Nature’s sternest painter

Ann Johnston March 26 1979

Nature’s sternest painter

Ann Johnston March 26 1979

Nature’s sternest painter



Ann Johnston

The script is pure soap: struggling young wildlife artist finds fortune and fame, stumbles in a freak accident on a field trip and is bedridden for months with a painful hip injury, a question mark hanging over his future. Cast Ryan O’Neal as the artist with one of the Walton girls as his wife. Heavy on the violins.

The rendering may be a touch melodramatic, but there is no denying that the fates have been trifling with Glen Loates. At 33, the “young master” of Canadian wildlife painting—his watercolors are commanding upward of $35,000 and his book The Art of Glen Loates is valued in the thousands—is making a cautious comeback from his forced hiatus. After 10 weeks in a Toronto hospital, two operations on a badly injured hip and countless hours in bed, Loates’s doctors are still unable to explain fully the damage done last July when he fell while he was collecting branches for background detail in a bird painting. Until June, when the final diagnosis is promised, Loates is gathering his strength with continual therapy and a slow-paced regimen. Just this month, he opened the doors to the fireproof, temperature-controlled vault where he stores his field sketches and animal skins to pull the preliminary drawings for his next limited-edition book, to be called The Coming of Winter. Loates is slowly resuming work, half a day at a time. For an artist who claims the world is his studio, the world has narrowed dramatically.

Publicly, the profile of Glen Loates remains larger than life. The well-oiled machinery that first propelled his name into the limelight—a winning combination of talent, timing, and surefooted marketing—has suffered no setback. “Internationally, Loates is getting more exposure right now than any Canadian artist other than [Jean-Paul] Riopelle or perhaps [Alex] Colville,” says Toronto art critic Paul Duval, who wrote the text for the first, fabulously successful Loates book. “The general public loves his work.”

Fifteen years ago, not even Dolly Levi could have engineered this love affair. The safest bet for a nature artist, until recently, was to hide behind a biology text, pray for the odd hunting-lodge mural and count his change. But the

“raised ecological consciousness” of the past decade, and more specifically, the concern for endangered species, has brought new credence to nature art. The public heart, now softened, threatens to curdle into full-blown passion; Bambi and baby seals are sharing wall space in solar-heated homes with timber wolves and grizzlies. “The interest in this kind of art has skyrocketed in the past few

years,” says Loates. “I’ve been lucky; nobody is asking me to paint pictures of roses.”

Roses are just about the only thing that Loates doesn't paint. His distinguishing gift is a rare ability—some say unprecedented since Audubon—to paint every species with equal ease. “Glen is unusual in that most nature artists are specialists,” says Les Line,

editor of Audubon magazine. “In addition, he’s a great deal bolder than most.” Making no concessions to the coy or the cute popularization of nature, Loates specializes in a highly dramatic rendering of nature in the raw. With the patience of St. Francis and the persistence of a bloodhound, Loates has been known to spend three days having meat tossed to a lynx just to capture the facial contortions of an animal in attack. This passion for fidelity, fuelled by an instinct for theatrics, has established him as one of the few artists since Audubon who won’t shy away from conflict between animals or avoid the “unpopular species.” With equal interest Loates paints a raccoon family playing by a river, a giant squid tearing at a sperm whale or a dead grouse lying between the paws of a Canada lynx. “I paint what I enjoy painting, not for the public,” says Loates. “If I’m inspired to paint leeches or lamprey eels, I will.” Talent aside, most artists find the strongest deterrent to this approach is financial; the public doesn’t tend to buy it. Even Fenwick Lansdowne, the Victoria artist acclaimed by Loates as the “finest bird artist in the world,” avoids the overtly predatory, painting his birds of prey in a reclining position. “The farthest Fen will go is to paint a dead bird beside a live one,” says Loates. Loates’s work, however, seems to have overcome the traditional antipathy and his approach hasn’t lost him any fans.

Predictably, the increased demand for wildlife art has drawn a flock of painters into the act. Loates, who will do as many as 45 pencil sketches of an animal before committing it to watercolor, dismisses the work of most as “not truly accurate or semi-abstract.” “There are many artists emulating me,” he says wryly. “So-called artists who are not dedicated to wildlife art have come to jump on the bandwagon to make a fast buck.”

