BEHOLD THE SIMPLE CHICKADEE. With its black toupee, matching beard and silver jacket of wings, it is a bundle of quick intent. According to famed Canadian artist Robert Bateman, it also has a face to forget.
“A chickadee’s face is like the end of a sock,” he remarks frankly from his studio on Salt Spring Island, BC. “There’s no expression on it.”
Bateman is watching chickadees pull on a bird feeder outside his window as he chats on the phone and paints, an iPad to his left so he can view different photos of the animals he so vividly depicts.
We’re discussing whether the artistic process can make kids care about nature. It’s a pertinent question: The Canadian Wildlife Federation Robert Bateman Get To Know Contest launched in April, and the organizers expect tens of thousands of entries.
Whether the contest’s success can translate into greater concern for the environment is another matter though.
“This is a way deeper question than you thought,” the 81-year-old says, not unkindly. “I’ve put a lot of thought into it. It’s been my life.”
Art, he has decided, forces the participant to slow down and pay attention to tiny particulars. It’s a form of admiration, but “worship is maybe too strong a word,” he says. Thus, the chickadee. By painting it, he takes time to truly see it.
Some people are naturally inclined to this kind of artistic involvement. Many are not. The differentiation begins at puberty, says Bateman, who taught art in high schools for 20 years.
“Every little kid loves art and nature. Unfortunately, most human beings give up and go on to other things as they mature, about the age of 12,” he says. “I got serious when I was 12. I started painting every day, and I’m still doing it at this moment.”
Bateman’s path to become Canada’s leading nature artist was anything but straight. The precocious artist had painted every hawk and owl in North America by the age of 16. At 18, he ventured into big-paint-big-canvas expressionism. By his early 30s, he was a dedicated abstract expressionist.
Then he went to an exhibit of American realist painter Andrew Wyeth’s work at Buffalo’s Carnegie Gallery and his life changed in a moment. “That was my road to Damascus,” he says. Bateman has practiced realism ever since.
Friends accused him of no longer being an artist. “Why not use a camera?” they charged. For Bateman, the difference is acute. “[Art] is examining and getting involved with the surface particularity. It’s engagement and involvement at a slow pace. With a camera, you can just go click.”
That isn’t to say that photography is not art. It’s a prominent segment of Get To Know, and Bateman works from pictures he’s taken. But without intent and attention, he says it’s just a snapshot. “Art begins where nature ends.”
That requires not only a keen eye, but equally astute engagement with the moment, both of which 17-year-old Quinn Dalgarno harnessed to win the Get To Know photography section in 2009. The moment came in the humble surroundings of a friend’s farm: He saw a green frog, got down on all fours and clicked. “It’s about living in the moment, capturing a beautiful moment that you get to share with people,” he says.
It’s clear from his work that Dalgarno is keenly aware of each leaf, bird and frog as he treks his beloved Bronte Creek Provincial Park in Oakville, on Toronto’s western fringe.
But he, too, wonders if an art contest will break through the digital barrier behind which so many of his peers live. When he was around the age that Bateman considers so critical, Dalgarno began studying at a private school. No classmates wanted to roam outdoors. He discovered the hard way that it can be lonely in the life-filled woods.
“I was that lost child that would hang out at the edge of the woods. It was a tough year,” he says frankly.
Winning the contest changed his life – he met other nature-enrapt youths, went to art camps, attended high-level events – but he laments a lack of shared interest from many of his peers. He often tries to convince classmates to head outdoors, and recently made a short documentary called Nature Deficit Disorder.
“They were kind of shocked,” he says. “Everyone is so lost in their gadgets and laptops, they’re missing out on a whole lot, and they don’t even know it. When you’re out in nature, you learn without even trying to learn. There’s no reading. It’s magic.”
If nothing else, Bateman hopes the Get To Know contest will inspire more children and teens to simply go into their backyards, woodlots, riverside tracts and provincial parks this summer, and take the time to really see their non-human neighbours. Even more importantly, the artist wants youth to have fun while they’re at it.
“We’re creating a new species that finds it hard to be engaged and to go slow,” Bateman says. “We’re up against a juggernaut with this competition. Just to go outside. Go into nature and have fun, like I did.”
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