Venice.  I was in heaven.  And courses at North Island College in printmaking opened my eyes and my mind even more.”

Not long after her Italian adventure Dunsmore started to feel that she was pushing up against an edge.

She wanted more art in her life.  She was tired of earning an income full-time at one thing and trying to fit in painting on the side.  Being a resolutely practical person with a mortgage to pay, she was skeptical of such a seemingly irrational idea, and spent about five years letting this desire—more art!  less work!—roil around in her brain.  She’d travelled along pathways, stepped through portals, but she wasn’t ready to go over the edge.

“So I decided to take three months off.  I said to my partners in our mediation firm, ‘You take over everything.’  They asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’  I said, ‘Nothing’.”

And nothing was what she did—not even painting.  She allowed herself to experience something she often includes in her paintings: a gap, a still space, a pregnant pause.  For the first time since childhood she didn’t have a plan for each day.  She spent hours just sitting, looking at the world around her and the world inside of her.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I was used to being very active.  But out of that time came a conclusion: I said to myself, ‘You’ve loved doing art; it feeds you more than anything else in the world.  You have to find a way to do it full-time.’  So at age 57 I said to my partners, ‘You take the company, I’m leaving to be an artist.’  I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to jump off a cliff here.’”

Going over the edge proved not be so scary after all, perhaps because Dunsmore did not abandon her rational side in the process.

“I knew I couldn’t simply paint beautiful things and expect that people would somehow buy them.  I very consciously went about using the administrative skill set I’d developed.  I took two highly effective workshops in Vancouver on marketing.  Boy, did that open my eyes! When I got back I sat right down and over two intensive weeks created a thorough business plan,” she says.

Engaging her ‘left brain’ capabilities—organizing and marketing—to help her ‘right brain’ artistic nature has allowed Dunsmore to finally do what she loves best full time.

One of Dunsmore’s favorite ways to market herself is to bring people to her lovely island home.  Not only does she take part in the Denman Island Studio Tour every year (see box), she’s hosted her own annual weekend event in early July for the past eight years, The Garden of Lilies Art Show.  Visitors are invited to spend time in her mature hillside garden, which boasts more than 500 lilies as well as many other ornamental and edible plants, and to enjoy the art hung in her studio and ocean-view home.

When Dunsmore moved to Denman Island in 1975, she didn’t realize it was on its way to becoming an artists’ colony.  She fell in love immediately with the beauty of the Island and only later came to realize she’d landed in a community full of creative people.

“I love being able to have dialogues with other artists about art, and I love the sense of being surrounded by people who do art whether they are hobbyists or professionals,” she says.  “I never get the sense that we are competing; there’s so much variety here and I know some people will like my art and others won’t.”

Dunsmore’s paintings are not easy to categorize.  They present scenes in nature; there are often bold, vibrant, warm colors but sometimes there is darkness and melancholy; they appear realistic, and yet there are purple trees and ghostly forest-scapes that seem to come from the world of dreams.

“You could call these impressionistic, expressionistic, realistic, hyper-realistic, or probably other labels as well,” says Dunsmore.  But the best word she can finds is one more often used to describe literature:  “mythopoeic.”

“You look at one of my paintings and you know you’re in a marsh, on the top of a mountain or the side of a sand dune, but it’s not entirely realistic.  A sense of place is being defined but then it evokes something internal, something personal in the viewer’s psyche.

“Always, when looking for image to paint, I’m looking for a silence of some kind.  It can be a mysterious silence, a calming silence, a scary silence.  That’s what I’m after.  Beauty helps me get there.  Color helps me get there.”

The silence Dunsmore is speaking of is not “dead air” type silence—it’s the profound, numinous, full-of-power silence that spiritual traditions speak of.  Dunsmore recognizes this.  “Making art gives me what other people get from yoga and meditation,” she says.

Dunsmore has a clear sense of the power of art—not just for herself but for the world.

“This is what I hold true: art is an expression of humanity,” she says.  “It’s a mark we put into the world for others to view.  For the viewer, it can evoke a spiritual connection which, when activated, enhances our humanity.”

