Reconnecting with nature

- Artists for Conservation Festival 2011, Nov. 5-13, at North Vancouver's Grouse Mountain. All events are free with the purchase of a Skyride or annual pass. Info and full schedule: www.artistsforconservation. org/festival .

WHEN asked why he views art as such an effective medium for promoting conservation and raising awareness of the natural world, Robert Bateman feels compelled to admit he's never sure how to answer questions of this sort.

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While the acclaimed painter and naturalist, based on Salt Spring Island, views art as part of an important movement trying to get people back into wild spaces, he's humble about his own role, suggesting he's driven by a passion for his craft.

"Just like Wayne Gretzky loved to play hockey and Tiger Woods loves to play golf, I just do art for my own satisfaction and it's been my life. I think that's the main reason, to be honest, it's not necessarily missionary work," he says.

However, his paintings tell a different story. Bateman has made a name for himself through his powerful realistic wildlife works, as well as through his continued support and activism related to the environment.

"We need all the help we can get these days to get kids, especially the younger generation, but also their parents, to spend time out in nature, which human beings have done since the beginning of time," he says. "And in the last 15 years they're increasingly spending their time staring at screens and not even going outdoors. It is kind of a juggernaut that's rolling over a generation and art is a part of it."

Bateman is among the featured artists at the inaugural Artists for Conservation Festival 2011 taking over Grouse Mountain for 10 days, Nov. 5-13. Programming includes an art exhibition and sale, youth workshops, lectures, artist demonstrations and documentary film screenings.

The festival is being presented by Artists for Conservation, a non-profit founded in 1997 by North Vancouver resident Jeff Whiting, who serves as its president.

"Artists, culturally as a demographic, have always been activists in pushing important causes and missions forward and forcing the public to think," Whiting says.

While some consider an artist's role in conservation to be limited to the donation of work to be auctioned off as a form of fundraising, Whiting sees them as having much more to contribute.

"Many of these artists have extraordinary experiences that need to be heard," he says.

Artists for Conservation was originally launched as an online community, combining Whiting's background in art, biology and technology. It's continued to grow and is currently comprised of 500 professional artists from 27 countries.

"Our mission is to support wildlife and habitat conservation and environmental education through art that celebrates our national heritage," he says.

Programs include those focused on youth education as well as their Flag Expeditions, which connect their top artistic

talent with the top field conservation scientists, educating and empowering the artists to become ambassadors for the causes they're most passionate about.

An additional program is Art of Conservation, an annual juried member art show, both live and virtual. The program was launched in 2008 at Oradell, N.J.'s Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum. While the event has been well-supported, Whiting knew they needed to make a change.

"We were largely preaching to the converted and not reaching a broad audience and it seemed to me, though it was a real success, an opportunity lost," he says.

Interested in having a forum to engage with the general public, the organization opted to launch the Artists for Conservation Festival at Grouse, with the annual Art of Conservation exhibition, with partial proceeds supporting conservation work.

Bateman has donated an original painting, valued at $55,000, with a limited edition print run of 100. The work was inspired by 2011 having been declared the International Year of Forests by the United Nations.

"Wetlands and grasslands are also threatened but forests are very threatened all over the planet, including here in Canada," says Bateman.

Specifically, the concept behind the work was the result of a ski trip he took with his family last New Year's to Vancouver Island's Mount Washington.

Bateman noticed high-elevation spruce trees laden with snow while cross-country skiing. He decided to paint the moonlight scene, adding a pack of wolves.

"You don't notice the wolves at first. . . A sense of mystery is often important to me in a piece of art instead of being out there and very blatant. I'm quite pleased with the way this one turned out. It does have that sense of mystery and yet it is a rather enchanting forest scene," says Bateman.

Artists for Conservation's first documentary film, How an Artist Saved the Mountain Gorilla, will make it's world premiere at the festival tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 5, at 12: 30 p.m. and be screened multiple times daily throughout the festival's run. Made possible through the organization's Flag Expeditions program, the film sees Whiting and fellow organization member Stephen Quinn, of New York's American Museum of Natural History, retrace the footsteps of artist, inventor, explorer and father of modern taxidermy Carl Akeley, who was also with the museum, in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Nearly a century ago, he ran several expeditions to the area, he ended up dying there, but he was an artist and he was responsible for the creation of Africa's first national park, which was called Virunga or Volcanoes National Park depending on which country you're in," says Whiting. "So, this was an artist who convinced the King of Belgium to create a national park to protect the gorillas nearly 100 years ago because he saw their vulnerability way back then."

The festival's opening ceremony gets underway tomorrow at 10 a.m. and will be followed by a keynote lecture by Bateman at 11 a.m. Bateman will also be on hand for a book signing from 2 to 4: 30 p.m.

It's hoped the festival will become an annual event at Grouse Mountain.

"This is an important cultural event, part of a movement of reconnecting society as a whole with our natural world," says Whiting.

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