Getting flippy floppy with Airdrie illustrator Melissa Bruglemans-LaBelle

Story by Jim Zang

Summer 2023

Did you know the very first Stampede Breakfast was held in 1923?

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of that very first Stampede Breakfast, Calgary author Brenda Joyce Leahy has written Flip Flop Flapjack, a children’s book which tells the wild and true story behind this iconic western tradition.

The picture book, for ages four to eight, chronicles the antics of Wildhorse Jack, a larger-than-life cowboy who loses every event at the Stampede rodeo, but celebrates by hosting a huge pancake breakfast the next morning — much to the chagrin of his little daughter Frankie.

Leahy herself is the granddaughter of the real Wildhorse Jack.

A tale of community, sportsmanship, and living life to the fullest, the book is published by Carstairs-based Red Barn Books and launched on May 15. It is available at Giddy Up Western Wear in Airdrie.

In addition to telling the story, the book features historic archival photos, the Morton family pancake recipe and charming illustrations by Airdrie artist Melissa Bruglemans-LaBelle.

airdrielife caught up with LaBelle one spring day to chat about her career as an artist and her role in Flip Flop Flapjack.


Q: How long have you lived in Airdrie?

A: I’ve lived in Airdrie about 18 years now.


Q: How long have you been doing illustration?

A: I’ve always been drawing or painting my entire life. This is my first official illustrated children’s book, but I’ve been illustrating for quite a long time. I have done (and still do) lots of artwork and illustration for various clients. Either for personal use, commercial use, and gifts, but most of my “illustrating” was usually done on walls or windows. I did a lot of window painting year ‘round, with Stampede and Christmas were the biggest times of the year for me. That was where my illustrations really came into play. I’ve done hundreds upon hundreds of windows. It got to a point where I was so busy, I used to plan my vacation time from my other full-time job before the actual holiday or event. That was just so I could get all the windows completed in a timely manner to be fully enjoyed by my clients and their clients as well.

It was definitely hard on the body. I was always stretching and bending trying to get into tight uncomfortable spaces. Always standing and mostly on concrete, either baking behind a window in 30-plus summer sun or freezing my hands off in the minus-30 winter. It’s not an easy job but it definitely helped me to find my own particular style of artwork … and helped get me through art school helping to pay for my two art degrees.


Q: What other kind of art do you do?

A: I have two art degrees and I’m trained in all sorts of mediums, which was predominantly founded in painting and drawing. However, recently my work focuses upon painting with liquid coffee, mixed media and some pen and ink. I mostly do my own artwork now and commissions. However, even though I don’t do as many window paintings as I’ve done in the past (due to the physical deterioration of my aging body LOL) I do have regular clients who still wish to have it done. I’m more than happy to do them still.

I hardly ever turn down a creative job. Especially one that provides an interesting challenge.


Q: What else do you have published?

A: This is my first published illustrated children’s book. My work has been featured in several galleries both nationally and internationally. Mostly alongside other artists. I had my very first independent showing last spring in Revelstoke. This year my coffee art will be a part of the Stampede art gallery/western showcase.

I’ve had my art in quite a few collaborative publications. One major one being a yearly collaboration called Voice and Vision. 15 artists and 15 writers are paired and exchange their best creative piece. Where the other creative must draw inspiration from.

I’ve even did some black and white illustrations for a young readers storybook called What can Possibly Go Wrong? The Misadventures of Lola and Sad Gary. It’s about the wild antics of two orphaned goats named Lola and Sad Gary. It was inspired by the real-life adventures of orphaned twin goats locally born during a polar vortex in 2020 (during the height of the pandemic). This led to The Lola Project, bringing awareness to mental health issues during the pandemic.


Q: How did you connect with the author of Flip Flop Flapjack?

A: I met the author by way of Ayesha Clough of Red Barn Books. Ayesha and I had met over a casual cup of coffee. I always wanted to do a children’s book but didn’t know how to go about getting noticed or making the proper connections.

A friend suggested to just go out and invite some publishers out for coffee and see what would happen. At the time I had heard some amazing things about Ayesha and her small publishing company Red Barn Books. They were relatively new, hungry and local. I thought what could it hurt? Even if I wasn’t hired on the spot, it would have been completely worth it for some solid advice, a bit of guidance and, as it turns out, I met a really amazing person in Ayesha.

I felt that Ayesha and I had hit it off quite nicely. We just clicked. I showed her some of my work and gave her my extensive background experience. Which was quite FULL to say the least. In the end, for us, it was just a casual coffee and fate that brought us together. Ayesha brought my work up with Brenda Joyce Leahy and fate would strike once again. She was just as open and kind as Ayesha. She loved my work and felt that it would lend well to her words. I made sure to do my best to meet up with her vision of her great grandfather, Wildhorse Jack, her mother, Frankie, and the rest of her family and their history.


Q: Did the author discuss how they thought various characters might look, or did you wing it?

A: Oh, we discussed. A lot.

In the beginning, there is always just a little bit of “winging it” (just to set the wheels in motion). However, Brenda was a big part of what she wanted to see within the book and its characters. I wanted to make the author, editors and the publisher happy, but I also didn’t want to compromise my own vision too much either.

It was a massive learning process for me. I have to admit that there were some parts I was somewhat stubborn to move upon in my drawings and I think the same could also be said about the other ladies, who were equally as stubborn too. Some examples being like the colours of certain characters’ shirts and western tack. Or the depth and detail of certain backgrounds, or how dark Jack’s “mustachio” actually had to be …. Darker? Darker still? And, according to Brenda “They still are not dark enough.” LOL However, despite all, we worked through it together with incredible understanding and support and amazing communication. So those particular changes, be they far and few between, made all the difference in this book. (And, yes, Brenda, he does look much better with a darker moustache! In fact, I should have gone darker LOL).


Q: Do you have a website or something where people can see your work?

A: My website but my social pages are more current.




Enter to win a copy of Flip Flop Flapjack here.