“It will always be my hometown,” states artist Dwight Baird emphatically. He is talking about Huntingdon, where he will host an exhibition of his works at the Alfred-Langevin Cultural Hall from April 22 to May 21.
Baird was born on a farm in Elgin. He is a youngest child and has two sisters and a brother. He attended school at Huntingdon Academy and still has many friends in the Chateauguay Valley. His high school years were spent at Chateauguay Valley Regional High School, where he met the man who had a great impact on his life: his art teacher, Derek Tilley. “By the time I was in grade 11, I was in the art room all the time,” says Baird. Tilley advised him to go to art school, and directed him to St. Lawrence College in Cornwall, Ontario. Baird spent three years attending St. Lawrence, where he stayed in residence and returned home on the weekends.
In a split second
The first year of the college program required Baird to study all forms of art from sculpture to graphic design. In his second year he had to choose between fine arts and graphic arts. Thinking that he could perhaps make a living as a graphic artist, Baird decided to sign up for that option. At the registration table, he met his graphics teacher and sitting next to him was Baird’s fine arts teacher, who assumed Baird was there to register for fine arts. Baird told him that he was signing up for the graphics program, and he recalls the teacher’s words: “That’s a shame, because you could become a good painter if you went into fine arts.” Baird says it took him a split second to say, “’OK!’ – and I changed [into fine arts] … My whole life changed right there.”
In the fine arts program, he did a lot of ceramics and became a technician in a ceramics studio. “But I just couldn’t figure that I would spend my whole life making plates and cups,” he says. Still unsure as to which path to take, Baird turned 20, finished his diploma, and returned home to Huntingdon.
Calendars of the Valley
On his return he visited his high school art teacher, Mr. Tilley, who was now semi-retired and had just opened his own small printing company, Tilleygraph. This company printed flyers and small local jobs. When the company took on a calendar job, Baird suggested putting a drawing on every page, and so the Valley Calendar was born.
Baird did all the drawings. The first year, the drawings were all of Huntingdon. “I did the mill. I did every church. I did main street. I did stuff that isn’t even there anymore,” says Baird. As time went on, Baird started printing note cards and selling small black-and-white prints. He was also working as a graphic artist in Montreal, but most of his energy went into working on his own paintings and drawings.
The calendars became yearly events, and he would write little blurbs to go with the pictures. In subsequent years, his calendar drawings featured other sites in the Valley, and by the third year the run was 700 calendars. “I sort of ran out of things to draw,” he says. However, people now knew of his artwork, so he would get commissions to do paintings of houses. As well, “The access to printing gave me a whole new way of printing greeting cards, packaging and selling them.”
Baird’s first formal art exhibition was in 1980. Robert Gill, the owner of Heritage House, had seen Baird’s paintings, and he invited him to hold an exhibition there. “It was all watercolours: country, dead trees, and water,” Baird laughs. The show went well, but Gill gave Baird some life-changing advice: “You should travel. You should go to Europe.” Baird took the advice and bought an open ticket, thinking he would stay six weeks. He backpacked around Europe, painting wherever he visited. He returned 51 weeks later with 40 paintings.
His second exhibition was, once again, at Heritage House, followed by another in a gallery in Valleyfield. That gallery owner connected Baird to a watercolour association in Montreal.
Baird was now 26. “I just wanted to go back to Europe,” he says. He had made enough money to return, so he traveled again, this time with a Huntingdon childhood friend, Bernard Rougerie. Sometimes they would split up, then meet again later in another country. Rougerie became, and still is, Baird’s agent in New York; his company, Art Wise, sells high-end art posters.
Baird was 30 when he returned to Elgin with about 35 paintings. “I had changed a lot. I had seen so much. But everything around me hadn’t changed.” He moved to Montreal and looked for galleries. “These were lean years,” he recalls.
Baird decided that he would go to McGill University as a mature student, figuring he would at least be learning something while he kept doing his own work: “I studied modern languages, Spanish, and German.” He laughs, saying “I never realized that 30 years later I would be going to Cuba. School opened new possibilities. I began to look at painting differently, [with] a more analytical tone.”
Baird’s connection with the Montreal Watercolour Association started to open doors for him also. His work was accepted into a gallery in Westmount, and he soon had a show there. He worked for a year and had 26 pieces for that show; he sold 10, but by the time the gallery took its 40 per cent and all expenses were paid, Baird walked away with only $800. He realized that he couldn’t make his living this way.
He moved to the Plateau in Montreal. He was still selling pieces in galleries here and there, but he remembers being told, “It’s really nice, but you can’t really sell that.” Baird explains that his paintings were “too harsh for galleries. It’s all about telling a story.”
Baird decided that he wanted to take a different approach. “I wanted to do small bodies of work that held together.” He began to create paintings in series. In 1987 He decided he wanted to paint boats, and after meeting a man in a pool hall who was from St. John’s, he chose to travel to Newfoundland. The man hitched a ride home in Baird’s Reneau 5. Baird painted boats as he drove from village to village. He slept in his car.
When he returned to his apartment three weeks later, he moved all his furniture into his kitchen and hosted an “open studio” show. He sold a few pieces; he started to build a clientele.
The following painting series was Carney-Midway, which was inspired by the Ormstown Fair, the Malone Fair, and Coney Island. He hosted another exhibit in his apartment. This time he included music. When he was asked what he would do next, he answered, “I was thinking of doing an exhibition on baseball, but I need a press pass.” A press pass was arranged, but Baird had to get down to West Palm Beach for spring training. A friend, John Darragh, a trucker from Huntingdon, offered to drive Baird down to Florida and he would pick him up on his way back in three weeks’ time.
At spring training Baird produced the series For the Love of the Game, and subsequently Major League Baseball commissioned him for the image Twenty-nine Teams, One Dream. Baird’s work was printed on posters and was sold in the stadium. “The baseball work put me in the U.S.” states Baird.
Baird’s next series was a study of light called Night Vision which featured 50 watercolours.
A change of medium
Baird then changed mediums from watercolours to acrylics. “I felt that acrylics were an extension of watercolours.” He remembers. Then, “It was like the perfect storm. I went to Havanna.”
He painted with watercolours in the street and then worked over the paintings in acrylics. The colours began to pop. These paintings sold well at shows in the U.S. “I went from being ‘the baseball guy’ to ‘the Cuban guy’,” he laughs.
Baird concludes, “I couldn’t have made my living if I didn’t have those people in the beginning, asking me to paint their homes, buying those calendars, greeting cards or prints of the covered bridge. I will never forget that. Part of this show is dedicated to them.”
Baird’s retrospective exhibit in the Alfred-Langevin Cultural Hall will be a sampling of his work from 1977 to 2022. For details, go to Dwight Baird’s Facebook page or www.dwightbaird.com.