Like all good stories, Sharon Bamber’s has many interesting chapters, and like any interesting character, she herself is a fine mix of hard work and capriciousness. Her story takes place across the globe from the U.K. to Hong Kong and eventually here to Nakusp.
Our conversation took place in her office in the Arrow Lakes News office where she works two days a week gathering the ads for the paper that keep it in print. She is convivial and casual, and her quiet manner cannot conceal her dry English wit, or her avid enthusiasm for nature.
“I went to school for zoology, and I didn’t have a clue what to do with zoology,” Bamber remembered, “so I did a master’s degree in landscape architecture.”
After working to reclaim land left derelict from tin mining in Cornwall, she travelled through Asia for a year, and decided to take on work as a landscape architect in Hong Kong. During her three years in the huge Asian metropolis, she helped design a city of 250,000 people to be built within Hong Kong itself, a neighbourhood renovation project on scale with the size of China.
“We were trying to mitigate the effects of this huge city,” she said, which led the designers to put many of the roads underground so “the city was more for people” than cars.
Working in Hong Kong, Bamber also faced some interesting cultural challenges.
“With all my previous experience as a landscape architect, it was regenerating old ecosystems or putting new ones in and trying to bring fingers of wildlife into cities,” she told me, “In Hong Kong it was all about aesthetics and pretty patterns on hard landscapes. So trying to change mind sets and bring nature into the city was quite difficult.”
But just because she takes on huge professional challenges doesn’t mean Bamber is a workaholic stick-in-the-mud.
Did I mention that she played rugby in university?
When she was in Hong Kong, she found herself competing internationally as part of the Hong Kong Gaelic Football (which is basically Irish rugby) Team.
Her love of the sport shaped her next career move when she decided to do a master’s degree in international business management and specialized in sport.
That master’s degree was put to good use when she got back to England and got a job with the Harlequins, a professional rugby club, doing their marketing and business planning.
Perhaps taking cues from the jesting Harlequins, Bamber’s next mercurial move was away from corporate sports. When she was asked if a new position doing event management with the club would be enough for her, it suddenly dawned on her it wouldn’t.
“I thought ‘no, I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to be an artist and I want to build a straw bale house,’” she recalled. It was a change she has never regretted.
“The corporate life never felt right,” she explained, “So now I’m me, properly.”
One day while again wandering the vastness of the internet, she found a small lake near Vernon and promptly decided that Canada was where she and her husband Simon should be.
By the time he came home from work, Bamber had printed and filled in all the applications for immigration.
“We’d never been to Canada, but we put our applications [for immigration] in anyway, and then figured we should come and find out what it’s all about.”
Their three-week holiday to check out Canada consisted of flying to Calgary and working their way westward, up and down the valleys of southeastern B.C. When they reached Burton, they fell in love with a beautiful piece of property just under ten acres, and bought it, even though their immigration applications were still waiting to be approved.
In that three weeks, Simon was hired in Kamloops as a civil engineer, and in less than a year they were living in Canada.
It was in Kamloops that Bamber discovered her talent as an artist.
“I saw this ad for this art course..run by a pastel artist,” recounted Bamber, “and she said you know you should be a professional artist, and I thought ‘ok, that sounds good, I’ll do that.’”
Bamber gets so excited by her pastel work that she has to stop and go for a walk to calm herself down enough to continue working.
“I have to have a red flag on my easel so Simon knows not to interrupt me for anything. Art is hard work; there’s so much to think about. There’s the technical side of it,” she explained, as well as the emotional content, and Bamber often finds herself exhausted at the end of a day of working with her pastels.
Her subjects are primarily animals in the wild, working from both live subjects and photographs.
“I’m thinking of focusing on bears,” said Bamber, who isn’t the only one fascinated by our local bears.
“That’s what amazes me about people here,” she exclaimed, “because you’d think people would be used to bears but every spring they ask ‘have you seen your first bear yet?’”
Bamber had her very own close encounter of the ursine kind last summer.
One day last July while she was sitting in their camper working on the computer by the open door, Bamber thought she heard a neighbour’s dog padding about outside. She quickly realized she was mistaken.
“It was very big, and I realized it was a bear,” said Bamber, as her eyes grew wider. Unfortunately, the bear spray was on the other side of the open door, and on the other side of where the dog and human food was stored.
Remembering the advice someone had told her to let a bear know you are there, in a very calm voice she said, “Holy s–t, what are you doing here.”
“I didn’t have a clue what to do,” she said, “I didn’t grow up with bears; I grew up with rabbits and hedgehogs.”
The bear, undeterred by what it heard, had made up its mind to eat whatever he could find in the trailer,.
Luckily, their Airedale-Shepherd, Lucky, must have sensed that his mistress and his food were in jeopardy, and raced barking toward the trailer. When the bear heard Lucky, he heaved his enormous furry self around and ran to meet his canine challenger. The two animals came face to face, and stopped with only six feet of ground between them. Lucky, quick on his paws, ran behind the enormous black bear and…
“And started biting its bottom,” Bamber recounted. When the bear turned around to face Lucky, the viciousness of the dog’s expression made him think twice, and the bear ran off into the woods.
Later, a friend of her mother told Bamber that bears are mythological messenger animals.
“There was a message ‘do the creative project you’ve been thinking of,’ and I thought I can be a cynical Westerner and just think it was a bear looking for food, or I could say, ok, I think it’s a message and get on and do something about the moon bears.”
Earlier in the year, Bamber had found out about asiatic bears, known as moon bears because of the crescent of white hair they have on their chests, and their treatment in bile farms in China.
“They’re really intelligent and curious animals that are kept in cages that are too small for their bodies for up to 30 years,” she detailed, “It’s just heartbreaking.”
In her online wandering, Bamber had once again chanced across something that would change her life. What she discovered was the group Animals Asia who worked in a unique way to rescue bears imprisoned in bile farms.
“I just sat there in tears and I thought I’ve got to do something about it and then life took over and I didn’t.”
Her meeting with the bear that July afternoon reminded her of Animals Asia’s work to stop cruelty to animals.
“They don’t just come in and say ‘you’re wrong to do this,’ they try and fund different alternate businesses or people’s retirement so they can still feed their families,” Bamber informed me.
Because of Animals Asia’s collaborative approach, they’ve managed to make bile farming illegal in 21 provinces in China and are currently taking dogs and cats to schools and hospitals to change perceptions about animals from the ground up.
Dogs and cats are routinely tortured in some parts of Asia so their bodies are flooded with adrenalin before they die. The consumer of the meat experiences a sensation of heat, thanks to the fear and pain stored in the animal muscle.
“It’s horrifying,” said Bamber, who was so galvanized by what she saw that she has dedicated her art to supporting Animals Asia.
“My mission is through my art is to raise funds and awareness for Animals Asia and rescue the moon bears,” she declared.
Becoming a proven professional artist is expensive, because it usually costs to get works juried and to ship them there and back again, usually without any resulting sales. And, of course, there is always the possibility of rejection.
“I’m quite good at rejection; I just think they don’t know what they’re talking about when they reject me,” she laughed.
Bamber has had more luck selling locally, something she believes strongly in, and has had two pieces sell right away at the Valhalla Arts Collective in New Denver. If you’re curious, you can check out on her website at sharonbamber.com, or head to Studio Connexions where there are also a couple of her works as part of their “Deck the Halls” show, or just come and visit her at the Arrow Lakes News office where she is the advertising department.