ERIN LINN MCMULLAN
Special to the Westerly
The call to action comes in unexpected moments. In November 2011, Mark Hobson’s paintbrush stops mid-air as he listens to CBC radio in his remote floathouse studio in Lemmens Inlet near Tofino, BC. Joe Oliver, Natural Resources Minister for Stephen Harper’s government, is speaking about the approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. in the home of the Kitimaat and Haisla people.
Kitimat, a place Hobson called home for six years, is amidst the Great Bear Rainforest, where, every chance he got, he tagged along on his dad’s fishing trips to paint.
Oliver is discussing a plan that will see supertankers navigating through narrows in pristine waters filled with humpback whales, sea otters, and thousands of Pacific white-sided dolphins. The Great Bear Rainforest is the world’s largest intact tract of temperate rainforest: 32,000 square kms stretching 400 kms up BC’s coast from the Discovery Islands to the Alaskan border.
Hobson discerns condescension in Oliver’s voice as he opines that the pipeline’s only opposition is Indigenous peoples along the route and radicals. Outside Hobson’s floating studio, the tranquility of Clayoquot Sound and scruffy rainforest bear silent witness. The paint hardens on Hobson’s brush, still in his hand.
Artist-activist Hobson, recent recipient of Artists for Conservation’s (AFC) Simon Combes Conservation Artist Award, recalls how he dedicated the next 13 months to stopping the pipeline. He mobilized 50 committed artists, including Robert Bateman, Roy Henry Vickers and Jeffrey Whiting, AFC’s founder and President, to paint in plein air in Kynoch Inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest for five days in June 2012.
The Art for an Oil-Free Coast campaign to stop the pipeline had all the elements to capture the public imagination, with the “most spectacular wilderness area in the world” and the “Spirit Bear” (white Kermode bear) as poignant symbols of all that might be lost.
“It was a full year of operating flat out. I made hundreds and hundreds of phone calls,” said Hobson, who selected artists based on their connection to the land and passion for the project.
Earlier in 1989, Hobson spearheaded a similar initiative with 100 artists, including Bateman and Vickers, to help successfully defend against logging old-growth forest in Vancouver Island’s Carmanah Valley.
This time, he partnered with Raincoast Conservation Society, then already in their 11th year of peer-reviewed advocating to protect coastal species and their habitat.
During the thick of the project in 2012, 29 fin whales, second-largest mammal on the planet, were spotted near the entrance to the Douglas Channel right on the proposed supertanker route.
Discussing the risks for a devastating oil spill, Hobson explains these supertankers were “not designed for going through that kind of system.” To turn a ship that large, on average four to six times the size of the Exxon Valdez, requires action three kilometres in advance.
“I had the privilege of joining Mark as an artist in the Great Bear Rainforest as part of the Art for the Oil Free Coast campaign he led with the Raincoast Conservation Society,” said Whiting via email. “As a participant, I witnessed first-hand his visionary leadership and relentless and reasoned passion for the cause. I also witnessed the enormous respect both the artist and science communities have for him. He is especially deserving of recognition as someone of great humility who always redirects the spotlight on others around him.”
“I’ve enjoyed Mark’s commitment to the environment over the years,” said Roy Henry Vickers via email. “I was inspired to work with Mark on the Carmanah Valley project in 1989 as well as, Artists For An Oil Free Coast in 2012. We have a duty as artists to protect the environment as it is our sustaining force in life. I will continue to fight to protect the beauty of BC inspired by artists like, Mark Hobson.”
By August 2012, Hobson was working on the book, Canada’s Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-free Coast, featuring multi-media artwork from carving to jewellery. A five-week art tour opened on Granville Island in Vancouver and travelled straight into the heart of oil country with a show at City Hall in Calgary, Alberta.
Local Strongheart Productions’ documentary premiered to rave reviews at Vancouver International Film Festival. Cameron Dennison emphasized, “Mark’s commitment to the environment is obvious and demonstrated by his actions every single day.”
On November 29, 2016, Justin Trudeau called a halt to the pipeline, promising a moratorium on oil tanker traffic on BC’s coast and a partial ban in a May 2017 bill. Tankers carrying more than 12,500 metric tons of crude or persistent oils would be prohibited from stopping at ports from Vancouver Island’s tip to northernmost BC on Alaska’s border.
Hobson is thrilled to receive an award whose past recipients include his heroes: David Shepherd, Robert Bateman, Richard Ellis, all people whose work is in the circle of environmental activism and art. “You can’t be in love with wildlife,” he says simply, “without wanting to keep it around.”
Witness Hobson’s mesmerizing “Grizzly Bear on the Khutze Valley,” painted from memory in 2015 and inspired by earlier Great Bear Rainforest visits. Hanging in his Tofino gallery’s window, its incredible depth of field suggests a landscape that both transcends and hovers on the vanishing point. The grizzly, at its focal point, stares down seagulls near his salmon catch, while around the riverbank one of their confederates feasts on its spoils. The river is located at the head of the Khutze Inlet and at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, north of Bella Bella.
“It is with delight that I heard that Mark Hobson will receive the AFC Simon Combes Conservation Artist Award,” said Robert Bateman via email. “Art and Nature seem as central to Mark as they are to me. He is not only an excellent artist, but also a superb educator in natural history. His enthusiasm and knowledge have stimulated countless people and promoted the most worthy cause of a life lived with and in Nature.”