When Loates speaks of his first attempts at drawing, he leaves a distinct impression that he didn’t discover art but rather it sat waiting for him. This is not a career; it’s a calling. “It was chosen for me,” says the soft-spoken painter. From the age of four, Loates, the son of a Toronto commercial artist, sketched with prodigious energy on the banks of the Don River and at the city’s Riverdale Zoo. He claims his future as a wildlife artist was sealed when his mother took him at age 11 to see the Walt Disney classic The Living Desert. At 15 he quit school in the middle of Grade 9; “It was interfering with my art.” This was the last schooling he was to get. Every art school he applied to,

including the Ontario College of Art, refused to enrol him. Besides a poor academic record, his “talent” didn’t jibe with the demands of a fine arts program. From that year on, Loates has been his own teacher. He obviously had a good pupil; 11 years after he left school, a seven-month exhibit of his watercolors at the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg, just north of Toronto, drew a crowd of 100,000.

While Loates made his name in art circles single-handedly, his twin brother Bernie is the brains behind his transformation into a commercially hot commodity. Five years ago, Bernie founded Nature Impressions, a wildly successful business which reproduces

Glen’s art on just about everything short of toilet paper. Bernie’s business acumen is legendary in the Loates family. “He’s got a definite Midas touch,” says Jim Loates, a third brother. In ’74 Bernie’s own publishing company, Cerebrus Publishing, masterminded the production of The Art of Glen Loates in both trade and limited editions. The trade edition, co-published with Prentice-Hall, is now in its second printing of 35,000, making it the best-selling collection of any living Canadian artist’s work.

As remarkable as the success of the trade edition may be, it’s the limited edition of 300 that is truly breaking records. With an initial subscriber price of $600 in ’75, the resale value had rocketed to $4,890 before the book even appeared last September, and in January a Texan sold a copy for $5,200. Printed on 100-per-cent rag paper and hand-bound in steer hide, each volume comes in a hand-rubbed cherrywood case along with an original Loates lithograph of a North American bison. When two top publishing and film separating houses turned down the project, claiming the quality the Loates brothers demanded was impossible to attain, Bernie spent four years solving the technical difficulties on his own. He hired a European color specialist and bought his own press. They devised a

new method of getting the ink to sit on the high quality, highly porous paper. The book’s publication is nothing short of a landmark in Canadian book publishing. “The Loates book is the finest ever produced in Canada,” says Toronto dealer Jack Joran.

Bernie’s involvement in Glen’s art has gradually evolved into a managerartist relationship and they get along remarkably well for two who, in the words of a close friend, “are alike as cat

and dog.” Glen likes to compare their partnership to the brother team of Walt and Roy Disney: “Like the Disneys we’re very different, but together we make very progressive and worthwhile decisions. Bernie and Roy are a lot alike—Roy was a financial wizard and a good agent.”

While Glen recuperates, Bernie is busy ensuring against a dry season by devoting the bulk of his considerable energy to the publication of The Coming

of Winter, a “more ambitious” limitededition book on the winter birds of North America. Though it is not scheduled for completion until the fall of ’80, all 200 copies were sold by January at the initial subscriber price of $2,500, and the book is now trading for $3,800.

Loates did not adjust quickly to the constraints of his injury. Confined to bed last summer, he had his brother-inlaw rig an easel above his head and spent a painful month completing a major painting of two harlequin ducks due for presentation at a Vancouver retrospective of his work in October. Finishing on schedule, Loates presented the painting in person against his doctor’s orders and returned home thoroughly exhausted. He’s not likely to do a repeat performance for some time. “I’m learning to pace myself but it’s very hard to know when to stop,” he says. “I used to do a lot of things that you just take for granted. I suppose I was venturesome without thinking.”

Loates’s current project—a first attempt at sculpting—is better suited to this slower pace. A set of four endangered animals cast in pewter—Florida panther, Key deer, silver-tipped grizzly and timber wolf—have been commissioned by the Audubon Society to commemorate its 75th anniversary in 1980. In true Loates fashion, the first design of the panther had it pursuing a rabbit, but that was vetoed by the society to avoid offending potential buyers.

The spoils of success have certainly sweetened Loates’s situation. The supervault, like the tomb of some latter-day Tut, brimming with handmade watercolor papers from Europe and the Far East, rare pelts and skins on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum, and hundreds of Loates’s own perfectly preserved field sketches, seems oddly out of place in the modest Toronto home he shares with his wife Sally and their cat Sooty. With the charm of a six-year-old displaying his hockey cards, Loates folds back the doors of a bookcase to reveal a rare collection of Disneyana—a Lilliputian army of ceramic, tin and paper figures.

With quiet resolution, Loates waits until June for the final pronouncement on his condition—strongly suspected to be degenerative arthritis. Early this month, though, he felt well enough to visit his true studio for the first time in nine-months. Leaving his cane at home, he spent half a day in the field sketching cedar waxwings and evening grosbeaks and returned home exhilarated. “I will always be limited and I’ll never sketch grizzlies in the mountains again,” he said, “but things could be a lot worse.” 'í?