I recently had the good fortune to bump into professional artist and adventurer Shauna Liora. She was at a display booth in Banff, Alberta, where she was selling some of the most eye-popping, adventure-themed art I'd ever seen. Using a technique called 'fire-art' that she developed herself, the backgrounds of her pieces swim with a dreamlike, aurora borealis glow upon which outdoor adventurers and wilderness scenes of all sorts come to life.
I've always felt that planning and carrying out journeys in the outdoors is an art form, requiring creativity and vision. Shauna takes this a step further, by utilizing these wilderness experiences to fuel her artistic vision.
A true Renaissance person, Shauna is not only a talented professional artist but an ACMG guide, Search and Rescue Team Leader, and educator. I chatted with about her remarkable, passion-driven lifestyle.
Frank: You had a very interesting and unique upbringing. Can you describe it? How did it influence your outlook on life and art?
Shauna: Adventure is in my blood. My grandparents courted in a horse and buggy and, when they married, lived in a grain storehouse until my grandfather was able to build their first real house. They settled in Monetville, a northern Ontario community so small that, to this day, it lacks even a single traffic light or store. It was the perfect place for the seeds of adventure to grow. My grandfather built a marina and us grandkids spent endless hours exploring the area in a beat-up old boat we called 'The Aluminum.' Our days were filled with fishing, camping and exploring the islands and woods of the Canadian Shield.
My grandfather had a deep love for adventure. He built a couple of wilderness shacks for hunting and fishing. For me, the highlight of each year was our March break trip up to the remote 'Cochrane Camp' where we spent a week sledding and ice fishing. As a young girl, I remember curling up in my sleeping bag in the top bunk watching my Grandfather study maps, deciding on new lakes to explore the next day. He had an itch that couldn't be scratched, and he passed that on to me. My parents also shared this passion, and our family vacations were filled with backcountry canoe, fishing and sledding trips. Adventure is what shaped me and I'm forever grateful to my Grandfather and parents for those experiences.
In my twenties I had my share of international adventures but circled back to Canada as my hunger to explore the beauty of our Canadian wilderness continued to grow.
F: How has your connection to the outdoors inspired or influenced your art?
S: I’ve always been a curious person. There is this hunger that compels me to see what's around the next corner when paddling a river or over the next peak. Following that curiosity has always taken me to beautiful places, both with art and adventure.
Years ago, my friend and I decided to head up a peak called Windtower in less-than-ideal conditions. A thick fog had settled in, obscuring everything from valley bottom to mountain top. With no guarantee of views to reward our efforts, we scrambled up in the swirling mist. We reached the top and ate our lunch in a world of white. Just as we started heading down, the curtain of mist lifted and the peaks around us were revealed. It was a moment of profound beauty and one that lives on in my mind. I was able to snap a quick picture and, just like that, the surrounding mountains were shrouded in white once again.
The opportunities to experience moments of beauty like that are a big part of why I love adventure. I don’t know when they will come, but they do come. I simply must create space for them to happen by getting out there! These are the moments I feel most alive. When I create art, each piece is a way of capturing the emotional resonance of those outdoor experiences and to convey the thrill and beauty of those moments.
The funny thing about both adventure and art is that neither are necessary in any tangible way, and yet they both satisfy a need. It’s something we experience. We feel. It gives us the gift of living in the moment.
F: What is your most memorable adventure and why?
S: One of my most memorable adventures was a trip during my river guiding days in which very little went according to plan. This was a 14-day canoe trip down the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, a remote river and a mecca for serious canoe trippers. Intense rain from the previous week had created flood conditions and washed out the road to the floatplane we needed to get us to our put-in spot. We ended up needing to charter a helicopter to even get us to the floatplane!
Our clients were a group of father and son Boy Scouts from Texas that were experienced paddlers, or so they said. They insisted they knew all the knots to tie their gear into the canoes but, when we hit the first rapids, one of their canoes flipped and we lost a stove, a spray deck, their personal gear and a barrel full of food. Fortunately, we spotted their personal gear stuck in a massive log jam and were able to recover it, with great difficulty, and the food barrel showed up floating down the river two days later! With the rain still falling and the river rising, all the usual camp spots were underwater. Several times, we were forced to move our tents as the water rose during the night.