Art is not simply decoration for Dunsmore.  She summarizes a CBC program about art and war:  “During the siege of Leningrad, the people of the city knew the invasion was coming.  Someone decided to mount a performance of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony.  The musicians were starving; they could barely lift their instruments.  Because so many of the orchestra members had died, they brought in Stalingrad army musicians to fill in.  As the city fell and the enemy marched in, they played, and they broadcast the music all over the city.  The people of Leningrad were roused to stand strong and defend their city, and they succeeded in routing the enemy.”

This is not the only example of art changing history, she points out.  And today, with the earth facing so many threats, we need art more than ever.

“When you look at art you can be awakened.  The artist needs to find the doorway to make this happen.  It doesn’t always work, but we need to keep trying,” she adds.  “This is all the more important when the planet is under siege.  Until we find the stillness in our hearts we can blindly keep doing what we’ve been doing that is destroying the earth for our children.  I hope—I believe—that art can open our eyes and make us less blind.”

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On August 18 and 19, more than 20 Denman Island artists will open their studio doors to the public for the Denman Island Studio Tour.  This free event offers a rare glimpse into an artist’s creative space, giving a sense of their process, their inspiration, their inner life, and the roots of their creativity.

Pick up a map of the tour at the Arts Centre in the Denman Village and set off at your own pace.  The tour includes painting, sculpture, fibre arts, ceramics, jewelry, multi-media and photography.  10 am-4 pm daily.

When Marc Vance was a boy he told his parents that one day he would own a ranch.  His much-talked about dream, however, was a vision of vast prairie dotted with cattle.  A herd of bison peacefully grazing in lush fields on Vancouver Island never factored into the equation.

“When I get up in the morning and look out the window, I practically have to pinch myself because it still seems surreal,” says Vance as he gestures toward the fields of Island Bison ranch in Black Creek.  “I am so lucky to live here with my family!”

The panoramic view features a beautiful new home set against a backdrop of towering Douglas fir trees, a welcoming farm gate store, a couple of big barns and steel holding corrals.  As if that wasn’t idyllic enough, there is also a herd of American buffalo—more commonly referred to in Canada as ‘bison’—shuffling about peacefully under a hot summer sun.  If there is a heaven on earth this just might be it.

One of the reasons Vance is so captivated by this lifestyle is that he and his family are still relatively new to both Vancouver Island and to the ranch.  Vance and his wife Lisa, their four children Taylor (15), Tanner (12), Chase (9) and Laney (5), along with Lisa’s parents, Dick and Carol Watson, moved here from Langley just last year.  The Island Bison Ranch, however, has been here since 2004.  How both came together are equally interesting stories.

“We have owned and operated a successful closet organizing business in Langley called Sunburst Shutters, Blinds and Closets since 1997,” explains Vance.  “In 2004, we moved from the city to a three-acre hobby farm.  I thought that I was finally going to be able to become a rancher… albeit on a very small scale.  My dream was shattered when we brought home two calves and I discovered that I was severely allergic to cattle. I suffered an acute anaphylactic reaction and almost stopped breathing.  The calves had to go and, in their place, came a few sheep, goats and chickens.

“While we loved our little farm, it was not exactly my idea of ranching,” Vance adds with a laugh.  “Later, following a hunting trip to northern BC, I discovered that I am not allergic to bison, so a small seed of hope was planted.”

About the same time that Vance was in Langley and coming to terms with his severe cattle allergy and resultant squashed dream, another man’s dream was becoming a reality.   On Vancouver Island, Delton Henrich was thrilled that his first shipment of 50 bison had arrived on his new ranch.

Henrich had started farming as a teenager and developed a large dairy farm with his family.  Twenty years later, he embarked on a career in the coastal logging industry, working as a falling contractor for 25 years.  In 2002, after retiring from ‘the woods’, Henrich purchased land from Timberwest Forest Products and set out to turn the heavily forested land into his very own ‘field of dreams’.

It took two years to clear the land, create the pastures, install fencing and build corrals.  By 2004, Henrich became the first person on Vancouver Island to have a bison farm, simply named ‘Island Bison.’

