Bateman Centre celebrates Canada's most popular living artist

... even if the AGO wouldn't touch him 'with a 10-foot pole'

Chad Hipolito/Maclean's

Dressed in thick, grey wool socks and olive hiking pants, Robert Bateman shows up to a cocktail party in his honour in downtown Victoria, Thursday, looking ready to quietly stalk an otter for a future painting. With his piercing blue eyes and sandy-blonde hair touched with grey, he looks like an aging Robert Redford. He’ll turn 83 tomorrow—the same day he’ll throw open the doors to the Robert Bateman Centre, a stunning new art gallery on Victoria’s inner harbour dedicated to Canada’s most popular living artist.

The Bateman Centre, housed in the old CPR Steamship Terminal, a white, neo-classical structure across from the provincial legislature on Belleville Street, will be a permanent home for 160 of Bateman’s most famous works. The gallery, open to the public this weekend, will also serve to thumb its nose at the country’s visual arts establishment, which has long shunned Bateman, dismissing his grizzlies and wolves as kitschy and dull.

None of the country’s Big Three galleries has ever exhibited his art. One Globe and Mail review of his recent show at the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ont. claimed it had “all the sophistication of Reader’s Digest illustrations.” The Art Gallery of Ontario, Bateman laughs, “wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole.”

Bateman claims not to care, and shrugs off the question of why he’s never achieved critical success, which he dismisses as the “least important question in the world.” Later, though, in a quiet moment in an office in the gallery’s attic, he will admit his treatment at the hands of peers can sting.

He doesn’t give a damn about fame or money, he explains; he measures success by “how I’m thought of by my peers.” That, he says with a shrug, “has been up and down.”

An interview with Robert Bateman begins just as you might think—with the avid naturalist excitedly telling the story behind an old sketch of an injured water buffalo in evident distress. Years ago, he’d seen the buffalo attacked by lions at the Ngorongoro Crater, in Kenya.

“The old buffalo escaped by diving into a lake full of hippos,” Bateman explained. “Hippos don’t mind buffalo, the buffalo don’t mind the hippos. But lions are deadly afraid of hippos; they could snap a lion in half. So he was perfectly safe.”

But the following sketch is of a fallen buffalo. “He’d tried to come out during the night,” Bateman explains. “There were five lions just lying, resting, waiting for him. They killed him,” he says, “and all they did was eat his nose.”

“See,” he adds with a wink—“even animals can be cruel.”

Bearing witness to the natural world, its beauty and its cruelty, has been driving Bateman since his boyhood. There is a sense in his work of how things fit together in an ecosystem, a logic of the natural world that demands responsibility from the people in it.

Bateman believes we must slow down and pay attention, acquaint ourselves with nature in its beautiful complexities. Once we do, we’ll care enough to save it.

Bateman studied geography, not art, at the University of Toronto. “You’re an artist because of what’s in here,” he says, pointing to his heart. Plus, geography allowed him to “take free trips into the wilderness”—mapping iron ore in the high Arctic or surveying in rural Newfoundland—where he “painted up a storm.”

After university, he set out on the ultimate adventure: exploring Africa and Asia in a Land Rover, documenting his travels in paint, before returning to Canada, settling in to a job teaching art at a Burlington, Ont. high school.

“So many of the people I’ve seen and painted, their way of life is gone—they’re extinct now,” his warm smile fading to concern. In a way, Bateman is still doing exactly that: capturing a way of life that’s disappearing. Only now, it’s the natural world, not Tibetan tribespeople.

Sketches like the one of the buffalo in Kenya don’t form the basis of Bateman’s art: photographs do. Generally, his paintings are a mash-up of photos he’s taken or seen and scenes he’s witnessed; it’s something he began doing as a boy, he explains, hurrying over to a painting of a startled elk standing atop a ravine he’d made for his mother when he was 12.

“I grew up in Toronto—I’d never seen an elk.” But he found one in the pages of National Geographic. The ravine in the painting was his own backyard; and the tree patterns in the foreground were inspired by a golf course outside Toronto. “These mountains,” he says, pointing to the range off in the distance, “I made up based on a photo.”

“Little did I know I’d be doing exactly that my whole life.” Up to 15 photos go into every painting. “One photo is never enough,” he says. “I combine them, and play with them.”

“My life has been a continuum from birth to 83,” he says. “At the age of 12, I came home from school and did art every day. And I still do. I still try and watch and sketch every bird I see,” he says, pointing to a painting he finished at 14, of warblers and downy woodpeckers he’d spotted during spring migration, one of the greatest joys of his youth.

Paul Gilbert, the man hired to run the centre, has known Bateman more than 45 years—since Bateman taught him Grade 9 art. Formerly the AGO’s director of marketing, Gilbert says it’s not just snobbery that’s driving the art establishment’s disdain for Bateman’s art. In the post-modern era, Gilbert says, the subject of all fine art has been the inner world of the human being—“it’s about feelings of angst or tragedy or despair.”

“Somebody going back to just painting raw nature—the subject matter is completely out of context for the time,” he says.

But Gilbert believes this will change, that it has to: “Our internal psychological world is irrelevant. What’s most important in the world we live in right now is going to be what we do with nature in the next 40 years.”

Bateman believes “the priesthood,” as he refers to the arts establishment, dislikes his art simply because it’s too “nice,” too easy. “Modernism,” he says, “turned beauty into a bad word.”

But he does actually paint “nasty” things, he protests—it’s just that nobody seems to realize it. One room at the Bateman Centre is dedicated to his “nasty” work: man’s inhumanity to the natural world.

One painting depicts a clear-cut in Carmanah, B.C., home to the greatest Sitka spruce in the world; another shows an albatross and a Pacific white-sided dolphin drowned in a driftnet. Beside it, there’s a polar bear frantically swimming in an Arctic sea devoid of ice, then a painting of a skinned tiger, used for aphrodisiacs in China, a painting he knows will upset the local Chinese community.

Bateman has trouble expressing what it means to have a museum in his honour. He lives in a Zen-like state, he says: “I’m only interested in now. So I don’t think much about the future. And I don’t think much about the past. I don’t think about the enormity of it—if I stopped to think of it, it would seem too much.”

His greatest hope is that the Bateman Centre becomes a “clarion call,” drawing attention both to the irreparable harm we are doing to the planet, and the efforts under way to save it.

When asked how he wishes to be remembered, he turns to the last words spoken by journalist and activist June Callwood. “The last thing she said before she died was, ‘Be kind.’ I love that. I believe that applies to our attitude toward the natural world too.”

Be kind to the natural world. It is hard to imagine thinking of Bateman in any other way.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.