An earlier version of this memoir was published in the Niagara Advance in February 2016. Copyright is held by the author.
WHILE CLEANING out some messy cupboards in the high school art room where I taught, I discovered an old drawing with a signature that I recognized. Robert Bateman.
Robert Bateman, the famous Canadian wildlife artist, spent the last years of his teaching career working at Lord Elgin High School in Burlington. He retired a few years before I started my job there, but most staff still remembered him. There was a staff room joke about the newbie who tried to ‘step into his shoes’ and slipped on a banana peel. Unfortunately, I was the butt of that joke.
How could I get the staff and students to respect me? I couldn’t draw or paint like he did. My art style was something I called “Real Popism.” Realism, Pop art and Impressionism. Just not popular with kids or staff.
A local gallery carried Bateman’s work, so I spent time studying his technique. It wasn’t just the detail, but Bateman’s mastery of all the elements of artistic design that made his paintings compelling. He used dramatic contrasts of colour and lines. He knew certain devices would strengthen the composition. He added an element of surprise or mystery. And later, added a warning about dangers to the environment.
I couldn’t afford his original artwork — even then, worth thousands, but I became obsessed with him. He was as handsome as Robert Redford and like a groupie, I fantasized. I collected his books and bought a small print. He sold his country home and studio in north Halton to another artist, so I visited her and toured it. I attended his speaking appearances and memorized his talks.
At one lecture I attended, he told the story behind his painting of a startling close up of a polar bear in a snow storm. White on white — tough to paint! Bateman told the crowd that the concept came when he was driving in white out conditions up the Guelph Line after school one night. He imagined the face of a polar bear coming at him through the headlights. He said,
“What if, traveling the arctic, you entered a blowing snow drift, and unknown to you, a polar bear entered from the other side? By the time you both knew this, it would be too late. This painting is the way I expressed the discovery.”
One stormy winter evening, a few months after finding the sketch, I drove home up a lonely stretch of Guelph Line. The school day hadn’t gone well. Once again my lessons had fallen on deaf ears and the teenagers and I seemed to be gripped in an endless battle for control. If only I could find a way to break through to them, I thought.
Snow swirled around the car and the pavement was covered so I could barely see ahead of me. There were no streetlights up in that area and no one else was on the bleak stretch of road. My headlights were almost useless against the dark and blowing snow that pressed in from all sides. I started to panic and gripped the steering wheel. I had no idea where I was.
Suddenly I saw it. The face of a polar bear leaping at me through the car windshield. I slammed my foot on the brake and the car began to spin. Like a figure skater doing a death spiral, the car spun around in a series of 360 degree loops. We plowed into a snowbank at the side of the road and stopped.
My arms cradled the steering wheel and I cried. “Idiot.” I chastised myself after a few big sobs. “There are no polar bears on the Guelph Line. Pull yourself together and get going.”
The snow tires earned their keep, and I backed out of the snowbank onto the road. The drive home was slow and safe, and I planned my next day’s art lesson.
“Guys,” I said next morning, as I distributed blank sheets of paper to my grade 11 art class. “Today, we’re going to create a scene from a Canadian winter.” There was a groan from the mob. “Be creative!” I ordered, feeling newly confident. “What comes to your mind when you think about Canadian winters?”
One gangly teenager stood up, turned to the mob and waved his empty piece of paper like a flag. He’d scribbled his name across the bottom.
“I’m done. I’ve already created a polar bear in a snowstorm!”
Everyone laughed, and so did I. It was a good lesson.