In Conversation with Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman and Stephen Cipes in Kelowna, BC on November 14, 2015. At the Robert Bateman Chieftan Gallery grand opening event held at Summerhill Pyramid Winery.

Stephen Cipes: Well. I really want to say from my heart how honoured I feel that you came today, Bob. Thank you so much.

Robert Bateman: I am very honoured, Stephen, myself.

SC: Thank you so much. You’ve been coming to Summerhill now for about almost nine years. Every year I would ask you, “Mr. Bateman, would you ever consider putting your artwork on a label of our wine?” And you would always say. “No, Stephen. No. I’ve never put my name or artwork on any commercial product.” And every year you would come and I would ask you again and you would say, “No, Steve.” (laughs)

RB: Finally, I caved in.

SC: Finally, you caved in when you were tasting the wines and you were seeing that we were biodynamic and certified organic, and [inspired by] the pyramid energy and [recipients of] the gold medal awards from around the world and you finally said, “Okay … But maybe only…” You started on artwork ideas and it went through many people to really figure it out.

RB: And you’re the one and only.

SC: Thank you. So here we have Mr. Bateman’s artwork on a bottle of Grasslands Organic Merlot, and today you were signing bottles of wine that people were purchasing. So beautiful. Thank you so much.

And also today, which is November 14, 2015, we had a grand opening here of the Robert Bateman Chieftain Gallery which combines your brilliant work with the beautiful work of the First Nations people, some of whom have very famous names as well. The Pettmans were here. So many great artists that have signed their works and brought them in today – jewelry and sculpture – it all fits so beautifully together.

And we did a little ceremony; they gave you a blanket …

RB: Yeah, I was blanketed. That’s for sure.

SC: You were blanketed. They did a little dance and played the drums and welcomed you. It was a beautiful honour. And I made a little comment about how this beautiful 80 acres of land overlooking the lake just happens to probably have been the home for many thousands of people over thousands of years. It’s such a beautiful perch with the view north and south, probably a 30-kilometer view here and how the Grandmothers and Grandfathers have been urging us to bring back the culture, bring back the feeling, bring back the love of the land through the art. And today, it’s a beautiful day, a beautiful new beginning.

I will shake your hand again and thank you for being here and for allowing us to use this the Robert Bateman name, the beautiful name. You’re the Canadian national treasure artist and we love that you honour us with your name and allowing us to use it in our gallery. Thank you so much.

I also want to thank you so much for signing the Declaration today. This is the Declaration that we are hoping to convert the entire valley, this precious little valley … we’re calling it the 2020 Vision, a Declaration to take the whole valley organic. We are so far north. We are the most northern area that grows grapes and fruit in the world. We’re up near the 50th parallel and yet we’re protected by the mountains and so the weather patterns are not too extreme and if ever there were to be an area where we could grow the grapes and the fruit without chemicals, this would be the area. And we could be a diamond on the emerald planet. And already we just put this in the end of September and here it is the middle of November and we have thousands of signatures including two mayors’, many of the tribal chiefs’, and the water board people. David Suzuki has signed it, you have signed it. It’s just a wonderful phenomenon to know perhaps we can achieve this beautiful thing and with your help and with your wonderful encouragement to support…

RB: It could be a model for the world, I think.

SC: A model for the world.

RB: Yep.

SC: Yes sir, so beautiful. Appreciate it. I also wanted to present you with the first two issues of our All One Era magazine. This one features myself on the cover and the first chapter of my 13-chapter book. I also want to present you with the second issue, which features an interview with Dr. David Suzuki I did last month at the water forum. Here, David and I are having a high five. (laughs)

RB: Well, thank you very much. And I have something for you. It is my latest book. It’s called Life Sketches. It’s a memoir and it’s full of sketches and full of stories. I’m an old guy and so I’ve got a lot of stories. I’ve always been teacher and a sharer and so just flipping through it you can see there’s tons of sketches.

SC: Beautiful, wow. I’m excited to have it. Thank you so much.

RB: And there’s some photos as well and, yeah … I’m told it’s not a bad read.

SC: Wow. Could you sign it for me?

RB: I will absolutely sign it for you.

IMG_0264SC: Thank you. I heard today that it was on the Globe and Mail bestseller list.

RB: Today, yes. Saturday the 14th.

SC: Bestselling book in the country right now.

RB: Yep.

SC: Isn’t that fantastic? Congratulations. That is fantastic. Thank you so much. Beautiful.

SC: In the last month’s October Moon issue of the All One Era magazine, we interviewed David Suzuki and we discussed Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods which explains Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined to describe various behavioural problems among young people who aren’t spending enough time outdoors. We understand you are passionate about this topic. How do you think the book’s release has affected the problem?

