In the Footsteps of Robert Bateman

“I’d like you to close your eyes, and think about a place that really means something to you, deep in your heart. I fear if I ask young people that question, they don’t have a place. It just isn’t there. And, if people have no contact with nature, not only nature but mankind is in for a very gloomy future.” – Robert Bateman 

Lively Pair of Chickadees, by Robert Bateman

The chickadees are back this morning. 

They’re elegant little birds, bobbing and weaving in the sky effortlessly as they float from the tree to the feeder, feeder to the tree. Watching birds is one of my greatest joys. I love everything about them; their feathers, their song, their flight patterns, the brightness of their eyes. Chickadees are a particular delight because they are such playful souls, and one of their favourite games to play is to slide down snowy branches before launching into the sky.

This morning as I hit publish on this post, it’s sunny, with an expected high of 4 celsius. Needless to say, given that this is the second day above zero, and that it’s mid-February and we should be in the frozen double digits, I am alarmed and uncomfortable. While naturally occurring outliers of temperature highs and lows can be expected without cause for too much panic, these warm winter days are becoming altogether too frequent.

As an artist devoted almost exclusively to landscapes, it’s disheartening/sickening/depressing to know that the colourful, biodiverse world that I immerse myself in, is threatened. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I find myself turning more and more to the artistic work of Robert Bateman, whose advocacy is painted directly into his body of work.

When Bateman talks about connecting with a sense of place, this deeply resonates with my practice. I have been a nomad my entire life, flitting from city to city the way the chickadees move from backyard to backyard. But there is only one place that has managed to keep my heart for longer than my standard honeymoon period of 3 years.

That place, of course, is North Bay, Ontario. 

Perhaps it’s the fact that so much of this city has been designed to let nature breathe. When I was in Toronto, nature exerted itself in patches and carefully bordered reserves, like unwanted weeds through sidewalk cracks. But here in North Bay, we have deer who wander down the streets. Granite outcrops assert their dominance along the highways. Osprey eagles hunt for fish in Lake Nipissing. Signs alert hikers to bears. Beavers continue to manipulate the waterways to suit their building needs.

But I often wonder how long it will remain this way. Our town is designed for cars, and not pedestrians or cyclists. Public transit is difficult to access for many (the route that goes by my house comes once every hour). Lake Nipissing’s walleye population is in a serious decline. Buying organic and local is an exercise in economic privilege. My perfect little northern town is all too susceptible to the creeping strain that unsustainable living puts on the natural world.

As Bateman mentions in the above video, when we feel connected to place, and when we create pieces that show the beauty of our world, we may feel more incentivized to protect it. I feel most alive when I am fully experiencing a place, particularly in times of dramatic lighting where I feel privileged to be alive in that moment to experience it.

This is why I paint, why I continue to be drawn towards landscapes. I want to capture the soul of a place, so that when you see the piece, you feel drawn to it and what it represents.

Feeling Connected to Place – Upcoming Work

I am currently working on three pieces for the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration of Canada’s confederation. The first, a painting of a Northland train arriving at Cobalt station, has been a work in progress for months. It’s my largest ever piece at 30″ x 60″, and I felt drawn to paint it because of the clouds and the harshness of the late-winter surroundings. Everything is brown and lifeless, with the nearby lake still crusted in ice floats. But the train, and the town, are pops of colour against an ominous sky. Despite this piece being somewhat of a celebration of the train, I love the fact that there is not a soul to be seen. There is clear evidence of human settlement, but no humans.

The next piece is based off of a photo I took in Algonquin Park, at Opalescent Lake near the Barron Canyon. The night before, it had rained relentlessly, and I was miserable because all I wanted was a cozy warm fire. Instead, my fiance and I huddled together under a tarp, bored out of our minds. But in the morning, the coolness of the rain ran up against an incoming warm front, resulting in a low mist covering the nearby trees. It was eerie, the air was chilled, but I felt energized to my very core. Here was nature at her most mysterious, and it just beckoned me to come and explore what lay beyond the fog.

The last piece will be based upon a photograph that I took in the summer of 2016. My fiance and I were living close to the downtown, and every night we’d take our bikes out and cycle along the waterfront. That night, the colours were so intense and vibrant that the beach actually had three or four photographers out with SLR cameras. What I love about this photograph is the water, and the reflection of sky in the damp sand. I’m also drawn towards the feeling of motion, like the sky and the waves refuse to be pinned down.

Reconnecting to Place

When you close your eyes, and think of your place, where is it? Is it Algonquin Park? Is it your childhood home? The shores of Lake Nipissing at sunset? A fountain in a city square? Perhaps you have multiple places; in my case, I feel love and peace simply in my backyard, watching the chickadees, but there are a few others in my psyche that when I imagine myself back in those places, I feel a sense of total stillness. Over the course of my art career, I hope to honour those places and turn them into paintings. 

What is your special place?