V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Endangered beauty

Robert Bateman's fate was sealed at the age of 12 when he became spellbound by a flight of fancy -- birds and a career out of painting them.

He doesn't condescend on this tender age of boyhood, but rather credits this year of discovery as the genesis of his career as a serious naturalist and wildlife artist.

Sixty-five years and hundreds of paintings later, at the age of 77, Bateman says his philosophy on art and nature hasn't changed since that fateful year when the boy Bateman recorded all the birds he could find in the vicinity of his Toronto home.

BODY OF WORK

"What my art has always been is a celebration of the variety of nature, the exciting things we often just walk past, drive past," he said in a phone interview from his Haliburton, Ont., cottage.

Most Canadians are well acquainted with Bateman's body of work-- paintings which freeze-frame wildlife through masterful brush strokes. His collection is an anthology of mammalia, set to the tune of their individual habitats. A hulking rhinoceros seems to charge at full speed out of the canvas towards the viewer in one painting, while in another a feral tiger is tamed by a still close-up of its face, a gleam of calm in its eyes. Other paintings bottle serenity and the quiet beauty of nature within a canvas with photographic detail.

But during his latest touring exhibition, which opened yesterday at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ont., Canadians who are newly concerned with the environment may cast a different eye on his work, one that is perhaps similar to his own.

PHILOSOPHY

It's a philosophy that reveres nature and wildlife, and laments today's consumerism and corporate domination. It's a vision that is awed by Mother Earth and repelled by gluttony and idleness.

"My nightmare of the future is that humans will view culture, nature and human relationships as (existing) only on screen," he said.

Though most of his paintings capture beauty, one of the most important works on display at "The Art of Robert Bateman" is one that makes a sad statement, uncommon in wildlife paintings which are mostly turned out to be "pretty."

Two unlikely companions share the same canvas, a dolphin and an albatross trapped in a driftnet or "wall of death," as bycatch from driftnet fishing.

"It's one of the most serious and important," he said of the painting, which will be on display in Canada until Oct. 28 before the 50-piece collection tours the U.S.

CONSERVATIONIST

Bateman is a decorated artist both for his gift of rendering and his message of conservationism. Many of his one-man shows have drawn record crowds in eminent museums like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He's been bestowed with countless awards, honorary degrees and royal commissions, and has an international following.

It's taken a few decades for the rest of Canada to catch up to Bateman's keen awareness of the land and her vulnerability; our pulse has been quickened by media headlines and political shifts.

But Bateman isn't fooled by what he calls political greenwashing.

"Politicians have no backbone ... I would give all levels of governments a failing grade," he said. "Their plan is not adequate ... no government has the courage to (do) what needs to be done, like a carbon tax."

KIDS TODAY

Bateman is visiting his Haliburton cottage from his Salt Spring Island home in B.C. But what used to be teeming with birdlife has dwindled sadly, he said. Simple pleasures like birding are lost on today's children because their parents are "afraid of the woods," Bateman said. Instead, children are set from the cradle to the grave "with their eyes on the tube."

"We need to get kids playing out in nature, prowling in ravines as I did, building forts, playing tag," he said.

Bateman's own childhood education has nurtured an intuitive creative process: painting blades of grass and gravel beds is second nature to him now.

It's an intimate relationship with the Earth he hopes children will rediscover.

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IN HIS OWN WORDS

"Vancouver Island Elegy is another cry of protest about the state of the environment, but it also focuses on my long-standing interest in different and time-honoured ways of life, particularly those that unfolded in harmony with nature. The top image displays an old totem pole of the kind found all along the Pacific coast. It resembles the coffin of a dying culture, a culture which, at its height, produced art to rival anything of Rembrandt's or Picasso's.

In the middle, I have shown an Indian elder, a representative of the old way of life... The elder's face spoke powerfully to me of the vanishing of the old ways... In the bottom left-hand corner is an abandoned Indian fishing boat... On the lower right is a logging truck representing an approach to nature very different from that of the native North Americans."

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