Within one week of meeting her, Robert Bateman says he knew he was in love with Birgit Freybe.
Over 43 years later, the two are happily married artists, living on Saltspring Island.
Robert and Birgit met in September, 1971 after Robert hired Birgit to teach with him at Lord Elgin High School, now Robert Bateman High School, in Burlington, Ontario.
“I fell in love with Bob’s thoughts more than anything; he has a really good way of conceptually explaining what has happened in an interesting way,” said Birgit, 68, from her and Robert’s studio on Saltspring Island. “It didn’t hurt that he was very good looking.”
Robert and Birgit worked every day together as art teachers, and they quickly fell in love.
For their first Valentine’s Day together in 1972, Robert and Birgit made a decision that would start a long-standing, romantic tradition.
“Right at the very beginning, we had made the decision because we are artists, that we do not believe in buying a Valentine’s gift,” said Birgit.
Instead, they express their love through handmade gifts.
These gifts are now on display at the Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria until Feb. 28.
“Mine have been things centred around one heart, usually with all kinds of little things connected to the heart,” said Robert, 84.
“At first they were your typical little valentines, and then they became a little more big, then they became objects,” said Birgit.
One year, Robert put a photo of the two of them at the Great Wall of China in a heart in the middle, then put various pictures of Birgit in circles around the heart.
“Each one represents something about her that I consider a big advantage for me,” said Robert.
He described some of them as Birgit being the perfect travel companion, being their environmental conscience, having a perceptive eye and getting dolled up.
Birgit’s gifts often involve a collage that represents their life over the last year. She includes elements such as brochures from their travels and her own drawings.
Robert and Birgit have always kept the gifts on display on their walls all year round. They also have books in which they glue the Valentine’s projects now, since they began to run out of wall space.
Although many of the gifts are personal and intimate, Birgit said they have never minded showing them off.
“We wear our hearts on our sleeves,” she said.
Robert added, “We’re both artists, and we’re both romantic, which is probably one of the reasons why we fell in love.”
The hardest part is not coming up with a new idea every year, but finding the time to do it in secret, said Birgit.
“Even right at this moment, we’re sitting together in the same studio. I see Bob over there at his phone, and he’s looking over back at me.”
Robert added he estimates they were about 25 feet apart during the interview.
“And that’s all the time, 24 hours a day,” said Birgit.
Although they will have been married for 40 years on August 1, Robert and Birgit’s love for each other is unfading and unmistakable.
“Even though she’s 68, she looks like a 17-year-old girl the way the light’s shining on her right now,” said Robert.
The Robert Bateman Centre is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors and students, $6 for youth aged 8 to 18 and $25 for a family with two adults and two kids.
The centre is located at 470 Belleville St.
For more information, go online to batemancentre.org or phone 250-940-3630.