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Nature Does It

An interview with Robert Bateman

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Nature Does It

Robert Bateman is not only an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist who paints wildlife, he also has a high profile as a conservationist, environmentalist, and naturalist. Bateman lives by his convictions -- caring for the planet, for his art, and for his own and his loved ones -- health, naturally.

Robert Bateman is not only an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist who paints wildlife, he also has a high profile as a conservationist, environmentalist, and naturalist. Bateman lives by his convictions–caring for the planet, for his art, and for his own and his loved ones’ health, naturally. Bateman spoke to me from his studio on Salt Spring Island, BC. He explained that while painting, he uses a speakerphone; he does not use a headset. Vigilant of health matters, he told me that the electromagnetic frequencies headsets emit are harmful. The speakerphone allowed me to hear him rinse a brush with a sluicing sound as he spoke. On the Origins of His Style Bateman started his career as a high school art and geography teacher, and even did specimen collection for natural history museums at one point. Once he found he could make a living by painting, he followed his heart. Until the age of 35, he gave away his art. He explained to me the origins of his signature realistic style. In 1962 he viewed an exhibition of the works of Andrew Wyeth, a well-known American realist painter. It was an epiphany for Bateman, who had toyed with abstract art while trying to stay au courant. At the same time, he was an ardent naturalist. He saw then that depicting nature demanded realism and specificity. This detailed style, in his opinion, is the only way to depict nature. Now a prolific artist, he often works on half a dozen paintings simultaneously. On a Healthy, Organic Diet Asked if he is a vegetarian or a vegan, Bateman replied, “No, Homo sapiens have been omnivorous for most of our evolution. We prefer to eat a balanced diet of both plant and animal proteins.” Bateman and his family eat salmon, often canned salmon because it is invariably wild, every other day for lunch; they eat very little beef, preferring fish and fowl. They also eat organically grown produce–locally grown, when available–and keep an organic garden, which includes native plants and heritage roses. They buy locally as often as possible. He and his family use some herbal remedies and take “quite a lot” of vitamin and mineral supplements, such as vitamin C, and they take supplements to prevent or lessen the symptoms of colds or flu. On a Green Home The current Bateman home on Salt Spring Island is geothermally heated. Although the initial cost for a geothermal system is high, he hopes to encourage others to use similar heating systems. The costs will decrease as more people invest in these cleaner systems. Their first home on Salt Spring had some solar heating, some wind power, and some water power, but it wasn’t enough for all the electrical requirements. They compost for their garden, and they recycle all glass, plastic, and cardboard to local recycling depots. Artists can be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals while painting; having read an article in alive magazine (January 2006) on how plants naturally help cleanse the air, the Batemans expanded the collection of houseplants in their studio. Bateman paints with acrylics, which he feels are less harmful than oil paints; the fumes from conventional oil paints can be toxic. On the Power of Nature When Bateman and his wife Birgit both worked as high school teachers, they were able to take young people on two-week-long nature treks in the Ontario wilderness. Bateman remarked that some of the teenage boys started these treks as “idiotic yahoos,” tripping other kids and being general troublemakers. But something changed for them a few days into the field trips: these selfsame troublemakers were transformed, and he saw them become helpful to other youngsters who were not as strong as they were. When asked what he thought caused this marvellous transformation from brat to caring individual, Bateman commented, “Nature does it. When these kids are out in the wilderness, they have to care if it rains, they have to care if there are mosquitoes–they have to care.” On Environmental Stewardship Robert Bateman is patron to many wildlife associations and advisory boards and a member of such conservation and environmental foundations as Earthroots, Charles Darwin Foundation of Canada, Pollution Probe, North American Native Plant Society, Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Canadian Wildlife Fund, Land Conservancy of British Columbia, and the Canadian Organization for Development through Education, an organization that promotes literacy and learning for youth. There are a growing number of both environmental organizations and young people who are hopeful of saving this planet. Environmentalists don’t make a nickel on saving a species, a wetland, or an ecosystem, notes Bateman, while multinational corporations concerned only with profit-making often exhibit little, if any, accountability for keeping the environment clean. “I am not a total Luddite,” Bateman says with a laugh, “but I do believe that values should come first and then technology.” “I don’t blame corporations for doing what they do, because they are designed to be buccaneers,” he says. “I blame our governments and us for allowing this to happen. We need to protect our grandchildren and ourselves; we need better laws and better enforcement. For example, our government has supported fish farms, but at the same time has decreased funding to save wild salmon stocks and habitat.” On Animals in Captivity When asked if he keeps pets, Bateman replied, “Having always been a dog lover, I used to keep dogs, but since moving to Salt Spring Island, we have not had a dog. Our first house had otters living under it and we didn’t want a dog to disturb them. Now, we have moved to another house, so we would like to have a Lab-poodle cross, a Labradoodle, as they do not shed all over the house” (or all over the paintings he is working on). Zoos? Yes, he endorses the concept of good zoos, such as Gerald Durrell’s zoo in England (durrellwildlife.org), which he and his wife support. He feels that good zoos provide a gene pool for endangered species. (Panda bears are another matter. Bateman believes the Chinese government should go to the trouble of preserving them in the wild, which is a lot more difficult, rather than in captivity. ) Bateman has no humanitarian issues with good zoos and points out that they raise people’s consciousness of animal life. On the other hand, Bateman does have a problem with the inhumane conditions to which farm animals and livestock are often subjected. On Painting People When asked if he ever depicts buildings and people in his work, Bateman says, “I’ve painted more Homo sapiens than any other mammal…as for buildings, I prefer to paint heritage buildings with some history or charm.” Bateman told journalist Ken MacQueen (Maclean's, October 21, 2002) that he does paint people: “I love doing them. They’re almost too easy for me, like eating popcorn. The wildlife I find more challenging and more varied.” On Sharing the Message During our conversation, I found Robert Bateman to be a nice man, a gentle man, but I would not mistake his generosity and his down-to-earth manner as any kind of weakness. He confronts those who would destroy our natural and human heritage and those corporations marketing consumerism to today’s youth. His philosophies on conservation, environmental stewardship, and sustainability have gathered strength since he began to give talks in the 1960s to those who would listen. Now more than ever, it has become urgent to take action to save our planet. Robert Bateman is not afraid to put his money and his influence where his heart is. For more information on some of the environmental organizations Robert Bateman supports, please see their websites:

  • Earthroots: earthroots.org
  • Charles Darwin Foundation of Canada: darwinfoundation.org
  • Pollution Probe: pollutionprobe.org
  • North American Native Plant Society: nanps.org/index.shtml
  • Sierra Legal Defence Fund: sierralegal.org
  • Canadian Wildlife Federation: cwf-fcf.org
  • Land Conservancy of British Columbia: conservancy.bc.ca
  • Canadian Organization for Development through Education (CODE): codecan.org

The Bateman Art and Environmental Education Centre Royal Roads University in Victoria on Vancouver Island will open the Bateman Art and Environmental Education Centre in 2010 with the help of donations of artwork, archival material, and funds from Bateman and his wife. The centre will “use art as a forum for raising awareness and increasing knowledge about environmental issues.” Bateman decided to help sponsor this program after giving a lecture and talking to students in the university’s School of Environment and Sustainability. Bateman feels a powerful connection to this program’s philosophy and hopes that his work will have a positive impact on students and young environmentalists. (photo credit: Edmund Fong)

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