Artist and naturalist Robert Bateman’s long-awaited memoir–intimate and visually stunning, with original artwork.
Inside and out, Life Sketches by Robert Bateman (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2015) is a beautiful book, from the richly coloured cloth cover on the outside to the sketches and colour photos that appear throughout its pages. And just like Robert Bateman’s wildlife art, his prose is authentic, thoughtful, and beautifully rendered.
The artist’s memoir is certainly long-awaited, released in his ninth decade as he looks back on his life and body of work. He writes with the voice of maturity and an eye for detail as he describes his “blissful” childhood (25) and his love for nature and art that shaped his life and work; his travels around the world including Africa, Asia, and even Antarctica; his love of family and place; his concern for the environment and the way he has used his art to raise awareness and promote conservation efforts.
I’m squeamish enough to wince at his experience as a young naturalist catching and stuffing specimens of chipmunks and other creatures, and I marvel at how he considered it a “sacred duty” (5) to be able to tell the difference between a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk or a Red-tailed Hawk circling overhead simply by the shape of its tail.
I’m fascinated by his development as an artist who moved through various styles including Impressionism, Cubism, Japanese printmaking, Abstract Impressionism, and was profoundly influenced by the realism of Andrew Wyeth. This culminated in his own unique style, which he describes this way:
What I strive for in my paintings is verisimilitude. I want the viewer to feel the very real possibility that the landscape and the creatures in that work are genuine, that the viewer has glimpsed a fleeting truth and that he or she is the richer for it. (165)
I certainly felt that way a couple of years ago when I visited the Robert Bateman Gallery in Victoria, B.C. Now in this memoir, it’s a treat to see so many sketches of wildlife, people, and places, which makes Life Sketches an especially apt title.
I’ve long admired Robert Bateman as an artist, and given his international acclaim, I’ve never thought about the challenges he might face. After all, there’s even a Robert Bateman Secondary School named after him just a fifteen-minute drive from my home. His popularity and reputation have been well established both internationally and locally.
So it was news to me that throughout his career, he has also faced critics who have belittled his work. In their view, real artists do not paint wildlife, real artists are not commercially successful, real artists only sell originals and do not make prints (231)–all of which he has done. As one critic wrote, “This is not true art, but mere illustration.” (195)
In response, Robert Bateman counters,
But all my life, my paintings have come from within me, designed to express my own ideas and not to illustrate someone else’s story. . . . There is no “must” in art save for this rule: Art should come from the essence of the person’s life. For Degas, it was backstage at the ballet, or the racetrack. For Toulouse-Lautrec, it was the Moulin Rouge. For Bateman, it’s the wild and nature. You do what’s in your heart. (195)
A few pages later, I appreciate this advice for artists and writers, born of his own experience and conveyed with the realism found in his paintings:
I never imagined myself making a living as an artist, and I believe it’s folly to think along those lines. My advice for any aspiring artist is to get a job that pays real money–as a teacher [he had taught high school], a carpenter or a stock broker, whatever suits you–and learn about art by making art whenever time allows. If you’re one of the lucky ones able to convert a passion into a livelihood, as I was, then you are blessed.
I also advised my students not to paint for the market, or try to guess what would sell and then provide it. “Do what is you,” I told them. No doubt authors offer the same advice to aspiring writers: Let the work well up from some deep and very personal source. (200f.)
If this book weren’t so beautiful I would have underlined these and many other passages; instead, my copy is studded with bookmarks. Here’s another wonderful nugget that resonates with me:
My day-to-day life is a somewhat contradictory blend of routine, which sustains and disciplines me, and spontaneity, which I welcome. It’s true that I juggle many balls, but I am a happy juggler, and if someone were to ask, “Have you ever juggled a banana along with those balls, or a pineapple?” I would say, “No, but I’ll try.” I tell people (more or less quoting Winston Churchill), “I like it when things happen. If it’s not happening, let’s make it happen.” (211f.)
I also appreciate his perspective on being in his eighties:
When I turned eighty and eighty-four after that, I did not find myself obsessing over becoming an octogenarian, I actually feel half my age. If I’m obsessed with anything, I’m obsessed with time; not time passing, but time wisely spent. (249)
That makes good sense for any age, doesn’t it? Rather than focusing on how old or young we might be in years, to focus on using whatever time we have wisely.
I finished reading this book while curled up under a quilt in my La-Z-Boy recliner. Rain beat against the window as I sipped my cinnamon spice tea and looked again at some of the sketches: the house at Fulford Harbour on Saltspring Island; a garden scene near Nagano, Japan; a fork tailed petrel, ling cod, and killer whales off Haida Gwaii; a self-portrait of the artist in his studio with a Stellar’s Jay and Chickadees at the bird feeders outside his window. I closed the book with a sigh of contentment. For me, this time had been well spent.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Life Sketches from Simon & Schuster Canada, and the opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: As you reflect on your own life, are you also a juggler–happy, unhappy, or otherwise?
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