Justin Bateman’s art is ephemeral, much like the colourful sand mandalas painstakingly crafted by Tibetan Buddhist monks and ritually dismantled once completed.
His stone mosaics, which he creates out of pebbles he finds only exist for the time of their creation before they are destroyed by being scattered back at their original location or eroded by the weather.
He records his land artworks only by taking photos with his smartphone, which he then shares on social media. He prefers presenting his work on Instagram rather than in a brick-and-mortar gallery as the pebbles act like pixels.
In a society encouraging us to produce and consume more and more, he prefers to use less and have as little impact on nature as possible, leaving no trace of his presence.
“Embracing impermanence began as a test of my own spiritual practice,” he says. “Later, it became the best way to maintain the natural environment while creating art. “Each work is a small celebration of existence, its curious assembly, and its impermanence.”
There are portraits of renowned personalities including George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth II, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, as well as iconic artworks such as David and The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, La Scapigliata by Leonardo da Vinci and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.
Justin describes the influence of classical art thus: “I enjoy recreating masters’ works using such a simple medium.” His work “bridges high art with low art by taking subjects traditionally created with bronze, marble, or expensive oil pigments and bringing them to the masses.”
Spark of Inspiration
During a trip home to England, Justin gave birth to the concept on the pebble beaches of Portsmouth. Reminiscing about previous workshops he had developed, in which students could engage directly with local craftspeople and the environment, he convinced his friend Tony Brooks to help him create da Vinci’s Mona Lisa using pebbles.
Calling it Stona Lisa, images of it went viral on social media. “The beach became both my palette and my canvas.”
His deliberately minimalist artistic practice suited a nomadic lifestyle without the need for easels, paints, chisels, or any equipment.
“I realised I could work anywhere,” he says. “This was the perfect way to create art while travelling… as long as I found stones to work on. I came to identify my creative practice with my way of life. It became a routine, a system of structure that gave me a sense of direction when exploring new locations.”
“Collecting stones became an obsession that also led me to determine my choice of destination and accommodation, looking for habitats with sufficient space and materials to do my work.”
Taking a few days to several weeks to complete and ranging in size from 1 sqm to 10 sqm, some pieces are made in-situ on remote beaches and in forests. Justin returns day after day, while others are assembled in his studio and then transported unfixed to the location.
The artist develops an idea, picks the site, creates colour maps from a reference image to determine hues, collects the pebbles on walks, and studies the weather to determine the timing of the work.
Without painting or cutting the stones, he harnesses their natural tones, shapes and sizes, careful not to remove any from private property, heritage sites or religious locations.
Justin focuses on various subjects, from iconic artworks, spiritual figures, and philosophers to political leaders, Burmese refugees, and ordinary people he meets on his travels. Initially inspired by meditations, many of his later pieces were influenced by suggestions from followers, which he would ponder for weeks or months before creating – if a suitable location and stone were available at the same time as the request and if they aligned with his intuition.
He says, “I search for signs from the universe that this thing wants to exist. I consider myself an Omnist; I believe that all spiritual practices have something to teach us.”
Despite hundreds of requests for commissions today, Justin only creates a few permanent works and makes his living by renting out his home in the UK.
“I was desperate not to rely on my art for financial survival,” he admits. “It is crucial that my practice governs my decisions rather than my pocket. Even though I limit the audience to which I advertise my permanent mosaics, they have a great deal of potential. I am careful not to become a conveyor belt for art. We already have plenty of options for bathroom floors.”
Love of the East
Born in 1976, he was raised in Lee-on-Solent, a small town on the coast of Kent, where his father served in the armed forces and went on to become a solicitor, and his mother ran a large charity for children.
Philippe Bateman, his grandmother, was a Renaissance artist who received Royal Academy awards for her paintings while his maternal grandfather was a soldier in the Korean War and a pilot in the Malaysian armed forces in the 1950s.
“I have a feeling I fell in love with the East when I was a child listening to his extraordinary and occasionally harrowing wartime adventures,” he says.
He studied at Central Saint Martins in London, where he specialised in expressionism, illustration, and sculpture, exploring the boundaries between high and low art, especially comparing fine and cartoon art.
The Courtauld Institute of Art showed interest in his work, and he sold several abstract expressionist oil paintings to private collector Nyda Prenn, whose husband sponsored the first Turner Prize.
After graduating, he created a series of illustrated poetry books and unsuccessfully sent unsolicited manuscripts to agents worldwide.
When he moved to Portsmouth, Justin got a job in marketing while lecturing in fine art at the University of Portsmouth and refurbishing properties in his spare time. Later, he taught art and design at Fareham College while making art again.
Gordon Matta Clark’s Anarchitecture and Andy Goldsworthy’s organic forms inspired his interventions in forests, on beaches, and in urban environments.
As he took a sabbatical in 2018, he renounced all of his possessions to live a simple life, carrying only the bare essentials in his cabin bag. Passionate about Asian culture and traditions, he travelled through Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
“I set out to see the places my grandfather had told me about,” he explains. “I fell in love with South-east Asia. Despite everything being new and different, I somehow felt at home. It was a life-changing experience.”
Led by Nature
Rick Wolfryd, a Mexican artist, collector, and art dealer, will soon release high-quality, limited-edition prints of Justin’s Messiah. Each print is embossed and numbered in Hebrew. Several of his portraits can be found on products used in daily life.
To monetise his work was a difficult decision, he admits. “In the beginning, I didn’t monetise anything. I kept my capitalist and creative sides very separate. I have always felt that if I create something of enough value, life itself will compensate me.”
Images of his work have been displayed in the Thai Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. And he is currently in talks about permanent installations for Portsmouth sea defences, and receives invitations from all over the world to lead community projects or regeneration schemes and create commissions of figureheads and appear on TV.
Nevertheless, he concludes, “I am happy in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Most of the time, I’m between here and Ubud in Bali. The cultures are gentle, respectful and spiritual. I’ve come a long way from the UK, but home is where your heart is – and where my heart is, you’ll find it in the stones.”