Under normal circumstances, when the month of May rolls around and the last of the ice clears from the St. Lawrence River, Toronto artist Phil Bateman, his wife Angie and their dog would be packing their bags and heading to the 1000 Islands to spend the summer at their seasonal home on a small island near Gananoque, ON.
But this year, circumstances have been anything but normal.
Like many summer residents, the outbreak of COVID-19 has kept Bateman and his family from enjoying their tranquil island home, which has been in his family for generations. However, even from his home in Midtown Toronto where he and his wife are self-isolating, Bateman has found a creative way to give back to the community they normally call home for six months of the year.
Bateman, 63, has launched his first ever portrait exhibition at the O’Connor Gallery in downtown Gananoque, aptly titled Portraits in Isolation. The collection of 9×12 oil paintings provides a captivating snapshot of the various emotions felt among people of all walks of life during this unprecedented global emergency.
“I wanted to capture how everyone around me was feeling at the time, in this moment,” says Bateman. “This gives a chance for people to see something, relate to something, in a different way.”
Another unique aspect of this exhibition is the way in which the photos are displayed. Portraits in Isolation is Eastern Ontario’s first ever “Window Show,” with the paintings displayed safely behind glass in the gallery’s front window – exactly two meters away from the sidewalk where viewers would be standing.
Dennis O’Connor, owner of the O’Connor Gallery, says displaying the paintings this way was no accident.
“Placing the pieces two metres back was just our way of reinforcing the safety issues surrounding the virus,” he says. “We need to constantly reinforce the recommendations. Behind glass, the paintings were in isolation.”
Visitors can check out this one-of-a-kind exhibition 24 hours a day, seven days a week until May 24 by simply taking a walk (safely!) down the main drag of King Street East in Downtown Gananoque. Even at night, the 14 portraits remain beautifully lit in the gallery window for passers-by to enjoy.
Each painting in the collection was done alla prima on Guerrilla Carton Board. Luckily Bateman sensed my cluelessness and kindly informed me that “alla prima” is artist-speak for “wet on wet,” meaning that each painting was done in one sitting – approximately three to five hours a pop.
“I’ll be honest – I never intended for these to see the light of day,” Bateman says with a chuckle. “It started out as a way for me to practice painting portraits. I never wanted to keep them.”
Before COVID-19 swept in and shook the world, Bateman had been taking classes in portraiture. Since retiring three years ago, Bateman has taken the opportunity to dive headfirst into his passion for art. Until recently, his work mostly comprised of landscapes and interiors, mostly of Bateman’s life on the island, which has been in his family for generations. This year he decided to expand his horizons and branch off into portraits – but needless to say, the classes were cancelled and Bateman was left to find his own way to practice.
Portraits in Isolation began with a simple request for friends and family to send him “isolation selfies” to practice with, inspired by Australian artist James Needham. It was both an opportunity for Bateman to improve his portrait skills as well as to gain insight on how the people around him were feeling amid the outbreak. Soon, the project began to take on a life of its own. He began moving away from selfies to include portraits of public health officials such as Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Anthony Fauci. His work eventually caught international attention, attracting subjects from as far away as Hungary.
Bateman says, despite the popularity his first exhibition has garnered, he still does not see himself as a “real” artist. When O’Connor reached out to him about doing an exhibition at his gallery after seeing some of the portraits on Instagram, Bateman was hesitant at first.
“I saw it as a good opportunity to help Dennis with his business, and people need something to relate to right now,” Bateman says. “So I was intrigued.”
Indeed, the paintings’ incredible use of shadow showcases a variety of emotions that are bound to tug on anyone’s heartstrings, from worry to optimism and even frustration – as shown in ‘The Confrontational Approach,’ which depicts Bateman’s scowling nephew giving the middle finger. Now that’s one I can personally relate to.
Bateman says another one of his favourites shows his wife holding her sweater over her nose in lieu of a mask.
“There’s something about her eyes, they look almost haunted,” says Bateman. “I’m sure a lot of us are feeling that way.”
According to Bateman, it’s more important than ever for communities to band together and support one another in uncertain times like these. He met O’Connor last summer while getting a portrait framed for his daughter and the two hit it off immediately. Bateman says he is grateful for the opportunity to help out, even from afar.
“I love that Dennis has that gallery. It’s a tough go, especially in a town like Gananoque,” Bateman says. “It’s a difficult area to have that kind of gallery. But he’s made a good go of it. Whether people are looking at it through the window or on social media, it’s important for the community to stay together right now. Anything we can do to help businesses continue, succeed and survive right now is very important.”
The funny thing about living through a historic event is that it never feels like you’re living through a historic event. But O’Connor maintains that it is essential to record and remember these strange days, and what better way to do so than through art?
“Artists are historians in their own right,” O’Connor says. “They document today. Through the arts, they are able to remind people how we felt. Sometimes the work is very personal and sometimes universal. Art helps us to cope with tragedy and loss. Art helps us mourn and even celebrate great success when necessary. Mr. Bateman has given us a window on his personal view of this pandemic.”
When he’s not painting, Bateman spends the majority of his time in isolation taking his dog for long walks in the ravine near their home and chatting with his two daughters – one who lives nearby in Toronto and the other who is living abroad, teaching in Switzerland. However, he says that his art as an outlet has been the ultimate lifeline throughout the pandemic.
“There was a bit of a tight moment, where there was a shortage of paints because all the other artists are also shut in… I wasn’t sure I’d get through it,” he says, laughing. “Painting really has been my saviour.”
Throughout his life, Bateman has seen the world. He was born in Toronto and grew up there, and then moved to the U.S., Eurasia and Australia, eventually moving back to Toronto when he retired. But through it all, Bateman says he has always been proud to call their little paradise in the 1000 Islands “home base.” He says there is no place he’d rather have his official debut.
If you’re interested in purchasing a piece of history to display in your home, each painting included in Portraits in Isolation is on sale for $300 plus HST and shipping at the O’Connor Gallery. You can reach them at (343) 363-6844, or through Facebook or Instagram.
60 per cent of all proceeds will be donated to the Daily Bread Food Bank, one of Canada’s largest food banks.
Despite the stress and uncertainty that comes with living through a global pandemic, Bateman has managed to stay optimistic. He says the thing that has given him the most hope throughout all this has been seeing the rainbows painted in his neighbours’ windows. It was a trend that began in Italy and has made its way around the world since then, sending a much-needed message of hope and unity.
One in particular that sticks out to him, according to Bateman, was a drawing made with chalk he found on the sidewalk near his home one day while walking his dog. It was a drawing of a rainbow paired with the words “andrà tutto bene,” or “all will be okay” in Italian.
“It’s not part of this series but I did a watercolour painting of it,” Bateman remembers. “It kind of sums up my feeling, which is ‘this too shall pass.’ Eventually things will be okay, we just need to hunker down for a while.”
To see more of his work, follow Phil Bateman on Instagram.