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The Nature of Things

Robert Bateman, 76, talks about wildlife art, conservation and the joys of painting predators

In a sunlit studio on Salt Spring Island, B.C., wildlife artist Robert Bateman is in face-to-face battle with a wolf. The dark, elusive predator, encroaching from the righthand corner of a three-by-four-foot canvas, eyes him warily. In front of the animal, thick shards of icicles hang over an outcropping of rocks. Boulders are blanketed with undisturbed heavy snow. A pond, half-shrouded in a thin sheath of ice, mirrors the landscape in ripples. The isolated scene – based on a favourite site of Bateman’s at his Haliburton, Ontario, cottage – is a tangle of wintry blues, greys and browns.

Bateman (BA 1954 Victoria) is on his third incarnation of the wolf. He is concerned the tawny grey animal looks “too creepy and slinky” and wonders if a fourth rendition is in order. He also considers whether the scene is “too beautiful, like a Disney movie” and mentions that an art instructor once told him: “‘You know you’re looking at a masterpiece when you feel you’re seeing it for the first time, and it should look as if it’s done without effort.’ That is the toughest yardstick. I’m not saying that I’ve ever done a masterpiece, but that’s something to aim for.

“With all due disrespect, I would say most wildlife art is exactly the opposite of a masterpiece,” he adds. “You feel you’ve seen it a thousand times before – yet another mallard, yet another wolf, yet another chickadee. And it looks as if it’s been done with a lot of effort – every single hair or every single feather. You don’t get the sense of air and space and volume and rhythm.”

Bateman’s studio – a room on the northwest side of his home – reflects these principles of composition, and his respect for nature. The entire house, which sits on 80 acres, is integrated into the surrounding landscape. A soaring wall of windows on the studio’s west side converges with the cathedral ceiling, framing the towering Douglas firs outside. Eye-level windows showcase the 1930s farmhouse on Bateman’s property, as well as a wooden birdhouse that sees Steller’s jays and red-winged blackbirds sail down in graceful arcs. Behind him, windows offer a verdant view of Ford Lake – mere feet from his back door – and the majestic Mount Maxwell farther south.

Dressed in a denim-blue smock over navy sweatshirt and khakis, Bateman, 76, paints surrounded by the standard artistic dishevelment. A table to his right holds a wild ravel of acrylic paints, sponges and squadrons of brushes propped up in aluminum cans. (A reminder taped to the side of the table: “Robert chills out and cleans up.”) Canvases lean against each other on walls, like vertical layers of sedimentary rock. The largest piece, a half-formulated picture of two royal-blue flamingos, “looks gross right now” and “is going to be toast by tonight or tomorrow,” he says. A lichen-encrusted oak twig shares space on a window ledge with pictures of two blue-eyed grandchildren, Annie and James, and a black-and-white 1970s photo of his fair-haired children in front of a Christmas tree. The 10-volume Birds of the World encyclopedia sits in a nearby bookcase.

In front of his easel, Bateman operates in a constant state of motion. He rolls toward and away from his canvas, and the wheels of his chair judder along the hardwood floor, creating a baritone rumble. Backwards he rolls. Stops. Considers the artwork. Rolls forward. Paints. The actions form an unconscious choreography – an imperfect tempo of lurches and moves – delivered in the effortless manner of someone who has spent a lifetime performing them.

Jolting up from his chair, he paces to a mirror on the wall behind him and narrows his eyes. “This is where I often make my important decisions. If it’s going well, it looks better in the mirror, you see. If it’s got problems, the problems often show up in the mirror.”

He considers the painting in the reflection. “I might just say that the icicles are like when you’re decorating a cake; I may have overdecorated it.” He laughs. “I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep them because they’re kind of fun and unique, but I’m not sure. What do you think?”

“I think you should leave the icicles.”

“Well,” he says kindly, “I can’t promise anything.”

These days, Bateman’s artwork is also receiving a look back in the mirror. Madison Press recently released Bateman: Two-Volume Deluxe Edition, a retrospective of more than four decades of work. It is also releasing The Art of Robert Bateman, a 25th-anniversary edition of his first book of paintings, in September.

Bateman could be deemed a Canadian institution, so popular is his artwork. His pieces carry a quiet beauty – precisely because they are not pristinely beautiful. There is always an ecological context to his work; his animals are but one piece of the whole, interacting with their environment. They often seem vigilantly aware of something just beyond the picture’s frame: a pack of wolves emerge from a boreal forest, tracking a moose’s hoof marks in thick snow; a red-tailed hawk sits on a telephone pole in a subdivision, alertly scanning for a mouse. In some of his works, the hand of man is clear. In Wildlife Images, a multi-panelled piece, a bald eagle with a wounded wing stands on a rocky coast, permanently landbound, courtesy of a hunter’s gun; a seal lies entangled in a nylon drift net; and the carcasses of a grebe and auklet float in the ocean – certainly victims of an oil spill.