In the summer of 2009, circumstance (combined with poor directions) resulted in Marc Vance and his son Chase accidentally driving by Island Bison on Hamm Road in Black Creek.

“I was on Vancouver Island to install a closet system,” recalls Vance.  “We were hopelessly lost and just happened to drive by this field full of buffalo.  That got me dreaming again!  I decided to call the owner to inquire about it.  At the time, I had no idea that Delton Henrich had put Island Bison ranch up for sale.  One week later, Lisa and I came back to Vancouver Island to check out the farming operation and the local church.”

The Vance’s belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and, if they decided to move here, having the on-going support of an extended church family was vitally important to them. Not surprisingly, the faith community welcomed them with open hearts.  While leaving behind their Langley congregation would be difficult, knowing they would be welcome here was an important factor in their decision to relocate.

Before they began negotiations to buy Island Bison, the Vance family held a family council.  They discussed whether or not they should take a leap of faith, sell the Langley area hobby farm, and move to Vancouver Island to raise bison.  The entire family shared Marc’s excitement.  The ‘For Sale’ sign went up on their Langley property and the Vance’s were committed to move to Black Creek.

Island Bison is a family affair. From left: Lisa and Mark Vance with daughter Laney and son Chase, and Lisa’s parents Richard and Carol Watson, hang out their family dog and friendly resident pigs.

Photo by Seadance Photography

The purchase of Island Bison included the 110-acre property, all infrastructures, and the bison herd.  There were no living accommodations on the farm at the time.  They took possession in April, 2011.  They leased an addition 43 acres from Henrich and are now in negotiations to purchase that property as well.

Marc and his in-laws moved to the Island immediately after the sale closed, boarding with members of their church while they learned to run the ranch and build a house on the property.

“It was a real learning experience,” says Vance.  “We had to learn everything.  I didn’t even know how to drive a tractor!  We were working from 7 am until 10 pm every day.  It was both exhausting and exhilarating!”

The new home, with carriage house accommodations for grandma and grandpa Watson, was finished by August of last year and the rest of the family moved here soon after.  Raising bison is now a family affair.

“I still travel to Vancouver a couple of times a month to oversee business operations there,” says Vance. “And Dick and I do most of the work connected with the bison and operating the farm.  Lisa and Carol help with the office and organizing sales at the farmers’ markets in Courtenay and Campbell River, as well as direct marketing to retailers and restaurants.  The kids help where they can and have started their own little business making pet treats from bison by-products.”

After extensive research on raising bison, and plenty of guidance from other bison breeders in Canada, Marc Vance was committed to raise the bison based on a ‘hands off’ management philosophy.  Unlike cattle and other domesticated farm animals that may need hands-on attention, bison are still wild and do best when left alone.  The Island Bison buffalo roam freely in the pasture and adjacent wooded areas.  They breed, give birth to their calves, and mingle in a herd much like their plains-roaming ancestors did.

While they may be in captivity, you can never forget that they are still wild animals that can be aggressive at times and very protective of their young.  Considering that a full-grown adult bison can weigh upwards of 2,400-pounds, they can be very dangerous… and fast!  A bison can go from a standstill to 55 kilometres per hour charge in just three steps!

When circumstances require that the bison be handled, every aspect of the human interaction is done as calmly as possible.  The bison are lured into the holding corrals with hay and then guided slowly through a zigzag series of alley-ways until they get to a special bison ‘squeeze’ where they can be safely examined and handled for ear tagging, weighing or pregnancy checking.

“The hydraulic-controlled Berlinic Handling System we use was developed using input provided by Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who achieved word-wide recognition for her insight into animal behaviour and the development of humane animal handling facilities,” says Vance.  “Whenever we are working with the bison we have to be absolutely certain it is safe for both man and beast.  We would never, for example, use a cattle prod or whip to get a bison to move.  Instead, a simple paddle filled with pebbles is used.  We calmly shake that by their heels a couple of times and they quickly move forward because, to a bison, it sounds like a rattlesnake!”

