In his element

By Aaren Madden, March 1, 2016

Wildlife artist and environmentalist Mark Hobson’s arrival at his beloved, secluded floating studio has been a lifelong journey.

Mark HobsonTHE DAY I SPOKE BY PHONE with painter Mark Hobson, it was one of those soft, still, misty winter days in Victoria. But where he was—on the west coast of Vancouver Island—it was decidedly different. The wind blustered angrily and scooped the waves right up and into Hobson’s 16-foot Boston Whaler as he and his border collie cross, Wicklow, made the perilous commute from his float home studio up in Clayoquot Sound to Tofino.

The pair makes this trip intermittently so that Hobson can complete administrative tasks, follow up on correspondence and bring paintings for shipping to clients or galleries, including his own in Tofino. (For his part, Wicklow waits as patiently as a border collie can for his evening ramble.) 

“Luckily I wasn’t travelling with any paintings today,” Hobson remarks brightly. “Occasionally they catch a gust and go flying up in the air. I was hit in the face with an eight-foot canvas once. They are not very much fun when they hit you in the nose!”

For Hobson, the occasionally fraught journey is a fair exchange for the solitude and scenery his floating studio allows. Inspiration surrounds him, and the luxury of uninterrupted time means he can immerse himself in acrylic and canvas for hours—even days—on end. As an environmentalist and wildlife artist with a deep love of the West Coast and all of its inhabitants, Hobson is in his element—and he has travelled many roads to arrive at it.

Really, he’s living the dream he first had as a kid with equal passions for drawing and animals. The oldest of four children, Hobson was born in Vancouver in 1953. His father was an engineer with a penchant for adventure, and he would pursue work in faraway locales, family in tow. When Hobson was five years old, he learned to swim in the tropical waters of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Always, he would work away in his sketchbook: market towns, “the sampans on the rivers in the Ganges delta, all the little things you notice as a kid. Insects, butterflies, I was pretty much this budding naturalist.” The sketchbook accompanied him on the following two years in Bangladesh. 

Mark Hobson painting 1

A balm to the constant crush of population, the family moved to Powell River when Hobson was eight years old. “Probably that was the most high-impact of all places in my youth,” Hobson says. “We had a little cabin cruiser and we would travel up into the south end of Johnstone Strait. We would camp and hang out all summer long. And there were these little cabins, abandoned logging camps, homesteaders all through there. One spot in particular, I remember I was about 10 years old, and I thought, ‘Oh man, if I could be an artist and live in one of those cabins, that would be so cool.’” 

Of course there was much more living to be done before that. Hobson’s family were on the move again, and while his father worked in Portugal, Hobson attended Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland (alumni include Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde). Sheep grazed in meadows that flank the school; the eponymous castle ruins brooded romantically in a corner of the property. To this day, he returns to visit and paint the scenic Irish countryside, and along with Murray Phillips and Gaye Adams, he will be showing recent Irish works at Peninsula Gallery in March. A painting he did as a student, age 13, garnered top prize in his age category in a UK-wide art contest for a watercolour painting. The prize: a trip to Sri Lanka.

 Mark Hobson painting 3

The well-travelled lad returned to Vancouver Island and attended Shawnigan Lake School before studying biology at the University of Victoria. After graduation from UVic, he was offered a job back at Shawnigan as a science teacher, a position he held for nine years. During that time, though he enjoyed his job, he craved two things: travel and time to paint. He spent an adventurous year hitchhiking through Africa, and tried every summer to satisfy his creative drive. “The little voice at the end of every summer holiday was just a bit louder and louder,” he says.

Mark Hobson painting 4

In answer, he took leave for a year to paint on Hornby Island and never returned to teaching. In 1984, he moved to Tofino to be close to the scenery he had become enamoured with on an earlier camping trip. “Just the drama of those big beaches, the logs, and the forest. The wildlife,” he enthuses. He worked for Parks Canada as a naturalist during summer months and painted in the winter until 1987, when he bought a little house in Tofino and converted the living room into a studio. Finally, he thought, the time and space to paint. But no: “After all those years teaching, and all those years as a park naturalist, and all the connections in this little close-knit community, there was no way I could get away from visitors!” he laughs. 

For three winters, he would travel to a friend’s remote cabin on Wickaninnish Island, but an accident while commuting one winter night convinced him he needed a safer arrangement. “This float house was suddenly available from a good friend,” he says. He bought it in 1991 and gradually brought it to its current glory, adding a second floor, studio and living space, and solar panels for electricity. With travel and administration, he is able to spend about one-third of his time painting in blissful, scenic solitude.

“In addition to the peace and quiet,” he adds, “there is this enormous connection to the land that comes from being in a place year after year after year. You just get to know it so well.” That is in terms of its inhabitants, but also in the way the light will play against the landscape on any given day. 

And light is what motivates Hobson’s art practice foremost. “It’s always [for instance] the way light is coming through leaves in the forest. It’s often long into the painting that I decide what animal is going to be in it. Every time you are out doing something, there are lots of ideas that come.” It could be the way the ever-shifting sunbeams fleetingly illuminate a patch of green on an Irish hillside, the pink glow of a West Coast sunrise, or the shafts of light shimmering through an underwater kelp forest on one of his frequent diving trips. 

At any given time, “I’ve probably got 30 [paintings] on the go at once,” Hobson says. Ideas come and he dashes them down in acrylic paint before they disappear. Of course, some require more attention at certain times, like the six-by-five-foot commissioned underwater scene of an octopus he is currently working on. 

When the painting is finished and Hobson reluctantly leaves his studio to bring it into town for shipping, I will certainly be wishing him calm seas.

“The Tale of Ireland” opens with an Artists Reception on Saturday, March 19, from 1-4 pm, and continues through April 2. The exhibit will feature works by Mark Hobson, as well as by Murray Phillips and Gaye Adams, both of whom travelled with him to Ireland. Hobson will do demonstrations in the gallery on March 19 and 20. See www.pengal.com or www.markhobson.com.

Though not as idyllic as a float home in Clayoquot Sound, Aaren Madden has been known to retreat to the family Volkswagen camper parked on the driveway to find the necessary solitude to write.