Artist and conservationist. sketchbook and family -- essential companions for Robert Bateman

MAYBE not quite ``growing up'' had something to do with his success. ``I've never known a little kid that didn't love nature, drawing, and animals. Most of them grow out of it and move on to more `mature' things. I just never did. I guess it's too late now,'' says artist-naturalist-conservationist Robert Bateman.

Mr. Bateman has grown up, however, to become a highly successful artist, especially known for his paintings and sketches of wildlife.

He has been recognized and decorated in his native Canada and abroad for his art and contribution to world conservation. In 1981, he was tapped to do an oil painting of a loon family as a wedding gift from the government of Canada to the Prince of Wales. Recently, Bateman came to Boston to address and be honored by the grandfather of conservation clubs, the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Those that are able -- and the line is growing -- pay up to $60,000 for one of Bateman's noble portraits of the animals he cherishes and respects. ``I admit,'' he says, ``that I have more respect for a snail than most senators.''

And he has been known to donate paintings to favorite wildlife causes.

Although Bateman's home is tucked quietly into the Canadian woods, he doesn't live a life of monastic seclusion. His solid commitment to conservation and art doesn't infringe on his family life. Frequent sojourns around the world, camping trips, or vacations are seldom taken without his second wife, Birgit, and at least some of his brood of five fledglings.

Wherever he goes a sketchbook is packed right between the hiking boots and binoculars. Even on holiday. Or does Bateman ever really take a vacation? ``Either I've never been on holiday in my life, or my whole life has been one holiday,'' he says with a broad Robert Redford grin.

While travel is frequent, and looked forward to with enthusiam, Bateman cherishes most those quiet days with his family.

``Working at home is a wonderful advantage. A lot of fathers go off at dawn with a briefcase and don't come home until late. Kids are always asking, `What does Daddy do?' Well my kids know exactly what I do. They're right there when I'm doing it. They understand it and they're with me when I'm gathering source material. It's all part of kid stuff.

``Best of all, the family is around to share things with. A lot of artists and naturalists are real loners. They like to keep their observations to themselves. I could never, oddly enough, go bird-watching alone. I have to be able to jump up and down and yell, `Hey! That's our first hermit thrush of the year.'

``Birgit and I -- and I say this not with pride, but rather with some sheepishness -- are both professional appreciators. We got this way from being art teachers, I guess. You've got to be an upbeat type and point out the good things to keep kids encouraged. We're both interested in the positive and we push to get enthusiasm going. We're pretty clear about pointing out ways to improve, too. We do that with our own kids all the time.''

Bateman's first book, ``The Art of Robert Bateman'' (Viking Press, 1981), is dedicated to his mother and his wife. His latest book, ``The World of Robert Bateman,'' (Random House, $50) is dedicated ``To my children, Alan, Sarah, John, Christopher, and Robbie, with appreciation for their companionship and for bringing joy to my world. I hope that they find the rewards in our natural and human heritage that have meant so much to me.''

When talking of that natural heritage, Bateman voices concern for the environment. He focuses particularly on the deforestation of tropical rain forests, especially in Central and South America. Many of them are being razed, he says, to make grazing land for cattle so that fast-food restaurants in the United States can get cheap beef.

``In the world today,'' he adds,``one species per day is becoming extinct -- counting plants and insects. Think of if, there are seven more extinct species today than there were a week ago. And if this rate continues it will amount to one extinct species an hour. As Pogo said, `We have met the problem and he is us.' ''

So what can one do to help in the conservation effort?

``There is absolutely no question in my mind that you should join your local Audubon Society. The World Wildlife Fund is another great one. So is Greenpeace. Get your whole family to join. Take advantage of the field trips, outings, hikes, newsletters, magazines, and lectures they offer. Plus you get advance notice of what conservation bills are coming up before Congress and you can write your congressmen.''

``Just in joining,'' Birgit interrupted, ``your name is added to the numbers and that gives strength to any conservation lobbying in Washington.''