The Vance’s bison herd consists of about 75 adults, 25 calves and another 10 or so calves that will be born in the coming weeks.  The bison are 100 per cent grass fed and they drink water from natural springs on the property.  The only supplement provided is a special kelp meal that supplies additional vitamins and minerals.

Richard Watson and Mark Vance help Laney Vance bottle-feed Ginger, a six-week-old orphaned bison calf.

Photo by Seadance Photography

The bison are not routinely treated with antibiotics and never receive growth hormones.  Each animal is identified with an ear tag and a microchip so that in the rare case where antibiotics may be used to treat an infection, the individual can be tracked to ensure it is excluded from the meat supply chain.

Bison are ready for butchering at about 18-24 months of age, when they weight about 1,000-pounds.  A dressed carcass produces about 500 pounds of prime meat cuts, as well as cuts more suitable for processing into sausages and pepperoni.

Vance is proud to say that all Island Bison processed meats are custom-made by Rob Hacker in Comox.  They are cured with celery powder, not chemical nitrates or nitrites. They are seasoned with sea salt produced on Vancouver Island and sweetened with Big D’s Honey, which is also produced locally.  Absolutely nothing is wasted in the processing of a bison—skulls are cleaned and sold as decorations; the hides are given to First Nations people so they can cure them and use the leather to make drums; organ meats and other extra ‘parts’ are turned into dog treats.

While many of the young bison may eventually be harvested, there is one special bison that will likely spend the rest of his days roaming the Black Creek ranch.  ‘Bob’ is a castrated male bison about four years old, bought from a ranch in Pincher Creek, Alberta and introduced to the herd last fall.  Bob was hand-raised and had become quite tame—for a wild buffalo—but he had become too big to be a pet.

“I had no idea what I would do with Bob, but I couldn’t resist bringing him home to be our mascot,” Vance sheepishly admits.  “Turns out, because he has some trust of humans, Bob has a calming effect on the entire herd and is especially helpful when we separate cows and calves so we’ve nicknamed him ‘Bob the babysitter.’ Bob usually comes when called and the other bison follow him.  This allows us to take a close look at the herd, which is a great because they are normally very wary of humans. ”

There is one bison on the ranch, however, that can be touched… at least for now.  Her name is Ginger and she is an orphaned calf.  Lisa Vance invites me down to the barn for the afternoon bottle-feeding so I can meet her.

Along with an entourage of farm visitors, I peek through the fence rails and see the three-week-old baby bison and two six-week-old Asian water buffalo calves named Wallie and Ollie.

“Ginger was born on the ranch but was orphaned when her mother was mortally wounded in an altercation with another bison,” says Lisa.

“Because bison are herd animals, she would have failed to thrive on her own, so we bought Walley and Ollie from the McClintock’s Dairy Farm in Dove Creek to keep her company.  They sell buffalo milk to Natural Pastures Cheese factory.  Ginger will eventually be introduced back into the herd but we plan to raise the water buffalo and train them to pull a cart.  We thought it would be fun to have them on the farm so that visitors can see the difference between a true bison and a buffalo.”

Wallie and Ollie are released from the confines of the pen and scamper over to enthusiastically drink their milk, much to the delight of the kids holding the milk bottles. I am invited to enter the pen and feed Ginger her lunch.  While the she may still have a wild instinct, her will to survive outweighs instinctive caution.  She does not hesitate to come for her bottle and guzzles it down with remarkable speed. Then she starts bouncing around the pen with what I can only assume is a mixture of playfulness and wild abandon.  Cute as she is, I think it was wise to leave her alone to kick up her heels without me as a target!

For me, the experience of bottle-feeding a baby bison was a thrill.  For the Vance family it has become part of the daily chores… but always a fun one.   As on any farm, every day brings both moments of joy and unique challenges, but the Vance family wouldn’t trade it for anything else.  They are thrilled with their new life… and are at home where the buffalo roam.

To arrange a visit to Island Bison Ranch or inquire as to where to  buy their bison meat, call 250-650-9305 or visit 

Visitors are welcome to visit the ranch by appointment any day except Sunday.  You can meet Ginger, Wallie and Ollie up close and view the adult bison from behind the safety of the fence.

One Response to Home on the Range

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