Edmonton painter captures perfect storms on canvas

For Jay Bigam, tornadoes have become his newest muse.

'Storm chasing is so much more than just a snapshot in time,' says one Alberta storm chaser

Titled Turbulent Skies, this painting is based on a photograph of a twister in Breton, Alta. (Jay Bigam)

For Jay Bigam, tornadoes have become his newest muse.

The Edmonton artist is collaborating with six avid storm chasers to capture some of the Prairie's most powerful summer squalls in paintings and photography.

Bigam is using extreme weather photography as the inspiration for a series of six new oil works.

Both the paintings and the pictures that inspired them will be featured side by side in an exhibit titled Turbulent Skies, slated for its first showcase next year.
This photograph of the Breton tornado by Nevin deMilliano served as the inspiration for one of Bigam's paintings. (Nevin deMilliano)

Bigam's pursuit brought him to the edge of a twister that touched down in Breton, Alta last month.

"It's incredible when you're there and you're standing in front of one of these incredible fronts that move in," he said in an interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "It's really hard to describe but it certainly has really sunk in, just the energy, the motion and movement of these storms.

"That's what I try to convey in my paintings, is the movement."

Bigam, who recently began painting again after a 17-year hiatus, had become fascinated with the striking images shared by storm chasers on social media.

The photographs and video of forked lightning, brooding thunder clouds, and whirling tornados were a revelation.

He decided he wanted to harness the raw beauty of severe weather events in his landscape work.

But before putting his paintbrush to canvas, he wanted to experience the storms firsthand. He enlisted the help of avid storm chasers like Calgary's Nevin deMilliano and waited for bad weather to hit.
This painting by Jay Bigam was inspired by a photograph taken by Alberta storm chaser Chris Ratzlaff. (Jay Bigam)

"The whole idea of the project is to go out and experience these storms and get sort of a visceral feeling for what these weather events are like so I could translate them to the canvas," Bigam said. "I told these storm chasers, what I would like to do is come and chase with you. And from that chase we would choose an iconic photo that they took and I would interpret that in my style."

While Bigam expected to hear back from only one or two, "I ended up with six on board with the project." 

On the morning of July 13 he got a call from deMilliano. Conditions were ripe for a tornado. They headed southwest of the city and spotted a large angry cloud on the horizon.

Eventually, it formed into a supercell which produced golf-ball-size hail and a powerful funnel cloud. "I think he was probably a little bit nervous that day because I woke up in the morning, and I was like, this is probably a tornado day," recalls deMilliano.

"We knew it was going to be an interesting day so we headed out early but everything was great. We avoided the big hail and steered around that storm."

It's impossible to verbally describe a monster storm like that, said deMilliano. But Bigam's abstract paintings capture them in a way photography can't.  

"That why I jumped on board with this project," said deMilliano. "Storm chasing is so much more than just a snapshot in time when you're taking that picture.

"You can feel that piping hot air flowing into the storm and those feelings are part of the storm-chasing experience.  Jay kind of works that into how he presents his art in an abstract way but also a very dynamic way."