When we reached the legendary Virginia Falls, we received news that there had been a death on the river the previous day when a canoe flipped going through Fourth Canyon. To reduce our risk, and ensure greater stability through the large standing waves, we spent a day building 'canyon rigs' (catamaran canoes). A few days later, we were cooking dinner when an adolescent grizzly bear popped out, smelled supper and decided it wanted to join in. Thankfully it was on the other side of a very swollen river so, although we watched it try to swim across three times, it ended up having to turn back each time until it was out of sight downriver. Despite the challenges we faced it was an incredible trip, the beauty of this remote area is still with me and we came back with some great stories.
F: It may be related to the previous question, but what is the closest call you’ve ever had on an adventure?
S: Despite all the rescue situations I’ve dealt with through Search and Rescue and guiding over the years, the closest call I've ever had was a run-in with a cougar while hiking alone. I was in an area where few people venture and, seeing something intriguing, I decided to head off-trail through some thick woods to get a closer look. Suddenly, I heard a twig snap behind me. I whirled around and there was a cougar, frozen in mid-stride, less than 15 feet away. My mind recalled the importance of standing your ground and maintaining direct eye contact, but the first thing that came out of my mouth was “Don't even think about it!" After a tense 10-second stare down that felt like an eternity, it finally slunk away into the bushes. I still wonder how long it had been following me and am very thankful for that helpful twig.
F: What brought you to live in the Rockies? What is it about the area that you most love?
S: I moved out west to Alberta when I was 18 to study but quickly discovered the endless playground of fun that exists in the Rockies! You can explore for a lifetime and never run out of new horizons to see. I love how I can be in Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country in less than an hour from where I live. But the best part is there are still places you can go where you won't see a soul for days if you are willing to venture off the beaten path.
F: Do you prefer to guide groups or adventure solo?
S: My mindset when guiding is very different from heading out on my own. Having guided and explored in the Canadian Rockies for the past 20 years, it's hard to say which one I prefer. When I go out on my own, I let my hunger to explore new and wild places take over. There is a freedom in it. When I instruct SAR Wilderness Team Leader courses, however, I love passing along the hard and soft skills it takes to competently lead a team in wilderness terrain. To know those skills may help save lives down the road, which is also immensely satisfying.
When I'm guiding, my focus is on my clients. I want them to have a rewarding experience, even when the unexpected occurs. A couple of years ago I was instructing for the College of The Rockies on a week-long backpack excursion in the White Goat Wilderness Area. We set up camp the first night and woke up to knee-deep snow the next morning. Winter had arrived. Post-holing in deep snow, navigating over mountain passes in white-out conditions, and dealing with a helicopter evacuation for an injury wasn't what the students had expected but it made for an adventure they will remember. The experience they gained is invaluable and I enjoy being a part of that.
F: How did you develop your Fire Art technique? Why are you passionate about it?
S: While on a trip to Inuvik in 2015, I met a First Nations artist who introduced me to the mysteries of creating works of art with fire and ink. For three years I experimented with it myself and developed my own method that gives the fire freedom to express itself, resulting in vibrant, aurora-like effects. Now, I simply call it “Fire Art”.
Developing this new creative process forced me to work with the unknown. There was a lot of experimentation and dead ends. Unlike conventional painting, I can't start with an exact vision of what I want to create. There is a wildness that I must accept when working with fire. I work with each piece over and over again, using different techniques to allow the alchemy of fire to transform the ink until it surprises or moves me.
Once the burning process is complete, I get to interpret what the fire and ink has created and then hand-paint or draw-in a mountain landscape or silhouette or based on what the piece is speaking to me. It’s a two-step creative process that allows me to combine my skills as an artist and adventurer to help tell stories through each piece.
I love to create art that connects people to how they explore wild places. Whether it's hiking, paddling, camping or climbing, there is a fire in all of us to express our adventurous nature. The moments when we feel most alive are what I strive to capture through my art. I want to bring people back to those feelings, and to connect with their passion.
I created a short video that shows how I work with the fire and ink. It allows me to tap into that pyro side that all of us have.
F: What does a typical day look like for you?
S: One of the best things about my life is that there is no typical day! Whether it's creating art, guiding, working on my business or adventuring, I tend to be very project focused. I concentrate on one thing and put in long days to complete it. There are seasons of focus as well, like guiding and instructing in the spring and summer, and art markets in the fall. Creating art is a bit different. I get in this zone where I often create into the wee hours of the morning when inspiration hits me. If I happen to be working at home, I always need to fit in a daily dose of the outdoors. I jump the fence and go for a hike in the nature preserve behind my house. That always clears my mind.