Some consider this ecological integration and attention to the plight of the natural world Bateman’s greatest strength. “I don’t think he’s a great artist, but I think he’s competent,” says Christopher Hume, architecture critic and former art critic of the Toronto Star, and editor of From the Wild: Portfolios of North America’s Finest Wildlife Artists (Creative Publishing International, 1987). “He knows how to communicate visually, but I think what makes him more important than all the rest of the wildlife artists is that he understands that you can’t be a wildlife artist without being a conservationist. The whole story of the natural world in the 21st century is that it’s threatened, and he tries to address that in his work. I think that’s what makes his work relevant, and that’s why people respond to it. It’s not just pretty pictures of animals, which would be escapist, nostalgic nonsense.”

Bateman’s work hangs in permanent collections throughout North America – from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His art is part of Prince Charles’ collection (Northern Reflections – Loon Family was Canada’s gift to Charles and Diana on their wedding day in 1981). Despite Bateman’s popularity, his work does not hang in the Art Gallery of Ontario or in many major North American art galleries. “Wildlife art is not taken seriously,” says Hume. “ The serious art world sees it as illustration.”

Bateman responds to the charge that wildlife art is illustration: “Some of the greatest art of all time, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, is illustration. All I ask is that my art be judged on its artistic merits, not dismissed because of its subject matter.”

Born in 1930, Bateman was the first of three sons for Joseph, an electrical engineer, and Annie, a homemaker. A nature lover from his earliest days, he grew up reading the books of Ernest Thompson Seton, including Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known, and was enthralled with the woody ravine behind his north Toronto home. He spent hours trawling the diverse landscape, which was rife with willows, maples and hemlocks; fox grapes and Virginia creepers; and hepaticas and trout lilies. At age 11, he experienced a day of “perfect happiness” in the ravine. Sitting in a bower of wild plum blossoms one May morning, he watched spellbound for almost an hour as a brilliant flash of colour and sound – in the form of warblers, kinglets, a sapsucker and a hummingbird – glided past him, en route to their spring homes.

On his 12th birthday, his mother gave him a gift that he refers to as his “salvation” – Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. Bateman became an inveterate birder, carrying his sketchpad with him and painting every day – from watercolours of loons, cardinals and buntings to pen sketches of raccoons. Another salvation was the Royal Ontario Museum’s Junior Field Naturalists club, which met one Saturday morning a month. At 16, he graduated to teaching at the club. After class, he would hang out with the staff – particularly Terence Shortt, the resident artist-ornithologist who specialized in bird portraits. “I was a museum groupie. I also blatantly say, if everybody in the world was a birdwatcher, the world would be a better place. You start caring about other living things that are not you, and you get away from this me, me, me stuff.”

In 1950, Bateman enrolled in pass arts (a three-year course) at U of T, switching to honours geography in his second year. He knew he wanted to be an artist, but, doubting he could make a living from it, enrolled with an eye on becoming a teacher. Bateman chose geography as his major partly because it allowed him to take trips into the wilderness to do summer field work. He joined geological field parties on the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec and was stationed at Algonquin Park’s fisheries facility. After his workdays were through, he would paint out in the wilderness – like the Group of Seven artists he admired. During the school year, he took life-drawing classes every Thursday night at Hart House with Carl Schaefer, a post-impressionist who was taught by Group of Seven members J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer.

After graduating from U of T, Bateman earned a teaching certificate from the Ontario College of Education. He went on to teach geography and art at a high school in Thornhill, Ontario, for two years, before leaving for a round-the-world trip in a Land Rover with two friends. The three young men travelled through such countries as England, India, Thailand and Malaysia, with Bateman painting during the entire trip. It was this body of work that led to his first show, at Hart House in 1959. The exhibition focused on his watercolour paintings and drawings of the people he met on his travels.

Bateman experimented with several styles of art, most notably abstract-expressionism, until 1962, when he attended an exhibition of naturalist artist Andrew Wyeth at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Wyeth’s work inspired him to return to a realist style of painting. Bateman sold his first pieces – landscapes of Halton County, where he lived and taught – at the age of 35. He continued to teach full-time until 1975, when he had a sold-out show at the Tyron Gallery in London, England, which motivated him to focus solely on art.

