ROBERT BATEMAN has too much respect for his wildlife subjects to burden them with human motives, and yet there is a palpable menace to the three Harris’s hawks he portrays in Birds (Penguin Canada), his new coffee table book of art and commentary. They’re perched on the collapsed remnants of a saguaro cactus—stark against a bleak and empty sky. His inspiration, he says, was the black and white abstract expressionist work of Franz Kline. “Also,” he concedes, “while I was in the middle of painting it, Sept. 11 happened.”
He kept painting—no surprise there, say those who know him—his attention divided between the birds of prey and the disaster unfolding on the television in the studio of his home on B.C.’s Saltspring Island. A year later, on another September morning, he stands in his studio contemplating, with some surprise, the finished product. He runs a hand over the page, across the shattered architecture of the cactus and a white haze of sky. A New York sky? “An uncanny resemblance,” he says. “I’m sure there was no connection.”
And yet, Bateman’s worlds—his unconditional acceptance of the wild, his exasperation with the lax dominion of humankind —are in constant collision. The conflict isn’t always obvious in his beautifully rendered paintings, but it’s always there. Birds is not merely the celebration of birding—a passion that began 64 years ago with a chickadee he ogled as an eight-year-old. It’s also a chance to proselytize about the state of the world. “I’m almost like a Jehovah’s Witness that way.”
Birders, in his biased view, are emotionally well-adjusted in the main, observant by definition and acutely aware of the degradation of the ecosystem. “Because birds,” he says, “are literally and figuratively the canary in the mine.” Bateman’s celebrity gives him the reputation and the financial wherewithal to champion and to endow hundreds of environmental organizations,
from the Sierra Club to the Kenya Wildlife Fund. He is, literally and figuratively, a voice in the wilderness. “I’m glad he is,” says lifelong friend and fellow environmentalist Bristol Foster, the man who drew Bateman and his family from Ontario to Saltspring Island in 1985. “It gets people thinking. There’s not a lot of people who do that.”
It’s a daunting prospect to approach Bateman in his natural habitat: an extravagant garden and cozy post-and-beam home on a point overlooking Fulford Harbour. He generates a surprising amount of controversy for a guy who loves birds and animals. His focus on wildlife has made him suspect to curator and critic— the “priesthood,” in his words, with “keys to the kingdom of High Art.” He is doubly damned. His realist style is dangerously accessible, making him the easiest of domestic targets: a successful Canadian. Thus, he’s warranted exhibitions in venues as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Everard Read Gallery of Johannesburg—but not at the Vancouver Art Gallery, just a ferry ride from home.
A “small coterie of original printmakers” condemns Bateman for selling by the bale signed reproductions of his works. They accuse him of flooding the market, duping consumers into thinking they’re buying limited-edition prints, which are artworks, rather than photographic copies of an existing work. Bateman responds that he signs his copies because he supervises their quality, and that reproductions are often superior to printmaking in capturing realist subjects. He does original prints, too, but even if the reproduction market vanished, success for his printmaker critics would still depend on creating works with public appeal. “I doubt that there would be the slightest difference in their sales.”
That last quote is from his Web site, Robert Bateman’s Ideas—a cranky, omnivo-
rous menu of opinion. Opinions on art, on printmaking and on the environment, naturally. But also on “Crime and Violence,” on “Meaningful Work,” on “Television and Cultural Destruction.” Opinions, for that matter, on Homo sapi-
It’s easy to arrive at his door with a ferryload of preconception: a) he doesn’t paint
people because he doesn’t much like them; b) he doesn’t paint pets because he doesn’t like their oppressors; c) his romantic vision of the animal kingdom
won’t extend to the hapless interviewer before him, a species decidedly less cute than a marmot.
But the artist, waiting in his drive, proves
a gracious host, sweeping a fellow Homo sapiens off for a tour of garden and home. It’s a banner week for the Batemans. He’s finishing the final paintings for a Toronto show and prepping for an international book tour, an obligation he insists he enjoys. His wife of 27 years, fellow birder and travelling companion, Birgit Freybe Bateman (they have two children, and he has three from his first marriage), has an exhibition at a local community gallery of her compelling photography. There is an almost abstract flair to many of the works, captured in the streets and countryside during their travels.
The local paper trumpets her emergence “from the artistic shadow of her husband.” The claim makes her politically correct husband squirm, but Birgit laughs it off, content with one Bateman in the limelight. “She’s often overlooked,” Foster later says of her artistic abilities, and her influence. “Birgit and Bob really are a team. I don’t know any people who work together and play together as effectively and joyfully as they do.”
Bateman, as the tour reveals, does paint people. Several portraits adorn the walls. “I love doing them,” he says. “They’re almost too easy for me, like eating popcorn. The wildlife I find more challenging, and more varied.”
There are people, too, in some of his formative works. He points out framed sketches of villagers in the Belgian Congo and in Rwanda, pages from his diary of a round-the-world tour he and Foster made in a Land Rover in 1957-58. That trip, both men agree, had a powerful impact on Bateman’s art and philosophy. His sketchbook then was a celebration of differences. Today, says the inveterate traveller, he finds a bland corporate sameness seeping around the globe. “We’re wiping out variety and differences and replacing them with a kind of McWorld that is all created in some boardroom somewhere.” A sermon, perhaps, but a short one, delivered wistfully and without bitterness.
His studio-cum-business office is filled with works-in-progress. More preconceptions bite the dust. He stands before a painting of a black dog gazing balefully through the screen door of a classic Ontario cottage, a family property in
Haliburton now owned by his brother. “That’s based on our old Labrador retriever when our kids were growing up,” he says with undisguised affection. “Name was Smallwood.”
A larger, more subversive, canvas leans nearby. “A bit of an edgy piece,” he says. An answer to those who think they’re complimenting him by calling his work peaceful. It’s a beaver on a bad fur day, so tousled and wet it looks like an abstract bronze sculpture. It’s caught alone, the only natural thing on an asphalt road. “You can read something into that if you want,” he offers. A date, perhaps, with a
“Thinking and standing up for your rights is stimulating. I don’t find it depressing. It doesn’t get me churned up inside.”
Mack truck? “Most people won’t like it,” he says happily. “But most people will never forget it.”
For most of the morning he talks with a brush in his hand. On the easel is an evening study—in blue, grey and taupe— of two black-crowned night herons. On the conversational menu is infinite variety. Until he quit at 46, he was—in Thornhill and Burlington, Ont., and in Nigeria—a high school teacher of art and geography. Like the best of that profession, he is animated by the hard questions. “I like explaining things,” he says. And a good scrap. “I’m aware of the fact that possibly one of my colours is as a curmudgeon.”
A thread runs through the conversation, an abhorrence of that which limits variety: a smothering corporate monopoly; a rigid interpretation of acceptable art or thought; the loss of any species. “Thinking and standing up for your rights is stimulating,” he says with a grin. “I don’t find it depressing. It doesn’t get me churned up inside. I’ve not lost one wink of sleep over it.”
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