Creativity is a thread that’s woven its way through artist Robert Bateman’s life since he was a youngster growing up in Toronto.
Bateman, a naturalist and internationally renowned wildlife artist, is the keynote speaker at New Westminster’s 2019 Seniors Festival on Saturday, Oct. 19 at Century House. The theme of this year’s festival is the Creative Side of Aging.
“I am going to be talking about my life story. I’m going to start with Toronto and go into a little bit of my various travels. It will be all over the map and all over my different opinions,” he says. “I start with a picture of Mark Twain. He said a number of things, but one of the things he said is: Growing old is a question of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. That is true. I definitely don’t mind that I am going a little slower these days.”
Bateman, 89, was born in Toronto, where his love of nature and painting began. Toronto’s ravines, valleys, rivers and Lake Ontario provided fertile ground for the budding artist and naturalist.
“The tributary of the Don River that I grew up on was right in our backyard. We had pollywogs and frogs, of course, in the stream, a painted turtle one time. It was a major migration route during spring and fall for the birds coming and going to the south, so the backyard would be full of birds, often exotic ones that were going to be going up north to nest,” he says. “It was a delightful place to grow up.”
While Bateman always knew he’d be an artist, he pursued geography in university as he knew it would lead to wilderness trips in the summer. In the late 1950s, Bateman and his good friend Bristol Foster embarked on a 14-month trip in a Land Rover through Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Australia.
“While he was shooting movies, sometimes I would sit and do a painting,” he recalls. “And sometimes I would sit and do a painting, only in words. It was just paying attention to the moment and then writing it down. That’s something anyone could do.”
Bateman believes it’s a wonderful thing for people to continue being creative as they age, whether that’s through crocheting, woodworking, writing or some other activity.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late,” he says. “I think it’s enriching and making their lives more meaningful.”
Bateman, who taught geography and art in high school for many years, and his wife moved to B.C. in 1985. Their home’s setting on Salt Spring Island is the inspiration for some of his art.
“I still love doing it, but any of my more important or serious paintings, I always like them when I start. In fact I like them best before I start and they are just a gleam in my eye,” he says. “I do a few little thumbnail sketches, the size of a playing card, and work out what is the best composition. Then I start in on them. They are full of possibilities.”
Bateman is currently working on a big project for a health centre in Omaha, Nebraska – a 12-foot long painting featuring about 100 sandhill cranes.
“It’s one of the great nature events of the year when thousands of sandhill cranes come on their migration route from the Gulf of Mexico up to Northwest Territories. They hang out there,” he says. “Birgit, my wife, and I went to witness it. I don’t paint things I haven’t seen. I use my own photographs and sketches for reference – I don’t use other people’s stuff.”
A lifelong naturalist, Bateman is proud of kids like Greta Thunberg who are trying to protect the Earth by pushing for action to address climate change.
“I try not to worry. Worry is not a good thing to do,” he says, when asked if he’s worried about the fate of the planet. “I remember saying when I was developing philosophical thoughts in my 20s, there’s nothing worth worrying about; there’s all kinds of things worth doing something about.”
Bateman is hoping to get a “good crowd” when he speaks at the Seniors Festival. His presentation doesn’t feature his art, but it “sneaks in” when he’s making different points about the Creative Side of Aging.
“It’s just to have a lust for life,” he says of his message. “There was a wonderful book written about Van Gogh called Lust for Life. That's what I want to encourage them to do – and living life up to the limits of your ability.”
Although “little Bobby Bateman” showed promise as an artist when he was in kindergarten – and Bateman isn’t surprised he’s still painting – he had no idea his paintings would be marketable and he’d be able to make a career of art.
“Wayne Gretzky had his talents. Ballerinas have their talents and so on. I always did art and nature. I was interested in doing art and being out in nature,” he says. “All little kids love doing art and being out in nature, but most normal people grow up around the age of 12. I just haven’t grown up yet. I’m still into kid stuff.”
Seniors Festival 2019
When: Saturday, Oct. 19 from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Century House, 620 Eighth St. (in Moody Park)
What: An information fair featuring more than 30 community groups and businesses providing services, benefits and more to older adults; an ArtsToGo educational and interactive experience with Arts Council of New Westminster; a special seniors festival lunch; keynote speaker Robert Bateman; and entertainment.