RB: Well, I hope people … the book has been doing really well. There have been big line-ups, and crowds all across the country so far. So, if it doesn’t influence the kids, hopefully it will influence parents. It’s all about families, not just schools, who need to step up to the plate a lot more than they do. It’s more families need to get out there and make sure the kids who now spend, I’m told, seven hours a day, seven days a week – they don’t take the weekend off – looking at a screen. How much time do they spend out in nature? None. I’m told none.

SC: Hardly at all. None. Zero.

RB: And how much time did you, and all the parents, and all mankind’s history spend out in nature? 100 per cent. So in the last 15 years, we’ve gone from 100 per cent to zero. There’s a great saying by a Cowichan Elder First Nations on Vancouver Island; he said, “We’ve been talking about what kind of a world we are leaving for our children. We need to start talking about what kind of children we are leaving for our world.” Because they spend all their time looking at this – I call it a cacophony of narcissism – on these screens. What kind of planet will it be?

So we know nature is magic. It’s good for the body, and it’s good for the brain. It’s also good for the soul.

SC: Very good for the soul. While eating smoked salmon sushi in a tiny Japanese restaurant off Times Square in Manhattan before the matinee performance of Aladdin, my five-year-old daughter Esther asked the question: “Do we separate the soul from the body before we kill the fish or the animal so it’s just the body?” Amazing. After a brief pause she went on to say, “We kiss the fish and hug the fish or the animal and then we kill it? Why we kill the fish?” My God. From the mouths of a baby. My answer: Because in nature, we are all interconnected. We live by and for each other—one whole living entity that includes all there is; however, when there are predators, such as us human beings – smart, plentiful (eight billion of us now) resourceful, and ambitious (to always get ahead of each other) – nature suffers to the astonishing state of complete ruination. And I go on to draw a graph of humanity living in harmony with nature for thousands of years and then the last hundred years, because of the technology we have today, we can wipe out the oceans. We have these 35-mile nets of death. Your speech, I will never forget it. I stopped eating shrimp after your speech, because to harvest shrimp, they take 85% and it’s thrown away and only 15 per cent of the …

RB: Yeah, they call it bycatch.

SC: Bycatch. I stopped eating shrimp when I heard that. I won’t go into that. But I just want to say how important your work is.

RB: Thank you, but, you know what? David Suzuki talks this way. He is one of the smartest guys on the planet and I agree with everything he says, but sometimes his message brings fear into the hearts of young people and I really want to bring love into the hearts of young people.

SC: Bless your heart. That’s the way to go.

RB: I’m told that young people, typical school kids in Canada and the States, know more about the problems of the Amazon rain forest than they do about falling in love with the woodlawn at the end of the street and it should be the other way around. We don’t need to trouble them with problems. We need to smarten up ourselves.

SC: Very, very beautiful idea.

RB: And help them to fall in love with the neighbours of other species.

SC: This is through love and opening of our hearts, especially with children to nature. This is going to change everything and through fear it’s only going to exacerbate that fear. It’s only going to make it worse.

RB: And make them less healthy.

SC: In this age of video games, social media, and everything WiFi, how can we educate our communities to participate in bringing the children back to nature?

RB: It’s a huge challenge and the reason is, modern technology and media have so much sizzle and I’m going to give you a quote in partial answer to this. It doesn’t give you the answer, but it sheds light on the thought. Georgia O’Keefe is arguably the most famous woman artist in history. Early 20th century. And she said, “Nobody sees a flower, really. It takes time. Like to have a friend takes time.” And what I want people to do is to take time to really see an iris or really see a yellow warbler. But it takes time and in this rushed, hurried, sizzling world, the kids are in they don’t want to take time. So what we need to do is have parents and schools have kids get immersed and going slow, not trying to go faster than you did before. Go slower than you did before and put the time into it.

SC: What a beautiful sentiment and to take breaths of fresh air and the time to really see nature and be involved in and one with nature.

RB: And make a friend of it.

SC: We’re doing New Moon and Full Moon gatherings now for the sole purpose of being back in touch with nature and her cycles. It’s a very similar thing.

Bob, you’ve travelled around the world painting animals in their habitats. Is this problem of Nature Deficit Disorder something that can be seen around the planet or is it more common in certain parts of the world?

RB: There’s a direct correlation between technology and affluence and Nature Deficit Disorder, just because of the gadgetry and the seductiveness of the gadgetry. In many parts of the world – for example I lived in Nigeria for two years and taught high school there – they need to work with nature in order to be out in the fields and harvest the crops and they do need to pay attention; however, they too are getting seduced by technology and the great American way of life and so yes, indeed, it’s happening all over the world.

