The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal
Painting
Jack of all artistic trades, Bruce Horak, has made a career for himself in both the performing arts and music. His newest endeavor is painting, focusing on portraits and dabbling in landscapes.

He tours Canada and the United States for his art shows all while being one of Canada’s only legally blind visual artists. 

Through the art of storytelling, Horak engages the audience with his captivating show, Assassinating Thomson, about the mysterious death of Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson while simultaneously explaining how he became a painter.

By the end of the show, he has painted a portrait of the entire audience.

“It’s such a rarity these days to actually sit and have your portrait painted,” says Horak. “It is unique in that I was able to capture the likeness or the feeling of 200 people in a room at once.”

The painting is auctioned off after every show, with proceeds going to charity. On the second last show, Jenny Kost won the auction and got to take the audience portrait home.

Kost is also involved in the theater arts throughout Calgary, working within the same theater, The Lunchbox Theater.

“I loved it!” she said. “It’s nice to see people do things that you don’t think they can do.”

Her mother, Alexandra De Bono-Kost, also deals with visual impairment.

“Don’t let your perceptions of yourself hold you back,” De Bono-Kost said after the show. 

PaintingLegally blind artist Bruce Horak paints a picture of his audience with 9% vision in only one eye. Photo by Erin Sweere
The show’s uniquely informal style creates a more personal atmosphere between Horak and the audience.

“He just comes on and starts chatting. He wanted to make it as if you were sitting for a portrait with Bruce. And you're just chatting about stuff. So it's really unique theater,” says director of the show, Ryan Gladstone.

Gladstone and Horak met doing Shakespeare in the Park in Calgary in the late 1990s. Horak was a guest artist for the show Richard the Third, and a friendship grew from there.

Over the years the two have worked side by side creating dozens of plays since 2001, but this is the first time Gladstone has directed Horak.

“Bruce is kind of like a member of our family. We call him Uncle Bruce, no relation,” says Gladstone. “We have traveled together to do this show, Assassinating Thomson, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island.”

Over the years, Horak has traveled across Canada and through the United States for his shows, both performing and painting.

From May 17th to October 17th 2018, Horak and his girlfriend left his hometown of Calgary and traveled coast to coast for the show.

“We put the circumference of the planet on our minivan,” he says. “144, 000 kilometers in five months. That’s crazy, but I wouldn’t change it for anything, I love it.”

Horak caught the travel bug early on. He always saw himself as a traveling artist. He toured with Quest Theater, a Calgary-based theater company, and toured all over the province doing shows and going to elementary schools.

While traveling throughout Canada, the Maritimes captured his heart.

“I just find it thrilling and the people that you meet when you're traveling,” says Horak. “I’ve found that Canadians are just so inspiring, funny, compassionate, and open.”

Horak hopes he never stops traveling, as there is inspiration and new experiences around every corner.

“I just love the feeling of capturing something beautiful. It’s a way to mark time,” he says. “To me, it’s stronger than a photograph, stronger than an audio recording.”

“I just love the feeling of capturing something beautiful. It’s a way to mark time. To me, it’s stronger than a photograph, stronger than an audio recording.” - Bruce Horak


Horak lost his eyesight to cancer at a very young age. Doctors were going to remove both eyes, but his father stepped in and asked them if there was anything they could do to save his sight.

“They flew me to Toronto and they tried what was at that time a pretty radical treatment, which was to irradiate my eye. A little baby, imagine that. But my dad really did not want me to live my life without any eyesight at all, and it worked,” says Horak.

Doctors removed Horak’s right eye and irradiated his left which left scar tissue and damage to the retina and vitreous, but managed to leave him with 9% vision.

Horak was left seeing auras, floaters, flashers, and distortions. With his performing art career, he learned tricks to try and hide his visual impairment, but he embraces the impurities in his vision to capture how it is that he sees and transfers it to a canvas.

“Light comes in and refracts like a kaleidoscope around people and inanimate objects. There are these little halos and they will be different colors and will often kind of vibrates I've seen them ever since I was a kid,” says Horak.

He uses these colours as inspiration for his portrait sittings.

Horak 3Legally blind artist Bruce Horak’s paintings on display. Horak uses the 9% vision he has in only one eye to create works of art. Photo by Erin Sweere
Horak’s goal is to paint 1000 portraits by the end of the year. He is at number 555.

His favourite portrait, however, was not from one of his usual portrait paintings.

Part of his inspiration to begin painting was to honour his father’s courage and legacy. In 2002, his father got sick and was given a year to live.

As the year progressed and his father got sicker, he started to look less like himself. Horak didn’t end up painting his portrait, which he now regrets.

Years later, he sat down to finally paint his father’s portrait, but from memory.

“It's been five years I haven't looked at a picture of him, so how do you remember this guy?” he asked himself.

“But it was all from feeling, it was all from memory. It was remembering the smell of his study and the roll top desk. All this emotion is caught up in this portrait. So when I look at that picture it is like he is in the room with me in a way that goes beyond looking at a photograph or listening to a recording of his voice.

“That picture,” he says. “It’s like this really beautiful haunting.”

Editor: Holly Maller | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.