Salt Spring, the largest of the Gulf Islands off the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, is known for the eco-consciousness of its residents. The self-dubbed Organic Gardening Capital of Canada is a haven for writers, artists, craftspeople and farmers, and boasts a varied landscape that includes farmland, forests filled with Sitka spruces, Douglas firs and arbutus trees, and a craggy coastline rife with brightly coloured starfish. Salt Spring can also be defined by absences: there is no Gap, McDonald’s or Starbucks. There are no big-box stores. There is not even a traffic light. Its residents seem united in their desire to build a small, eco-friendly community. “I used to describe the social mix as a cross between the old English eccentrics and superannuated hippies, and I figure I’m a cross between that myself,” says Bateman, who moved to Salt Spring in 1985. (He lives there with his wife, Birgit, a photographer and artist. Two of Bateman’s five children – John, 38, an artist and woodworker, and Sarah, 40, an elementary school teacher – also live on the island with their families.) “I really quite like it, being as I used to teach flower children in the ’60s and ’70s. In some ways, you could say it’s so far behind it’s ahead.”

It is also ideal territory for a man who has devoted much of his life to environmental and conservation causes. Bateman is a member of a vast number of organizations, ranging from Pollution Probe to the Sierra Club. By donating his paintings, he has raised millions of dollars for conservation groups. He’s received a Member of Honour Award from the World Wildlife Fund, and was named “One of the 20th Century’s 100 Champions of Conservation” by the U.S. National Audubon Society. Bateman has been involved in everything from the building of the Bruce Trail along the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario in the 1960s, to protesting the clear-cutting of the Clayoquot forest of Vancouver Island in 1993, to establishing the Robert Bateman Get to Know Program – which fosters children’s interest in conservation and biodiversity through an annual art and writing contest.

In 2000, Bateman released the book Thinking Like a Mountain, which focuses on some of his environmental philosophies – particularly, the need for a massive shift in our collective mindset. He believes we need to renounce our consumerist attitude of self-gratification and adopt a planet-first philosophy, to ensure the Earth is in a livable state for future generations. (One of his favourite quotes is from economist E.F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful: “The real problems facing the planet are not economic and they’re not technical, they’re philosophical.”) Bateman believes that there is such a disassociation between ourselves and nature, we’ve lost our appreciation for other species. He points out in his book that the average North American can name only about 10 species of plants and animals, yet recognizes about 1,000 corporate logos. “We live in a world that is packaged so there is no sense of community, and there’s no sense of place and there’s no sense of species,” he says.

His recommendations for environmental activism are familiar ones: join five to 10 organizations, donate money, use the power of your name for lobbying efforts and volunteer. He admits, “The very, very toughest question you can ask is what’s a body to do…but what I resent most is the famous ostrich head in the sand, saying, ‘I’ve had it up to here, I can’t think about it, it just makes me depressed, and so I’ll just amuse myself to death or the planet to death.’ I think that is the worst attitude to take, and it’s common.”

Back at his canvas, Bateman has a minor breakthrough – what he refers to as an “a-ha moment.” It’s a technical one, involving darkening some icicles so that they don’t create a strong vertical line down the centre of the work. As he paints, he talks about how he prefers drawing predators to other animals – but the naturalist in him reflexively weighs in on the animals’ inner traits as well as their physical attributes. “Predators have better shapes. The Canadian symbol is a boring brown blob. The American symbol is a bald eagle: handsome, beautiful, with powerful shapes to the hooked beak and wonderful wings. But bald eagles are not admirable. They rob other birds; they’re not good at catching fish. They’re fairly timid except when they’re trying to pick on something. They eat a lot of dead stuff – carrion.

“Beavers are industrious and hard-working; great engineers, but visually…” he trails off. “I’ve only really ever painted one full-size proper beaver, but I’ve painted many bald eagles. Wolves have better shapes to them, too. Buffaloes are pretty good. But rabbits and groundhogs and all those herb-eating things are basically little blobs. Maybe cute little blobs, but nothing compared to a lion.”

He lays down another dark stroke, pushing the icicles away from centre stage. He considers the change. “Yeah, I think what I did right there works now. That may be how I leave it.” The chair wheels rumble as he rolls back.

On the back terrace behind his studio, gardeners are waiting to consult with him about planting spring flowers. He explains that this time of year – early April – is the best time to plant. Many people think it’s later in the season, he adds. Then he removes his smock, opens the patio door and disappears into the landscape – intent on capturing the moment.

Stacey Gibson is the managing editor of U of T Magazine.

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  1. One Response to “ The Nature of Things ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Your feature about Robert Bateman is a comprehensive and wonderful article on a Canadian icon. Alas, the prophet has received too little honour in his own land. Does he not merit an honorary degree from his alma mater?

    Ruth Bentley
    BA 1943 Victoria