ROBERT BATEMAN: On home life, health, helping wildlife and his art muse
By Carol Crenna
Consummate Canadian artist Robert Bateman has been painting and protecting wildlife for over 65 years. His signature realistic style is showcased in international galleries and the homes of Prince Phillip and Prince Charles, and has garnered him the Order of Canada and 11 honorary doctorate degrees.
Yet his love of art is equaled by his love of nature, and as an internationally respected environmentalist and naturalist, Robert lives by his convictions. I spoke with him about his health, his home, the environment and art.
CAROL: You started painting as a young child.
ROBERT BATEMAN: All children paint, but when they usually stop I didn’t. By the time I was 16, I had painted every hawk and owl in North America. After being an Impressionist, Cubist, and an Abstract Expressionist, I was influenced by realistic artists including Andrew Wyeth in the late 50s and I haven’t changed my style since.
It doesn’t take more skill to paint hundreds of strokes rather than one right stroke but it takes more patience.
CAROL: You’ve also been lecturing about nature for years.
ROBERT BATEMAN: I never thought that I would support myself with art — everyone in the Group of Seven had day jobs. I became a geography teacher so that I could get free field trips into the wilderness to paint.
At the same time I was an ardent naturalist, learning from experienced naturalists and studying field guides, and I taught at the Royal Ontario Museum. When teaching others about nature, the details of each plant or animal are important.
CAROL: Why are names for wildlife important?
ROBERT BATEMAN: One of the great tragedies in our civilization is that people don’t know the names of their neighbours – plant and animal species that share their neighbourhood. If you don’t know the names, you don’t care about them and can’t protect biodiversity.
CAROL: You mean it’s like making a friend — when you know their name, rather than just recognizing them when you pass by, you care more?
ROBERT BATEMAN: You begin paying more attention to what you’re seeing. You think, “What happened to all of the olive-sided flycatchers that I’d see each year at the pond?”
Terrible losses occur if you don’t pay attention to what‘s happening to the canaries in the coal mine. I am doing what I can to alter that. Too many people feel the way that Ronald Reagan did when he said, “You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.”
CAROL: You have a very healthy diet.
ROBERT BATEMAN: We eat wild fish, following the Sierra Club and Ocean Wise lists, and sometimes eat organic, free range chicken and eggs. We buy locally from markets on Salt Spring Island where we live, and grow our own food. It’s a dilemma considering the distance food travels — my wife Birgit went through agony recently buying sparkling water.
Since we don’t like products in plastic, she found the closest glass bottled brand from Quebec. We stopped eating pumpkin seeds, which are from China, and switched to sunflower seeds grown in Saskatchewan. Birgit is the household conscience and has been using fabric bags and bringing her own mug to coffee shops for 25 years.
CAROL: You had a health concern a few years ago.
ROBERT BATEMAN: I had a cancerous tumour on the outside of my baby finger on my right hand, the hand I paint with. I’ve had a lifetime of covering my hands with paint and other chemicals and I sign a lot of prints on chemical paper.
Two younger colleagues – oil painters – died from strange forms of blood cancer. The tumour was removed and hadn’t spread to other areas. I think like I am cured so I don’t worry about it, but I act like I still have it, continuing to increase my health through diet, exercise and a healthier home.
CAROL: In 2005, you volunteered for a medical assessment that detected amounts of toxins in your body. The assessment found 32 carcinogens, 19 hormone disruptors, 16 respiratory toxins and 42 reproductive toxicants.
ROBERT BATEMAN: They also found that mercury and lead were high in my body, which are not a danger unless I am young or still want to reproduce.
CAROL: How do you manage your worries?
ROBERT BATEMAN: During my cancer procedures, I managed my worries well ─ doctors considered amputating my finger. My advice is: don’t worry. I know that’s easier said than done so my second piece of advice is: procrastinate. I don’t mean be a shirker about duties, I mean procrastinate about worrying ─ think, “I am OK at the moment so I will worry about the problem later.” Then time will likely take care of everything. I focus on what is happening in “the Now.”
Some of the worst things in your life may never happen so why increase cortisol (stress-induced) hormone and blood pressure and shorten your life for them?
I do a three-breath meditation. If you find yourself worrying, go outside, take three breaths, address a tree and quietly say, “Thank you.” If you can’t find a tree, a dandelion will do. Japanese “forest therapy” takes stressed office workers for a half-hour walk in the woods. Their cortisol and blood pressure decrease and their immune system improves. Nature is magic.
CAROL: You say that painting for you isn’t relaxing; it’s work.
ROBERT BATEMAN: Art is challenging and frustrating but I don’t linger in it. I work on five paintings at a time so if I’m frustrated I put one down and begin another. A muse comes down from Mount Olympus and changes my attitude, cheering me up – it’s an inner intuition, suddenly giving a breakthrough to be able to move ahead.
CAROL: Do you exercise?
ROBERT BATEMAN: I take two walks up hills each day, and bike ride each morning. I also have an exercise bike to increase my heart rate. My wife and I have been going to a personal trainer for weights and balance twice a week for 10 years. My balance has improved tremendously and the weights decrease my age. I only feel 52, not 82.
CAROL: What are your philosophies for saving the environment?
ROBERT BATEMAN: We all know what to do: pay attention and pay for it. Pay attention to what is going on by reading news and watching current affairs programs. And pay for it by not being so cheap. Most of us don’t want to pay more for organic vegetables grown close to home, or for environmentally friendly electricity.
For the last 10 years, my talks have focused on three big bad F’s – industrial fishing, industrial farming and industrial forestry – which are destructive to nature.
CAROL: Is there a way out?
ROBERT BATEMAN: Former chief economist with CIBC, Jeff Rubin, who wrote Why the World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, says the world will completely change when oil is $100 a barrel.
When that happens, local economies will be more viable than global economies because it won’t make financial sense to ship tankers to North America. That means we will have to change our diet and how we live. There will be many more jobs in farming and local manufacturing.
CAROL: You have five environmentally-minded children!
ROBERT BATEMAN: Yes. My lectures now focus on the fact that kids don’t play outside enough. Young people spent time outside for hundreds of thousands of years until 15 years ago.
The book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Kids from Nature Deficit Disorder quotes a 10 year old kid saying, ”I like to play indoors because that’s where the electric outlets are.”
It cites recent research proving that if kids play outdoors, not organized sports but unsupervised climbing trees and building forts, they have less obesity, attention deficit disorder, suicide, alcohol abuse and bullying, and have higher marks.
There are movements in progress to redesign areas of cities to have wilderness, not parks, for kids to play on their own.
CAROL: What about dangers?
ROBERT BATEMAN: We need adult supervision inside, not outside the house. TVs and computers are dangerous babysitters. In talks I gave in the 60s I said that kids then hadn’t seen real family life other than TV shows so based their knowledge on it from them.
Now those kids are parents who don’t teach their children family values because they didn’t know them, and expose them to violent TV, video games and internet predators but are afraid to let them go outside.
CAROL: How can we change kids’ mindsets today?
ROBERT BATEMAN: It should be mandatory that every child in junior high and high school spend a week in the wilderness every year. As a teacher, when we took groups to Algonquin Park, we saw “idiot yahoo kids” at the beginning of the trip be transformed by nature into caring human beings.
In school, kids learn more about the problems of the Amazon Rainforest than about the wooded area at the end of their street – it’s not more courses; its experience.
CAROL: Let’s talk about the house you designed.
ROBERT BATEMAN: The home is a labour of love. It was designed by myself, with Birgit and my son-in law, who’s an architect. Our home is on acreage and has lovely views of a little 1930s farmhouse, distant hillsides with grazing sheep, and a lake teeming with wildlife — it’s protected because we own half of it and Ducks Unlimited owns the other half.
We always have our breakfast in bed, sitting side by side gazing out at the view with our binoculars. We built the house six years ago to provide more studio space and to create a healthy environment. Our other home had views of the ocean, and we had installed solar and wind power there. But we were conscious of electromagnetic frequency waves since it faced electric towers on nearby islands.
We decided to start from scratch and build the exact house we wanted before I got any older. It is a sensual pleasure to walk through its open spaces and differing forms.
Our bedroom is at the far end of the house from the studio but I never resent the walk; I love it because it offers different views of the home’s art collected from around the world. Esthetic pleasure is not to be taken lightly; it’s very important for the spirit and therefore the health.
CAROL: Your home is environmentally friendly.
ROBERT BATEMAN: We built it with less off-gassing in wood and other surfaces, and no fluorescent lights. The new home has geothermal heating; it is very comfortable, reliable, and the right thing to do for the environment.
Solar power wasn’t an option here. We live in the Siberia of Salt Spring; there is a huge hill between us and the electromagnetic field-emitting towers which is good for our health but we don’t get any sun in winter.
CAROL: Where is your favourite place?
ROBERT BATEMAN: My favourite rooms are the bedroom and studio. The studio is where I am all day and where my creativity takes place. It has many north windows – an artist doesn’t want direct light – and looks out onto heritage apple trees.
The master bedroom has a beautiful view of the terrace. I was involved with the landscape architecture; I made faux rocks by using a cement mold and painting them to create cliffs, caves and a pond with waterfall.
CAROL: What art does your home display?
ROBERT BATEMAN: It is dominated by tribal art from Nigeria where I taught school, from New Guinea where we’ve traveled, and by Canadian Haida pieces. My own art is either on exhibition or owned by other people!
I do have earlier work displayed which there wasn’t a big market for — it isn’t realism. It’s Impressionist or Abstract Expressionist. Birgit is a professional photographer and we have many of her photos on display. I prefer to hike in nature, give lectures, or be with family when not working.
CAROL: What more would you like to accomplish?
ROBERT BATEMAN: I would like to follow healthy practices so that I may continue to be healthy for a long time. I want to take advantage of the years that I have left to travel, but I also love being home.
When you get to be my age, you begin to count how many Mays you have left – the best time of year for flowers and birds in North America. Last May I went to Point Pelee National Park on Lake Erie to watch the migration, and joined Margaret Atwood for a “bird-a-thon.”
Original articles by Carol Crenna, part featured in VISTA Magazine, and part featured in Canada Wide Media’s BC Home Magazine