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Robert Bateman's joy and struggle

Wildlife News


As the artist turns 80, his message of respecting nature and engaging with it resonates more than ever


By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun May 22, 2010

Robert Bateman is working on a painting that will eventually have mustang horses coming down to drink at a Prairie slough. It's based on something he saw more than 30 years ago and, for now, there's only landscape -- bluffs, hills and the watering hole.

The plan is for the stallion to be reflected in the water. Bateman's already fretting that the reflection could "go wonky." As for the mares coming down the gully, the problem will be making them look as if they are walking through the grass and not on top of it.

The painting is a rare commission that Bateman has agreed to only because the person who asked for it is giving a generous donation to the planned Robert Bateman Art and Environmental Education Centre at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

It's a bit of a surprise when Canada's foremost painter of wildlife describes painting not as a joy, but "a struggle."

"I don't know what I'm doing. I feel a bit like a test pilot. I honestly don't know whether the horses will fit. It might look as if it were stuck on."

Often, after the initial flurry, Bateman is so unhappy with his work that he sets it aside and moves on to something else. On this particular day, he says that if it goes badly, he might "take a few swipes" at a large piece he's working on for the Society of Animal Artists' anniversary exhibition in San Diego later this year, when he'll receive the society's first lifetime achievement award.

At any given time he's working on five to 10 paintings.

"I keep hesitating and giving up. Sometimes in between I do some little ones. They're kind of like eating peanuts. They're not difficult, but they're also not as interesting."

Bateman likes talking and painting at the same time: Talking occupies his mind, while the painting becomes more intuitive, automatic.

Recently, we talked for 72 minutes about everything from painting to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to teaching to aging to travel to Canada's art "priesthood" that has shunned him and kept his work out of the collections of the nation's largest and most prestigious publicly funded galleries.

We talked by phone with Bateman splashing paint around in his Saltspring Island studio and me in my Vancouver office. His staff refused my request to meet him in person: Since he's a gregarious man and former teacher who sees talking to the media as a continuing part of his life's work, I was told that Bateman would turn an hour-long interview into a daylong show-and-tell.

Bateman turns 80 on Monday -- Victoria Day -- and with that milestone approaching, he has too many interview requests and too little time.

He shares his birthday with Britain's longest reigning queen and Bob Dylan. He is serious when he professes to being "halfway between the two."


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