Wesley Bates has been an artist and wood engraver since 1977. He attended school at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, where he studied printmaking and painting as well as the intricate art of traditional Japanese woodcuts – a time-intensive medium which can feature up to fourteen different colours in a single woodcut. Harnessing skills he learned in school, Wesley migrated to Hamilton, Ontario and began painting out of a studio in the downtown area. Between art exhibitions and a job as a bartender, he slowly managed to etch out a living and began building the world-class reputation he holds today.
His first introduction into the world of wood engraving came in the form of a gift: a set of wood engraving tools. While they would eventually become his principal accoutrements, at the time Bates did not even know what they were; it was only through research, advice and his own uncertain attempts that he eventually learned to use and master the tools. Bates began by using only three of the tools, but as his confidence in himself and his work grew over time, he imbued his engravings with increasing skill and subtlety.
Bates began his commercial career working for local newspapers, designing cartoons and graphics. It was also around this time he first attended the Wayzgoose Annual Bookarts Fair, where he met a plethora of other artists, printers and publishers eager to network and establish professional relationships with their peers. Through this annual conference Bates has made lifelong friends and working partners, and as a result his artwork and illustrations have been featured in books by Stephen Leacock, Stuart McLean, Wendell Berry, Timothy Findley, W.O. Mitchell, and many others. His work has been displayed in art galleries and private collections all over the world, and he has written two fully-illustrated books about his experience as a wood engraver.
The engraving itself is a demanding process and rarely results in a consistent schedule. “I’ve been trying to kick it, but I work best at night,” says Bates, and he goes on to suggest that life as an artist rarely occurs comfortably during office hours. Another fact that quickly becomes apparent is the discipline and patience required in a field like wood engraving. The marks made by the artist will appear on the finished product as the white space behind the print. Drawing in negative is a skill that can take a lifetime to master and the difficulty is compounded by the unforgiving nature of engraving. Once a mark is made it cannot be undone, and the artist must either adapt to the mistake, or pick up another piece of wood.
After taking a job as a graphic designer in Guelph, Wesley began connecting with the rural countryside he passed on his commute from Hamilton. Tired of the city, he went freelance in 1991 and started looking for a suitable home in a more rural setting. When asked by friends to stay on their farm outside Mount Forest, Bates began spending more time in the area, drawing sketches from a trailer and touring the countryside looking for landscapes to paint. Soon enough he had moved out of his apartment in Hamilton and was the proud owner of a two-storey building in Clifford’s downtown. The Wesley Bates Gallery has been a part of Clifford ever since, and his newest workspace – the adjacent West Meadow Press – promises to be just as unique an addition to Elora Street.
The Gallery is a beautifully restored store front featuring Bates’ paintings, prints and other creations. While it is not the only way to see Bates’ work – he sells greeting cards through his website online – it makes for a wonderful tour. The jocular presence of Bates himself only enhances the experience; strike up a conversation and you might be lucky enough to see his studio, which makes up the back half of the lower floor – a seemingly haphazard collection of finished and unfinished paintings, prints and engravings, as well as stacks of books, shelves of tools and other singular curiosities. West Meadow Press contains all of Bates’ printing press equipment and functions as a separate workspace. The divide between the Gallery and the Press is a very conscious barrier for Bates, who sees the print shop as a space for production, and the gallery as more of a display area – or in Bates’ playfully self-deprecating terms: ‘storage.’
While much of his time is spent working on his latest project or endeavour, Bates still finds the time to contribute to the community. In fact, he stresses the difficulties of not over-extending oneself; as president of the Minto Arts Council, and an integral member of the Downtown Revitalization Committee his concerns seem valid. There is no doubt that Bates is an immensely positive influence in our community, but he humbly explains his involvement as a desire to collaborate with other people doing good work. Whatever his reasons, Bates is a pillar of dedication and creativity in our cultural community.
When asked what he would say to aspiring artists, Bates had several pieces of advice. After suggesting accounting or dentistry as an alternative, he emphasized dedication, sacrifice, and talent as important qualities in a young artist. Believing in the worth of your work, as well as understanding the unflinching finality of deadlines and the importance of dependability are all essential to Bates. Most of all he stressed that artists view themselves as a business, and find the right market for their work. “There’s nothing wrong with the arts being a business,” he says, “it doesn’t deny you creativity, but it could give you a living.”