Bateman's artistic procedure is to travel into the wilds, studying, photographing, and sketching animals and birds in their natural habitats. Once back in his studio, he develops more elaborate sketches, then works in either acrylic or oils for the final paintings.

And although his paintings are of great value, they're not always handled with silver tongs or kid gloves. He laughs about a neighbor's small parrot who took to perching on an unfinished acrylic, adding a certain vertical ``Jackson Pollackness'' down one side. ``So, it'll wash off,'' he says with a shrug.

His works combine an Andrew Wyeth realism with underlying bold strokes of Franz Kline or Rothko abstractness -- but never a Disney cuteness. One may capture the threatening expression of an African cat set to spring. Another may freeze a hovering goldfinch in a shaft of sunlight or a tender moment between a mother and her cubs. Yet one thing his art is not. It is never sentimental.

It could have worked the other way.

As a child, Bateman got stuck for a time in a Disneyesque period, but managed to get out -- much quicker than it took Br'er Rabbit to pull his fist out of Tar Baby.

``I became interested in art about the time Walt Disney's `Bambi' came out. Soon after Mother took me to the movie, I was painting Thumpers and Bambis on every crib and nursery wall in town. Everybody loved them, but after a while I couldn't stand it and started painting sinister figures very subtly in the background or in reflections in the water.''

The most important single thing Bateman's mother did for the budding boy artist was to send him, at age eight, to the Royal Ontario Museum. It was there Bateman found that ``there were other people as `odd' as I was. That really set the tone for the people I wanted to be around. The staff there was `woodsy' and `outdoorsy' but still intellectual and compassionate.'' At college Bateman majored in geography. ``Art is something you do, not something you `take,' '' he says.

He opens to an illustration of ``Among the Leaves -- Cottontail Rabbit'' in his first book. ``The challenge here was that baby rabbits tend to be cute, and wildflowers tend to be pretty.

``But essentially this is a painting of dead leaves. The forest floor is a very beautiful and complex place. I think dead leaves are highly underrated in our society. Niagara Falls is overrated, dead leaves are underrated. Personally, I'd rather have one dead leaf with a worm hole in it than 20 acres of tulips at the peak of perfection. Tulips are like a row of gawdy, identical, plastic toys made in Hong Kong. A dead leaf has individuality. It looks like it has lived, like something happened to it.''

Bateman, like Thoreau and Walt Whitman, is a firm believer that beauty isn't just in the setting sun, but often at our own feet.

``The rabbit here is almost incidental,'' he adds, ``To avoid any `cuteness' I did what nature does. I hid the rabbit among the leaves. There is a look of terror in his eye just as there would be if you came across him in the woods. The white trillium adds a touch of brightness in an otherwise brown picture and detracts the viewer's eye away from the rabbit.''

Like most artists, Bateman doesn't like to compromise his art. He had to a bit last year when he was asked to design Canada's first Federal Conservation Stamp -- that country's equivalent of the United States Duck Stamp -- for the benefit of Wildlife Habitat Canada. The stamp is widely bought in the US and Canada by both hunters and collectors. The $4 price goes entirely to Wildlife Habitat Canada, a conservation group.

``I wanted to do something subtle for the stamp,'' says Bateman. But there was a great deal of pressure from the American dealers and collectors.

``I got this call from a dealer in Texas who said, `You do something subtle and there will be 30,000 collectors down here gunning for you, and I'll supply the ammunition!' He got to me when he said, `Look, you could raise a tremendous amount of money for conservation if you really decide to `go for it.'

``What do you mean, `go for it'? I asked. His response was immediate: `a pair of mallards front and center.'

``Well, I have two problems with the mallard. No. 1, it's trite. Second, I don't like its looks. Especially the male. It's that green and that rust combined that I don't like. So, anyway, I gave them the rear end of the male and backlit it. And I put them on thin ice as symbolic of where our wildlife habitat is.''

It has evidently paid off. The stamp has sold well and the proceeds added to the more than $1 million already raised by Bateman for various conservation groups around the world.

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