When Kitchener's Marilyn Batte went to Egypt in 1992 to teach art she had no idea that she would be seduced by the desert.
"It was so different," she said in an interview, "so beautiful, so peaceful - so majestic." With degrees from Carleton and Queen's Universities in Architecture, Art History and Visual Arts, Batte's career path was headed for the academic and educational, but Egypt and the desert changed all that. "I began taking photographs of everything I saw and all of the places I visited," she said, "but I realized that that wasn't enough - I had to start painting these images for myself." Three years later Batte exhibited a collection of 24 photorealistic paintings at Atelier du Caire in Cairo, and later the same year at L'Atelier Alexandria in that Egyptian city. Resigning her teaching post at an international school, Batte began her career as a full-time artist in the fall of 1995, and her success has been phenomenal. Home for a brief visit, some of the fruits of Batte's work can be seen in an exhibition - Sand in my Shoes - at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, part of the Centre in the Square complex. So detailed and real that you could almost step into the images, her love for her subject material and her art simply shines off the canvas. But because there is so much of the artist in each painting it presents a problem. "When I first finish a painting I can't bear to let it go," said Batte, "I have to have it for myself. After a few years I can consider selling it." Considering that her paintings are now hanging in private collections in Canada, Egypt, France, Finland, Italy, Trinidad and the United States, Batte has steeled herself to letting go quite a few times in the past three years."The problem is that you become so attached to a work because of the time you spend with it," she said. "You stare at an image for so many hours, and with all of the minute details that you try to capture
as perfectly as you can, it really is a part of you." Fortunately that doesn't apply to everything Batte creates.
"Some of the looser things I've done with the palette knife are no problem," she said. "I can let them go because it isn't what I consider my personal style. And anything which is commissioned isn't mine - it belongs to the purchaser right from the start."
Oddly, when she sees one of her paintings hanging in someone else's home it doesn't produce a pang of regret. "They look better in other people's homes," Batte said. "In my house they're pretty crowded because I have so many, and when I see them hanging alone and carefully lit they look so much more special than hanging in my clutter."
Batte's use of shade to enhance the brightness of sand and rock formations is spectacular. The Mediterranean blue of the water and sky breathtaking, the sharpness of focus on the tiniest detail uncanny, and her ability to capture texture begs you to reach out and touch it.
"I love painting intricate surfaces," she said, "old wood, rough rock and smooth water. I try to get closer still, to reveal the subtle natural design and features of that surface." Batte uses artistic licence judiciously, sometimes eliminating the detritus of humans but nothing more.
"I may make the lines a little stronger, perhaps change the depth and enhance the color and quality of the light," she said. "I try to paint so that viewers feel they are looking through a perfect window." A walk round Batte's paintings at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery is far more than just looking at pictures in an exhibition - it's a journey through Egypt interpreted by an extraordinary artist. But be careful - you'll end up with sand in your shoes.
  Currie, Harry "Oasis of detail shows artist's love of the desert-" Kitchener Waterloo Record, 8 Sept.1998: