Interview With Artist and Conservationist Robert Bateman

Editor’s Note: Robert Bateman is currently 92 and lives in Toronto, Canada. Wikipedia lists 16 books by him or about him, from “The Art of Robert Bateman” in 1981 to “Robert Bateman’s Canada”  in 2017. 

by Joe Meche

by Robert Bateman

Madison Press/Pantheon Books,
175pp., hardbound, $40.00
ISBN 0-375-42182-3

Robert Bateman was in Bellingham recently [December 2002], at Village Books, to promote his new book, “Birds,” an intimate appreciation of birds of all kinds. Bateman is considered by many to be “the most influential wildlife artist of the 20th century.”

“Birds” is a lavishly illustrated and informatively-written chronicle of a personal birding odyssey that begins at Bateman’s home on Salt Spring Island, in the Canadian Gulf Islands, and ranges to destinations throughout North America, the tropics, the bird-rich locations of the old world, as well as the Antarctic. This volume includes not only Bateman’s most recent paintings but also his insightful reflections on bird life.

Renowned naturalist, writer, and friend, Peter Matthiessen, wrote the foreword to “Birds.” Matthiessen has accompanied Bateman on a “number of adventures” and has had the pleasure of watching Bateman at work in the field. He marvels at the amount of effort Bateman exerts to lug equipment across all types of terrain to record the details necessary to capture the essence of his subjects for the finished work.

The notes that accompany the paintings in the book emphasize the personal connection that Bateman establishes with all his subjects. In the introduction, he traces the role that birds have played in his life, speaks of the important people in his life, and points to the future of not only birds but of all the natural world and the need to pass the natural legacy on to our “grandchildren’s grandchildren.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Bateman the morning after his presentation at Village Books, and the following are some of the highlights of that interview:

Joe Meche: You stopped over in Bellingham last evening to give a reading from your new book, “Birds.” How was your visit?

Robert Bateman: It was fantastic, and the crowd was great! Village Books must be the cultural center of western Washington.

Joe: Your new book is dedicated to Roger Tory Peterson. Was he an inspiration as a birder, an artist, or both?

Robert: Mainly as a birder, but I really became aware of his birds as art when I visited a show of his bird prints at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1975.

Joe: In “Birds,” you credit a chickadee with starting you on a lifetime as a birder. What other birds inspired you early on?

Robert: When I got my first field guide and started learning the names of the birds in our backyard, they were all fun. That chickadee turned me into a hunter—not with a gun, but with my eyes and ears. I’d always thought a chickadee was more or less like a house sparrow, but this tiny bird’s white cheeks and black cap and upside-down gymnastics gave it away immediately. That agile climber charmed the cold right out of the afternoon.

Bateman Studied Geography

Joe: When you attended the University of Toronto, did you study art?

Robert: No, I studied geography and went on to teach geography in high school. If art is in your heart, you don’t need to study it. Actually, I found the art courses amusing more than anything.

Joe: You’ve said that you began painting in modern styles; what was the evolution that brought you around to painting in a more realistic style?

Robert: I began painting in 1948, at the age of 18, and eventually tried to paint like the impressionists, post impressionists, cubists, and abstract impressionists. I even worked on three-by-four masonite boards for a while. It was the art of Andrew Wyeth that inspired me to paint in a more realistic style.

Joe: Some have said that John James Audubon painted with a brush and a shotgun. What techniques or tools do you use to get the detail that you do in your work?

Robert: I photograph the birds first and then I work from the photographs. I usually use a 400 mm lens when photographing birds.

Joe: Do you have a favorite bird or group of birds that you enjoy working with more than others?

Robert: Predators. The raptors.You can see the intensity in their eyes. They’re birds of action.

Joe: When you go birding, can you separate the desire to paint birds from the sheer enjoyment of observing them?

Robert: I have no problem with that. I enjoy traveling to see birds and other wildlife, and, being an avid naturalist, visiting wild places is the best part.

Joe: Do you have a short list of favorite places in the world to watch birds?

Robert: East Africa is the best. Traveling in parts of Kenya and Tanzania is like traveling in the Garden of Eden. I also love Antarctica and all the fascinating creatures that live there and nowhere else on Earth. For the same reason, I also enjoy going to the Galapagos Islands.

Joe: You grew up and spent most of your life in Ontario and now you live on Salt Spring Island; has living there inspired your art?

Robert: Not really. It’s a great place to live but we love to travel and experience other parts of the world. Living on Salt Spring allows me to view the world with a bit of critical distance. The pace of life is slower than on the mainland and the rhythms of the sea, the shore, and the forest are always close at hand. While I’m painting, scents and sounds waft in through the open windows of my studio. Even though modern gadgets that defy geography surround me, this proximity to the world as it was before technology and progress became gods is my constant reminder of something deeper. It reminds me of just how great a responsibility we have to achieve a state of peaceful coexistence between humans and the wild.

Joe: Is there a message that you would like to convey through your art?

Robert: Just that we are the luckiest people to have ever lived and right now is the luckiest time to be alive. If people could project what the world will be like when our grandchildren have grandchildren, we would wonder what we were waiting for. Life is rich beyond imagining. Variety isn’t just the spice of life, it is life; and my entire life is a celebration of that variety. Think about the moon, but also think about your local park. Understand that birds are the flagships of the health of our ecosystems, and pay attention.  


Joe Meche has been writing the Beaks and Bills column since June 2002.

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