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Art and Activism

Robert Bateman paints what he loves and says what he believes Who: Robert Bateman What: Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival Natural World Lecture Series Where: Brackendale Art Gallery When: Saturday, Jan.

Robert Bateman paints what he loves and says what he believes

Who: Robert Bateman

What: Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival Natural World Lecture Series

Where: Brackendale Art Gallery

When: Saturday, Jan. 10

Tickets: $15

Internationally renowned Canadian realist wildlife artist Robert Bateman can breathe easy when he takes the stage tomorrow evening to discuss "Eagles and other Flagship Species," part of this year’s Natural World Lecture Series at the Brackendale Art Gallery’s Winter Eagle Festival.

He will almost certainly be preaching to the choir – that is, fellow conservationists gathered in a Brackendale art oasis independently run by a man Bateman calls a "kindred spirit," gallery owner Thor Froslev.

It will be Bateman and his wife Birgit’s 15 th year of association with the festival.

Tomorrow’s assembly of fans of Bateman’s art, as well as his very public conservation efforts, will likely nod thoughtfully when he points out the dangers of industrial farming, fishing and forestry. The majority will support his view that society would be better off by mending its gluttonous ways and moving toward a simpler way of living.

But not everyone Bateman presents to is quite so supportive. He relates a recent talk he gave at an annual convention of industrial logging companies in Vancouver, describing his delivery as "I socked it to them," and pulling no punches with ideas he knew were "unreconcilable with the industrial approach to nature."

Classic Bateman. As one of Canada’s most distinguished artists, he refuses to hide his environmental activism under a cloak of mainstream acceptance, whether speaking to toxicologists in Washington D.C. or writing expositions for the Globe and Mail condemning neo-conservative ideologues for promoting destruction.

"I believe in playing all bases and communicating with everybody," he says, speaking mildly but with conviction.

He has the type of voice that could calm the sea.

He is in fact by the sea right now, speaking over the phone from the Saltspring Island home he shares with his wife, photographer Birgit Freybe Bateman. While he converses, he mentions he is in the process of painting a bobcat. His words are suddenly even richer with the new knowledge that they are accompanied by brush strokes breathing life into another depiction on canvas of one more inhabitant of a rapidly shrinking natural world.

It’s a world Bateman is adamantly focused on protecting through involvement in countless conservation organizations and initiatives. Now in his 70s, he looks back through the years and rather than lauding society’s accumulations, rues all that has been lost.

Originally from Ontario, he was given his first art show in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year he points out, exhibiting works that featured local landmarks in his home area around Burlington, Ont.

But over the next decade, he says he watched every one of his subjects get bulldozed to the ground.

"I could see I was living in a disappearing world," says Bateman.

Membership in naturalist clubs since the age of eight years old ingrained environmental stewardship in him, making Bateman the conservationist an integral part of Bateman the painter from the start.

While teaching art in Ontario high schools, he experimented with a variety of styles before discovering a passion and affinity for realism. Every so often he has allowed his paintings to turn into blatant pleas for action – scenes of birds caught in industrial fishing nets, or happily roosting in trees laden with overtly pesticide-free, brown-spotted apples.

But it’s Bateman’s striking depictions of birds, beasts and sea creatures that have captured the hearts of nature art lovers all over the world, garnering him a dedicated following and a profile worthy of exhibitions in top institutions like the Smithsonian.

It’s his skill as a painter that has awarded him international acclaim, and the title of "artist" is the most common prefix to his name. But he doesn’t even skip a beat when posed a hypothetical choice to allot funding to the arts or to the environment.

"At the risk of making enemies of my artist friends, I would clearly say conservation without any hesitation," he states. "I’m not saying art isn’t of good to everybody, but (conservation) is more life and death. It’s much more urgent.

"Things are becoming extinct," he emphasizes. "The world of nature is going downhill rapidly. And it’s not just funding in the way of grants. We need to start paying more for our energy and our agricultural products and our forest products. There is no free lunch."

He qualifies his answer slightly to say that expensive public institutions of high culture are deserving of public monies, but stays firmly opposed to funding independent artists. In his own case, he says he went into teaching as a way to make sure he could always paint for enjoyment without relying on it for an income.

"I just think it’s kind of a messy world, the granting world," he continues.

"Art that costs a lot of money to put on, like ballet, theatres, or orchestras, should have public grants. But I don’t really think painters and sculptors should. Do it for the love of it, and if people want to buy it that’s a bonus."

Bateman at this point has scored the best kind of bonus, making enough through sales of his work to keep doing what he loves, to travel the world and to speak out on what he believes.

His association with the Brackendale Eagle Festival provides an opportunity to celebrate one of, if not his most, favourite things to paint.

"Bald eagles in particular are one of my favourite subjects," he confirms. "I also like golden eagles and red tailed hawks, peregrines, lions, cheetahs, cougars. I generally like carnivorous things, and it might be a guy-thing, but I think predators have nice abstract forms and shapes to them," he adds.

He chuckles as he considers Canada’s national symbol – the industrious but aesthetically-uninspiring beaver – in comparison to the Americans’ bald eagle, a dashing and completely captivating bird despite its rogue-like tendencies.

"The bald eagle is wonderful to paint," he continues in a voice steadily becoming more animated. "The fierce expression in the eye! I have to almost ration myself in the bald eagle department. It’s one of the most overworked subjects there is, particularly by artists who are market driven. It gets to be a very deeply ploughed furrow."

Regardless of how deep that furrow gets, Bateman fans will never tire of his eagle depictions, painted with mastery of brush and conveying his respect for their role as one of the flagship species – to be discussed in depth on Saturday evening.

Eagles & Other Flagships will be accompanied by a slide show of related Bateman artwork. Part of the 18th Annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival’s Natural World Lecture Series at the Brackendale Art Gallery, the presentation takes place this Saturday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, with proceeds donated to the construction of the Eagle Tower Monument.

Call 604-898-3333 for information.