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  • Sketching into the wild

    Maleea Acker

    The Bateman Foundation’s new vision comes into focus.


    THROUGH ART, we can connect to the natural world. That’s the vision Robert Bateman has been creating his entire life. The 89-year-old artist, famous for his hyper-realistic portraits of wolves, bears, birds and iconic nature scenes, has been an outlier in the Canadian art world for decades. His work has always promoted the importance of nature more than it sought to further a specific style or school of art—he eschewed impressionist or modernist technique for exacting portraits that stay true to the plumage of a red-winged blackbird or the mists that crawl over a coastal bay. This year, the public charity he established in 2012 (and on which he serves as Honorary Chair Emeritus) has rebranded to more exactly attend to that vision.

    The former Bateman Centre has renamed itself the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature.



    Robert Bateman in his studio


    The gallery, until now home to a large collection of Bateman’s art, will begin showcasing exhibitions by a wide variety of artists (including photographers, painters and sculptors) for whom the natural world is their focus. And the foundation has begun reaching out beyond the art world. Its goal is to bring more people—especially children—into closer contact with nature, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of its power, and getting people off their devices and into the woods.

    When a stone is thrown into a pond, Tiffany McFadyen tells me when I visit the gallery, it makes a wave that ripples across the water. “Robert wants to be the stone.” McFadyen, the head of philanthropy and sponsorship for the foundation, confirms that Bateman is thrilled about the changes the Board is implementing, though “it’s been an interesting adjustment.” Many of Bateman’s works will move to other locations when the gallery begins hosting others’ exhibitions. But overall, she says he is pleased with the foundation’s wider reach.

    “We’re now not just a gallery, but an organization that offers educational programs with a tangible impact,” explains McFadyen. A large part of the foundation’s new work is with children. “Nature deficit disorder” is now recognized as an acute problem for all ages, but children are especially vulnerable. Children spend up to 2,783 hours per year in front of a screen, but only 183 hours outdoors in unstructured play. That’s less than many federal prisoners. Most children can recognize more corporate logos than they can native species of plants and animals. Last year, uproar followed the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to omit words such as acorn, heron and nectar from its new edition, replacing them with words like blog, celebrity and chatroom.

    The Bateman Foundation’s Nature Sketch program reached 3,000 children across Canada in 2018. Fees for the program are a modest $150 a classroom, which see a naturalist and a sketch artist accompany children outside to learn about ecosystems and species, and practice translating their knowledge into drawings.

    Adult Nature Sketch programs also run in spring and fall in Victoria (and Duncan), with outings to local favourites like Beacon Hill Park and Mount Tolmie.

    If you connect people with art about the natural world, Bateman proposes, they’ll be more likely to go outside. The foundation is also working in Vancouver with the BC Children’s Hospital and Anxiety Canada, facilitating Nature Sketch programs with adolescents who suffer from severe anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. “The kids that weren’t showing up [to school] are now coming for art class every week,” says McFadyen.

    Engagement with the natural world through the creation of art isn’t so much about product as process, as Thompson Rivers University botanist Lynn Baldwin has recently suggested. Many naturalists argue that we are facing an “extinction of experience” with nature, which compounds the threats facing our planet. “Drawing draws us into the world as we pay attention to easily missed details,” she explains. Drawing rekindles a close relationship with the natural world, encouraging care, and helping us to acknowledge the complex ties we have with Garry oak meadows, Douglas-fir forests and even the backyard birds at our feeders.

    The Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature is ideally located for visitors—its waterfront perch occupies the second floor of the Inner Harbour’s historic Steamship Terminal and sees 25,000 visitors annually. Executive Director Peter Ord and the Foundation’s Board hope that more diversity in the gallery’s exhibitions will attract more people, and keep more in tune with the foundation’s vision.

    Until June, the Gallery of Nature will feature “Plumage: The Majestic Art of Birds,” which includes works by some of the world’s iconic wildlife artists—J.J. Audubon, Fenwick Lansdowne, and Bateman.

    In June, “Into the Arctic” will open, with paintings and film by renowned Canadian artist and explorer Cory Trépanier, who traversed over 40,000 kilometres of the Arctic during his travels.



    Cory Trépanier painting in the Arctic


    Next fall, a short exhibition of Kim Michelle Toft’s hand-painted silk depictions of the Pacific ocean will precede “One Tree,” a biannual celebration of a single tree, which is salvaged and sections distributed to artists. This year’s tree is a 200-year-old bigleaf maple from the Cowichan Valley. Eighty participating artists are creating furniture, musical instruments, and sculptures from its wood.

    Visit the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature at 470 Belleville Street or online at www.batemancentre.org.

    Maleea Acker studies the intersections of art and science.

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