Dusk had passed and the moon was rising. Few tourists were around. While driving out of Yellowstone National Park, I suddenly spotted movement nearby. An enormous beast loomed alongside my car, swaying from side to side. I stopped and stared. The dark mop top, curved horns, and bushy beard came into focus.
Never having seen a bull bison at such close range, I was awed by his majestic appearance. I wanted to fully appreciate the enormity of this animal - not only in size but in stature as a historic symbol of the West.
The next day, before returning to the East Coast, I had another encounter with a bison. This one, however, was standing motionless, looking straight at me. It wasn't real, but may as well have been. It inspired the same sense of awe. This bison appears as a life-size acrylic on canvas painted by artist Robert Bateman.
At the spectacular National Museum of Wildlife Art here in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Mr. Bateman's bison, titled "Chief," takes viewers' breath away as they enter a retrospective exhibit of his work. The world-renowned artist unveiled his painting, the largest of his career, at the opening of "Robert Bateman: Natural Worlds."
Its 6-by-9-foot size didn't deter Bateman from his impeccable concern for detail. And his use of foreshortening adds a sense of drama, giving the impression that the animal is emerging out of a cloud of dust and his massive head is just within reach.
In all his works, the artist forces even the casual observer to pay attention to each strand of hair or thread of feather, revealing his careful attention to form, color, and light. Another Bateman trademark is his sensitive depiction of the natural habitat.
"I'm involved with every square inch," Bateman says of his works. In a telephone interview from his home on Salt Spring Island off the coast of British Columbia, he explained that he found his artistic style in his early 30s, soon after he saw a landmark show on Andrew Wyeth. ("The naturalist in me went shazam!") Before then, Bateman had dabbled in Cubism, Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism.
Today, his well-honed realistic style attracts a large following and has been the subject of many one-man museum exhibits, including a show at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Many of the 35 paintings displayed at the museum have become recognizable, such as "Rocky Mountain Cougar," "Peregrine Falcon," and "Sheer Drop-Mountain Goats."
Bateman's art reflects a strong commitment to ecology and preservation, borne out of a lifelong love for the natural world.
"I've always been a naturalist, and I've always been an artist," Bateman says. "There's nothing special about that, because all little kids like art and nature, but most normal human beings grow up around the age of 12 or 13 and go on to more mature things. I just never reached that stage, and I'm still doing kid stuff."
Kid stuff aside, Bateman holds some very adult convictions about today's world. Since the early 1960s, he has been active in naturalist clubs and conservation organizations and become a spokesman for many environmental causes.
He freely shares his opinions on issues such as protecting the earth ("We need to face deeper actions than littering if we're going to have a good planet for the next 100 years"), electronics ("I'm a bit aghast at the percentage of young people whose entire lives are engrossed with screens - video games, computers, and TV"), and appreciating nature ("Put on your Walt Whitman hat ... you don't have to move to an island or Alaska").
Especially telling is his enthusiasm for joining his two passions. "I can't conceive of anything being more varied and rich and handsome than the planet Earth," he says. "And its crowning beauty is the natural world. I want to soak it up, to understand it as well as I can, and to absorb it. And then I'd like to put it together and express it in my paintings. This is the way I want to dedicate my work."
* The exhibition runs through late November. The latest book on Robert Bateman's art, 'Natural Worlds' by Rick Archbold (1996, Simon & Schuster/Madison Press Books), also offers a stunning look at the painter's work.