VIU Awards Honorary Degree to Canadian Artist and Conservationist Robert Bateman

Renowned Canadian artist and conservationist Robert Bateman will receive an honorary degree from VIU during the University's afternoon Convocation ceremony on Friday, January 27. Photo credit: Birgit Freybe Bateman.

January 19, 2017 - 3:15pm

Bateman, whose artwork has raised money for countless conservation and environmental causes, will accept an Honorary Doctorate of Laws during VIU’s afternoon Convocation ceremony on January 27

Robert Bateman goes out hiking every day in the woodlands and wetlands surrounding his Salt Spring Island home.

He observes the birds and the animals in the area, but he also sees beauty and magic in things that others might walk right past. He looks at how the moss grows on twisted branches, the way snow falls on trees and the contrasting patterns the melting, patchy snow makes on the ground amongst the dead grass.

This close observation of nature has helped Bateman become one of Canada’s best-known artists, and one of the world’s premier wildlife artists. It’s also something he plans to recommend that graduates of Vancouver Island University (VIU) do when he travels to Nanaimo to accept an Honorary Doctorate of Laws on January 27, during the afternoon Convocation Ceremony.

“I think the world would be a better place, and people will have more satisfying and balanced lives, if they become naturalists,” says Bateman. “Spend more time in nature than you’re even spending now – it’s good for your body, soul and mind. Any civilized person should know 50 fauna and 50 flora species because knowing the names of your neighbours, of other species, is important. If you don’t know their names, you don’t respect them that much.”

Bateman got serious about nature when he was 12 with his first bird list, around the same time he got serious about art. When he attended the University of Toronto, he studied Geography so that he could paint on the side during his summer jobs doing geology work in remote places. After university, he took a job as a teacher partly so that he could paint all summer.

“All artists who are worth their salt paint what is meaningful to them, and from the age of 12, nature has been incredibly meaningful to me,” says Bateman. “When I started painting these scenes, no one else was doing nature art. There were illustrations in bird books, but wildlife to hang on the wall was really not done much before the 1960s.”

He switched from abstract expressionism to realism in his early 30s after attending a show by American artist Andrew Wyeth, where he was struck by how detailed his paintings were.

“At the time, I was giving workshops to teachers on the particularities of nature – how to tell a red maple from a sugar maple – yet my paintings were big slobs of paint that weren’t consistent with my philosophy of paying close attention to nature,” says Bateman. “It was a sudden thing, going into realism. I think it adds to the richness of the tapestry of life and the world we live in. Too many people go through life with blinders on when there’s so much that we should be savouring and enjoying, like I’m doing right now with the moss on branches.”

This close observation of nature propelled Bateman into the spotlight, so much so that in 1976, after teaching for 20 years, Bateman’s work had gained a large enough following that he was able to pursue it full-time. His work has been featured on Canadian stamps and coins, and he’s been the subject of several films, television shows and books. He’s exhibited his paintings all around the world, and his work appears in numerous public and private collections – he was even commissioned by the Governor General of Canada to paint a wedding gift for Prince Charles when he married Lady Diana Spencer.

Bateman has consistently used his fame and artwork to raise funds and awareness of numerous conservation issues, and he is recognized by the US National Audubon Society as one of the 20th Century’s 100 Champions of Conservation. His numerous awards include Officer in the Order of Canada, the Rachel Carson Award, Human Rights Defender Award from Amnesty International and 13 honorary doctorates from both Canadian and American institutions – his honorary degree from VIU will be his 14th.

Heather Pastro, a VIU Art Education Professor in the Faculty of Education, calls Bateman “a voice of reason and hope, with a clear and articulate vision to make our world a better place.”

“This dedication has inspired and educated people all over the globe to raise awareness and make a difference about critical issues impacting our planet: conservationism, endangered species, ecological development, the environment and sustainability, just to name a few,” she says. “His child-in-nature philosophies have the power to impact and affect change for the health and education of our children today and for future generations.”

Bateman thinks of his one-man show at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History as the biggest event of his career. The show broke all attendance records in the history of the Smithsonian – there were about 1,200 people at the opening, including famous actor Lorne Greene, who came all the way to Washington, DC, from California to see it – but one of his most poignant memories of the day is forgetting to mention Birgit, his wife, in his speech.

“She’s the most important person in my life, and I neglected to mention her,” he remembers. “I didn’t bring her forward, she was buried in the back. It’s come and gone and I can never make up for it.”

At 86, Bateman is still going full-steam – he’s working on paintings for two print awareness campaigns, and he’s constantly taking photos that could one day turn into paintings. He helped establish The Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria in 2013 as a venue to share his art and philosophy, and strengthen the public’s relationship with nature through educational programs.

“I’ll speak for any environmental causes and try to use my art to help any way I can,” says Bateman. “What I paint is to celebrate nature and the variety in nature. If I can communicate that, I might have two positive effects: one is I can enrich people’s lives and I might affect their voting patterns so that they would vote for politicians that will protect nature.”

Pastro says Bateman’s generosity with his time and financial support has made a big difference and contribution to education for students and teachers in classrooms across Canada. “He has made a wealth of resources available for students and teachers to learn more about nature-based ideas and themes to incorporate into their studies and learning.”

Bateman will address graduates at the 2:30 pm convocation ceremony at the Port Theatre on January 27, which can be viewed via livestream by following this link.



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

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