It started snowing here mid afternoon yesterday, and about 30 hours later, it's still coming down. When I was a student, and later a teacher, days like this were my favourite! It's a snow day! It reminded me of something from my time as a high school art teacher.
While cleaning out some messy cupboards in my art classroom I discovered a drawing with a signature I recognized. Birgit Bateman. Wife of Robert Bateman.
Robert Bateman, the internationally famous Canadian wildlife artist, spent the last years of his teaching career with Birgit at Lord Elgin High School. He retired a few years before I started my job, but most staff remembered him. Some speculated about my ability as a newbie to ‘step into his shoes’.
A local gallery carried his artwork so I spent time studying his technique. It wasn’t just the detail, but Bateman’s mastery of all the elements of artistic design that made his work compelling. He used dramatic contrasts of colour and lines to pull your eyes into the work. He knew certain devices would strengthen the composition. He added an element of surprise or mystery. And later, added a warning about dangers to the environment and wild creatures.
I couldn’t afford his original artwork – even then, worth thousands, but I became obsessed with him. He had the handsome looks of Robert Redford. Like a groupie, I fantasized. I collected his books and bought a small print. He sold his country home and studio in north Halton to another artist, so I visited her and toured it. I attended his speaking appearances. I learned that his incredible ability to accurately render realistic paintings of nature is only part of his importance to Canada.
Bateman is an outstanding advocate for wildlife. His limited edition prints raise financial aid for environmental causes. The Robert Bateman Foundation, a not for profit organization, supports humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Bateman continues to speak about the importance of understanding, enjoying and preserving wild nature.
At one lecture I attended, he told the story behind a painting of a startling close up of a polar bear. The bear’s face leers menacingly out of a snowstorm. He said the concept came when he was driving in white out conditions up the Guelph Line one night after work. He imagined the face of a polar bear coming at him through the headlights.
One stormy winter evening, a few months after finding Birgit’s drawing, I drove home up a lonely stretch of Guelph Line. Snow swirled around the car and the pavement was covered. Panic started as I visualized the face of a polar bear leaping through the window. I made it home safe, and planned my next day’s art lesson.
“Guys,” I said, distributing pieces of paper. “Today, we’re going to create a scene from a Canadian winter.”
One teenager stood up and waved his blank white sheet in front of the class. “I’ve already created a polar bear in a snowstorm!”
My students won’t brag that their art teacher became world famous, but all Canadians have benefitted from that other art teacher – Robert Bateman - who has given us incredible portraits of wildlife and reminded us of the need to preserve it for future generations.
Sharon Frayne is a writer and artist. She is a member of the Canadian Author's Association, the Niagara Writer's Circle and the Pumphouse Art Gallery. She looks for the universal experience and the mystery in everyday things.