Bears might seem a curious favourite subject for painter Michael Schutte, as he moved to Vancouver Island two years ago from a country without a native bear population.
But well before the Dutch import stumbled across the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association in Errington, he had experience walking among bears at the Ouwehands Dierenpark in Rhenen, The Netherlands.
“They’ve got bears from Russia, from Siberia, from all over,” said Schutte, who lives in Parksville with his wife Els. “It’s done up as a real nice park. The people walk in cages, while the bears are outside in the nature setting. They even built a river through it with fish that the bears have to catch.”
Schutte, a multi-platform artist who teaches and creates both painting and music in Parksville, has indulged his love affair with bears and other wildlife while taking on a role as philanthropist for NIWRA and its rehabilitation centre.
His work for the centre began with a painting of Sandor, a bald eagle cared for at the centre. Last month, he presented the recovery centre with a painting of two bear cubs previously housed there. Staff at the centre were pleasantly surprised when Schutte arrived out of the blue to make the offer.
“He just came to us,” said Sylvia Campbell, founder of the wildlife recovery centre. “He was new in this community, he loves animals, and he was able to donate these paintings to us.”
And last week, he completed his third painting for NIWRC, featuring perhaps its most well-known residents — the orphaned black bear cubs Jordan and Athena.
The painting will be reproduced and sold through the centre, with proceeds helping toward the care and rehabilitation of the wild animals and birds its staff cares for.
“These animals have a very good life there,” Schutte said. “They’re well cared-for. First there was the eagle, then she came with two little bears. It was just an idea I had to do for the centre. And I’m probably going to do some more for them.”
There is a precedent for Schutte’s generosity toward wildlife caretakers. Nearly 20 years ago, when he was early in his professional painting career and was vacationing in North America from The Netherlands, he painted a wolf housed in a Yellowstone Park-area centre and donated the painting.
More recently, he created a painting of Hambone, the resident three-legged wolf at the Northern Lights Wolf Centre in Golden.
With his painting of Sandor the eagle, the NIWRA was able to raise $1,200 in a silent auction. Schutte also gave his permission for the creation of reproductions that are also sold to raise funds. The original of his first bear painting is on display at the centre while the association determines how to use it for fundraising.
“It’s just gorgeous,” said Campbell. “His techniques are incredible.”
Michael Schutte, left, presents his first bear cub painting to North Island Wildlife Recovery Association office administrator Cynthia Aldred in late September. — Photo submitted by Sylvia Campbell
Campbell is hoping the notoriety attending Shutte’s latest subjects will bring in an even bigger windfall for the operation of the recovery centre, founded in 1986.
Jordan and Athena were orphaned in July when their mother was destroyed after breaking into an enclosed porch of a Port Hardy-area home to get at meat kept in a freezer. The cubs’ plight was highly publicized after Port McNeill-based conservation officer Bryce Casavant refused an order to destroy the cubs and instead submitted them for a veterinary examination and transportation to NIWRC.
When Casavant was subsequently suspended from his job without pay, a worldwide social media outcry erupted. More than 300,000 people signing a petition demanding the province reinstate him. An online account was set up to collect donations to help care for the cubs. British comedian Ricky Gervais tweeting his support to more than 12 million followers.
“Because those bears were so well-known — it was an international story — we might go higher (on the selling price) on that one,” Campbell said. “I’m not sure what (Schutte’s) pieces usually sell for. But it was an interesting story. It’s touched people’s hearts.”
Schutte has even mulled contacting Casavant to do a painting for the conservation officer, though the two have not yet spoken. Casavant had his pay reinstated during the social media uproar in July, but remained suspended until being reassigned from the CO Service to another job within the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in early September.
“I feel very sorry for that officer,” said Schutte. “I understand if a bear learns there’s food somewhere, they’re going to come back to the food. But this guy has the biggest reason in the world (to say) you don’t kill two cubs who had nothing to do with it.”
Schutte created the cubs’ painting from a photo taken shortly after they arrived in Errington in July. While they have since fattened up and become playmates with the other seven bears currently housed at the centre, they were initially withdrawn. Schutte said he tried to emphasize their trauma by painting them as they looked when they first lost their mother.
“Jordan and Athena were particularly challenging (to paint), because they are still frustrated in this picture; you can see it in their eyes,” he said. “You want them to be cute, but they saw their mother get killed and they are still hurting.”
Schutte began his professional life as a musician, and played with several well-known bands in Europe. His painting skill was actually discovered while he was singing a solo hit he had recorded for a Dutch television program in the late 1980s.
“The producer said he heard I was a painter, too, and could they see some paintings?” Schutte said. “So they took some pictures and during the show they mixed some photos in with the video of the performance. This helped, because then people started buying my paintings.”
He and his wife, Els, have gone on to perform and record together as a country music duo. But they actually met in a painting class, and both continue to work in an expansive home studio that takes up the entire upper floor of their Parksville condo.
The space includes not only a painting area and adjoining studio for Els’ paper crafts, but also a digital recording studio filled with instruments and components for Schutte’s latest artistic endeavor — digital illustration. He has also written and illustrated a children’s book on the history of musical instruments and hopes to place it in schools as a learning aid.
On top of his creative work at home, Schutte teaches painting classes at the Parksville Museum and music at the Parksville Music Centre.
So where does he find the time to do paintings to give away?
“Well, I work 20 hours a day,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, we keep going every day from 9 a.m. to midnight. I like to fill up my brain.”