Doing What He Loves

By Judee Fong

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"There's no such thing as retirement," says professional wildlife photographer, artist and musician James Lawler. “I’m busier now than when I was working!”

Originally from Ontario, James was working for the Ontario Lottery Corporation when a friend from Victoria sent him a copy of the Times Colonist.

“The Ontario snow was up to here, the temperature dropped down to there and we decided enough was enough,” says James. “We came out for a ‘look-see’ six years ago and been here ever since.”

While living in Ontario, James and his wife owned a cottage surrounded by birds and wildlife - a photographic opportunity for someone with patience and a camera. At that time, James worked as a freelance photographer for local newspapers and magazines. He eventually taught himself to paint the wildlife he photographed. Smiling, he props up his painting of a heron, the beautifully executed brush strokes showing the feathers gently ruffled by the breeze.

“This is Henry, the resident heron at Beacon Hill Park,” he says. “I set up my tripod and took some photographs, so I always say, ‘thank you’ for the camera. It captures a moment an artist can later translate into a picture.”

Even if only for a moment, James believes a skillfully painted picture can capture the imagination and grab attention. When a person comes back and wants the painting for himself, then the artist has done his job well.

“I always try to make my next painting better than the last one. I tell people my next painting is my best and that keeps me on my toes!”

Moving beyond art as a hobby, James has had a few tentative opportunities fall through as he navigates the perilous business of a professional artist.

“I had an opportunity to work with Roger Soane, the General Manager of the Fairmont Empress, before he moved to Whistler,” says James. “We were going to do a project involving a ‘makeover’ of the Bengal Room. I wanted to remove the tiger skin off the wall and hang a blow-up of one of my tiger paintings. There would be coasters made of the tiger’s head and people could take these home as a souvenir. Roger was really enthused over this project, but then he got transferred and everything came to a standstill.”

Playing his clarinet began as a form of therapy. “I had a stroke and was losing the ability to use my hands,” says James. “I couldn’t let this happen. Years ago, I played a bit of clarinet, so I made myself pick it up and play again. It made me concentrate on using my fingers and mind to play the music. The clarinet gave me back control of my hands.”

James plays music “by ear” as he is unable to read music. He has approximately 500-600 tunes in his head. “If I hear a tune or melody for the first time, I can play it back within seconds,” he says.

Reflecting on his self-imposed rehabilitation, James says, “Music helped in my stroke recovery just like painting was another form of therapy. Both were challenging, at the time.”

Rediscovering the delights of playing music, James got together with a few other retirees to form a four-piece combo called Moon Glow. They played the melodies of the '40s and '50s for seniors who remember the music of that era. Moon Glow also played for seniors in care homes and hospitals.

“In many of the places we played, the seniors were bedridden but we would see their feet tapping or their hands moving. When you looked at them, they would wink at you - it made our playing the music more memorable.”

“At present, the band is dependent upon everyone’s health,” says James. “We play when we can, but it’s no longer a regular thing, which is too bad.”

James does play his clarinet for the Oak Bay Monterey Sing-Along Group, who visits various senior homes once a month. “It’s great!” he raves. “Music is something you have to keep playing and the people who hear us enjoy it!”

With Moon Glow, James says, “We’ve all played together for awhile and have developed a chemistry where a nod at the other guys tells them to repeat the chorus or segue into the next piece. The pianist at the Monterey Centre played this piece brilliantly. At the end of the song, without any communication between us, she carried on with a tag where she repeated the last phrase three times. I knew she was going to do this and she knew I would follow her. I was totally blown away because it seemed so natural. That’s the intangible, the chemistry between musicians.”

Living his life to the fullest, James is a “people person.” His art and music gives him public exposure. “I like meeting people, building a reputation, getting the recognition,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun when people approach me because they recognize a bird or a place from my paintings and want to chat about it. I will never get rich, but I’ve enjoyed doing this!”

To anyone approaching retirement or newly retired, James advises, “You’ve spent years working for someone else. Retirement is your chance to do something you’ve always wanted to do like learning something new or trying something different. Whatever it is, don’t talk yourself out of it - just go ahead and do it!”

For more information, James Lawler can be reached at 250-598-1532 or by email at



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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

Great Article. blog post - I was enlightened by the details ! Does someone know where my assistant would be able to get access to a blank a form example to fill out ?

Posted by Velvet Wenner | November 9, 2015 Report Violation

I really enjoyed the article love your art and your positive attitude. Keep up the great work see you at Tue club. regards Linda

Posted by Linda Blumenthal | September 3, 2014 Report Violation

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