F: Do you have a single favourite piece of art you’ve created? If so, what is it and what makes it most special to you?
S: I most definitely do! Last year I went on a week-long canoe trip down the historic French River and up the Key River with my dad and some friends. It was a trip where I felt really connected with my dad, he in the stern and me in the bow, paddling together. He is someone who lives life authentically with his heart. He is a man of deep faith, who looks up in a world of constant distractions and finds peace no matter the circumstances. He also loves getting up at first light and reeling in that early morning catch. I wanted a piece that reflected that part of who he is and 'It Is Well' was created with that in mind. Many people have commented that they see a face in the sky, like someone watching over him. My dad knows he is not alone.
F: Could you describe a couple of the most memorable reactions to your artwork?
S: I have been moved many times when a piece of art speaks to an individual on a personal and emotionally evocative level. Even though I have my own relationship with each piece I create, everyone experiences them differently.
One of the most memorable connections I've had was with a woman I met while at an art market. She had lost her firefighter friend in a fire. She was drawn to a piece featuring a snowboarder called 'Weightless' as they had loved boarding together. She told me that it was overwhelmingly powerful to take fire, the cause of great tragedy, and turn it into something so beautiful.
Another moment happened when I was invited to attend the Fire Rescue Canada conference as an artist with my Firefighter Art Series. I met the Deputy Fire Chief of Canmore, Keri Martens, who told me about a mental health program for first responders called the Project All In Foundation .While paddleboarding the Bow River, two firefighters had come up with an idea to create an ‘All In Coin’ to help the first responder community start conversations about their mental wellness. Without knowing any of this I had recently created a paddle boarding piece that I had aptly named 'Breaking Silence'. The Canmore, Banff and Red Deer Fire Departments presented these two firefighters with this piece as a token of their appreciation.
F: Do you have any mentors or heroes that have influenced you? If so, who and how?
S: There have been many people who inspire me from various walks of life. I am grateful to those that have mentored me in person but I have found the author R. M. Patterson particularly inspiring. He was originally a banker in England but moved to Canada in the 1920s, longing for adventure. He traveled to the Nahanni River long before there were maps, with only rumors of gold and mysterious murders in the area. This remarkable man spent a year exploring its wild waters, battling hunger and extreme conditions. His book, Dangerous River, vividly describes his journey and captivated me. He went on to complete more expeditions in the Canadian Rockies and wrote five books about his adventures. Having lived and explored in many of the same places he wrote about, I feel a connection to him. R. M. Patterson is considered by many as one of the finest writers on the Canadian wilderness, but what I admire most about him is his tenacity and grit to go after what was in his heart and explore the unknown.
F: Do you have any advice for people trying to make a living out of their passion?
S: I believe my guiding experience and 10 years with SAR as a Search Manager and Team Leader has been one of the best ways to prepare me for the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship. Dealing with tough situations has built my resilience and pushed me to become innovative in my problem-solving. It has helped me embrace the uncertainties that come with making a living from my passion! When obstacles come my way, I have learned to reframe my mindset and shift strategies. I find these challenges often lead to new possibilities and opportunities.
Living out your passion as an artist is like starting a journey at the end of a road; there are no signs directing you where to go. While there are no guarantees, there is a freedom that comes with choosing to embark on this adventure. As an artist, I can't hold back. I put everything into my craft and have found it to be very life-giving. Although I’d love to know how everything will turn out, I am learning to lean into the unknown and enjoy the ride.
F: What is the best thing about being a professional artist? What is the worst?
S: The most beautiful part for me is the freedom to express who I am. Like being on an adventure, every day presents a fresh landscape full of possibilities, and each piece I create allows me to work with a new medium that invites people to enjoy the places I cherish and the free spirit of outdoor pursuits. At the same time, the hardest part is the vulnerability of putting myself out there through my art.
F: What is your happy place?
S: My happy place is when I give myself permission to go after what's in my heart and embrace any uncertainty in it. That's when I feel the most alive, and where I find that intangible inner peace. It is there that I gain courage to rise beyond what I thought I was capable of and thrive.