LOCAL CHARACTERS: Mark Hobson, Artist + Adventurer
An award-winning Tofino artist best known for his passionate portrayals of the wildlife and landscapes of the Canadian west coast, Mark Hobson taught high school science before devoting his career to painting. His 30+ year, internationally celebrated body of work is based on this creative principle: “I’m not inspired by cities or humans, but when walking in nature, I’m inspired every 5 minutes.”
Bugs + Beginnings
Mark was born in Vancouver, BC, where he lived until he was 5 at which point his family headed out to travel the world with his father’s work.
“Everywhere we lived, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Portugal, I loved collecting insects,” described Mark. “I was like a budding little scientist and it was all about bugs, but I also loved to draw and paint landscapes.”
Many passport stamps and schools later, they returned to the BC coast when Mark was 10, landing in Powell River.
“We’d lived in so many densely populated places and I recall being just so thrilled to be back living in a place where you could pick up a cup and drink water from nature.
“We explored the area a lot as a family and I vividly remember a camping trip to Sonora Island where there was a group of old floating cabins sitting on the shore. Climbing on logs and looking in the windows, I thought it would such a cool idea to live in a floating house where I could paint.”
Through his teenage years, art continued to be a hobby and Mark taught himself skills in watercolour, oils, and acrylics, but he never considered doing it for a living. His passion was biology and natural history, so off he went to the University of Victoria to study. At the end of first year, he ventured up to Tofino in a Volkswagen van.
“This was 1972 and the switch backs and pot holes on the way to Tofino were quite something. I came to Pacific Rim National Park and drove on the beach—because I could—but more than that, I was completely mesmerized by the power of the landscape. Nature was 100% in control and you had to bow down to Mother Nature. I could not believe there was a place on planet earth that had such a wealth of drama.”
Mark finished his degree and started teaching science at Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake School, which he described as ‘ the perfect sidetrack to becoming a scientist’. After 9 years, he could not ignore the little voice in his head about trying to be an artist, so he took a leave of absence and went to nearby Hornby Island for a year.
“I only painted for 4 days and realized how much I ached for it,” recounted Mark, “and I asked myself, if I could make a living doing this, why be a high school teacher?”
His enthusiasm was interrupted by running out of savings and the need for a new plan. Mark had worked with national parks in the summers through university and decided his dream job was to be back at Pacific Rim National Park where he could work and paint. So, he left Hornby, headed back to Tofino, and got a job at the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre (now called Kwisitis Visitor Centre) running the interpretive program.
“It was the perfect job for a guy that wanted to be a biologist and talk to people about science,” laughed Mark. “I ran movies, nature walks, and led a staff of 8. It was great for the spring and summer, but of course, they wanted me to work through the winter.
“Painting was calling again so I left and bought a little, tiny house in Tofino. I set up my studio in the living room. It was fantastic, except I had a steady stream of visitors from university and students I had taught. I had no time to paint!
“So, I literally put ropes across the door to minimize interruptions and painted as much as I could. In 1984, I did my first show in Victoria. My friends came and brought new friends. I was finally an official artist and making ends meet.”
Mark’s childhood float house dreams came true in 1991 when he got word of a float house near Tofino in Clayoquot Sound that was for sale. He quickly bought it and turned it into a living art studio.
“It was exactly what I envisioned and needed,” Mark declared. “I could now spend as much time as possible painting completely immersed and surrounded by nature. And I knew it would feed my inspiration from the very first night I stayed there.
“It was a quiet, beautiful night in November, and suddenly four wolves started howling on the shore. I shone light on their eyes and they ran off, but still, it felt like a welcoming.”
Building a Brand, One Brush Stroke at a Time
With his floating studio in place, Mark really got to work.
“I painted and painted some more so that during summers in the 90s, I could pack up my van and head to California, Oregon, and Calgary showing and selling my art; often painting through the night to be ready. I was invited to shows in London and Hong Kong and suddenly, I had a global audience. From there, I continued painting and travelling for 20 years.
“Funny enough, I was away so much, Tofino locals didn’t really know about my art. Yet here I was capturing Tofino and the surrounding area in paintings and selling them everywhere else. Tourists were coming to Tofino looking for art to take home, but I had nowhere to showcase it.
“I did a show at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn in 2010 and met Rino del Zoppo, who was working with Roy Henry Vickers at the time. Rino didn’t really know about art, but he knew how to develop the business, and with his help, we were able to open Mark Hobson Gallery in Tofino in 2013.
“Even today, I have visitors showing up at the Gallery that I met at international art shows over the years.”
No surprise, Mark also developed exceptional photography skills along the way. It started as a way to supplement his income, and before he knew it, he was photographing the west coast for magazines including National Geographic and Beautiful BC.
“As a photographer you can see the picture you want,” explained Mark, “except sometimes it takes days to capture your vision of say ‘the eagle on the post’. But you can paint it! In fact, some of my paintings are photos I imagined but never got.”
Mark has collected a library of thousands of pictures, but what he loves most is to sit on the shoreline with his easel and simply start painting.
“Everything I need is often right in front of me. Sometimes it’s animals or maybe an ingredient of light captures my attention, but 90% of the time paint what I’m seeing, then I go to my pictures to get the detail just right.”
In university, Mark learned to scuba dive—a rite of passage for many Vancouver Islanders—which unlocked a whole new world of artistic possibilities.
“My first-ever dive was in the Esquimalt area of Victoria where there was an old, rusted car on the ocean floor. An octopus lived in the car and our diving instructor coaxed it out. This octopus was huge and it was gorgeous. Suffice it to say, I was blown away and very excited by the idea of painting underwater scenes.”
Today, the many vivid underwater scenes you see in Mark’s paintings are memories of dives that he later visualizes on canvas.
“When I go diving, I quite contentedly sit on the bottom and watch the light pattern and the wildlife. I love seeing kelp forests from below with light streaming through the surface. To me, it’s like a stained glass window, which is why anytime I paint underwater scenes, I include kelp—it’s just so beautiful.”
Giving for Good
In 2010/11, nature’s circle of life became a personal journey when Mark spent 5 months at the Tofino General Hospital supporting his long-time partner, Paulette, before she passed. He had a bed in the same room with her, which had a beautiful view of Clayoquot Sound.
“I would paint during the day and come to her room at night to talk, gaze out at the ocean, watch wildlife like migrating Canada Geese, and sleep. The Hospital is only big enough for a few patients, but the nurses that rotated through during that time were unbelievably helpful and kind. I developed a deep respect for the loving level of care in that very special place.”
Originally built in 1954 to service 400 residents in Tofino, Ucluelet, and the surrounding region, the almost 70 year-old building is struggling to support the needs of the now 10,000+ residents, not to mention 600,000+ visitors annually. With a goal to raise funds to help build a new hospital—and provide essential equipment in the meantime—the Tofino General Hospital Foundation’s 2022 Gala is on October 21st, including a silent and live auction.
Which is where Mark comes in—happily donating two original paintings of spectacular Clayoquot Sound for a lucky auction recipient.
“The new hospital is urgently important,” Mark emphasized. “And I’m delighted to be a part of helping the community make it happen.”
From grey whales to tidepools, Mark’s enduring passion for the wildlife and wilderness of Canada’s west coast continues through new art series, commissions, and teaching occasional painting workshops. You may run into him at his Tofino Gallery, but chances are Mark’s painting on a beach or at his studio enjoying creative peace and solitude.
Top banner photo by: Christoper Pouget