SC: Habitat loss poses the greatest threat to all species. What is the single most important thing we can do to help future generations relate to animals in nature and subsequently learn to feel invested in the great outdoors?

RB: Well, I don’t want to say education because education seems to be just kind of an easy cop out that kids need to be educated. They need to have experiences. They need to fall in love, as I’ve already said, but what we all need to do, particularly in society as a whole and in all societies, is realize that nature is not a free lunch. There is no free lunch. And one of the big reasons we’re in this pickle with the destruction of everything is we want to take shortcuts and do [everything] the cheapest way. The great novelist Kurt Vonnegut said something I think sums up why we have the problems we do. He said, “We could have saved the world, but we were too cheap.” We don’t need any studies. We actually don’t need courses. We know what to do. We need to spend the money. We need to spend more money for our oil. My heart sinks as the price of oil sinks, I’m sorry. We need to spend more for energy; we need to spend more for all of our products. We [need to pay more for] organic food; it costs more and it should. It’s worth it. So we need to get this out of our minds that we want to do everything the cheapest way possible. If we don’t get it out of our minds, we’re doomed.

SC: Thank you. Being a nature or naturalist artist, the importance of knowing the name and species of the object or animal you are painting is essential. Do you think this can be learned from a computer screen? What is the difference between learning in nature and reading about nature?

RB: Well, there’s a big difference between learning in nature and reading about nature but I wouldn’t be exclusive and say we shouldn’t read about nature. I read about nature all the time. I grew up in the city of Toronto. I rode my bike to the Toronto Public Library and loaded up the carrier with books by Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts and all kinds of nature writers and I read them all every year and that is still in my heart, this love of nature and feeling of nature. And reading it on a computer screen is okay. Going out for a hike if you’re a kid and you want to carry your device is okay, but not for junk. Too often kids feed their faces with junk food and feed their brains and souls with junk food for the brain and soul, but you can go out with your iPad or whatever, take a photograph of a flower you don’t know, then you can Google it. It’s okay to Google. (laughs) And find out what it is and find out that it likes wet habitat or it likes sandy soils or whatever and exchange that with your friend in Ontario and say you found a trillium here and you understand that the trillium is the Ontario emblem and we’ve got trilliums here. Maybe you don’t have trilliums in the Okanagan. We have one on Salt Spring Island I found.

SC: That’s amazing.

RB: So it’s important to know the names, but books are part of it.

SC: Beautiful. I wanted to ask you one question that I’ve always wanted to ask you. Your admirer – I’ll call him Paul – who was one of your students back in high school and still works for you and has played a large role in your wonderful career.

RB: He designed the setup of the Bateman Centre.

SC: Yes, he did, and we love that man so much. He’s dedicated to you and the entire Bateman family and one day he was here having dinner with me and asked me if I would join the Bateman Board which I was so honoured to do, but he took me into the gallery here and he showed me something astonishing. He said, “Stephen, you’re a person who appreciates sacred geometry. You have a pyramid. A precision pyramid. Look at Bob’s work. I don’t think he knows what he does and the magic that he has but if you look at each of the pieces there is sacred geometry in there. Every one of them. There is the Fibonacci series. There is the proportions to nature …”

RB: The Golden Mean.

SC: “The Golden Mean.” And then I said, “Look at the eyes of the animals, Paul. Look at those eyes. It’s like you’re not just looking at that animal; you are one with the animal. Bob has taken us to a dimension.” Just like Kurt Vonnegut put us in different dimensions with his writing, you have taken us to different dimensions with your magnificent art. It’s a brilliance that I don’t know if the public understands that dimension of brilliance you have or even if you understand it because you seem to.

RB: I don’t.

SC: Well, no, and that’s a kind of a cool thing because, no, you do it naturally. You do it through you, rather than by you.

RB: Let me make a comment on Paul. He, of course, was my student all through high school and he’s gone to a far higher level of this kind of sophistication than I have and I’m very flattered that Paul quotes me as having sacred geometry. I know I am conscious; sometimes I do think of The Golden Mean and the dynamic points in the pictures, but I think you touched on something a sentence or two ago. I think it’s more emotional than geometrical.

SC: Well, it is. Well, it’s pulling it together. It’s harmony. It’s holistic.

RB: And that might be underlying. There might be geometry underlying, which has impact. I do know the fact that I was an abstract artist kind of sets me apart from people who just paint two birds on a twig.

SC: I studied your abstract art. Beautiful stuff. Well, thank you so much for coming here today and for joining us and for presenting your beautiful book here. We’re so honoured that you came and please give my best regards to Birgit, your beautiful wife.

RB: Sure will.

SC: And all the family and John and I hope we get together soon again.

RB: Me too.

SC: Thank you sir.

RB: High five!

This conversation has been edited for print. To view the full conversation visit

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