About my art

I became an artist in a roundabout way, the story of which writer Susan Macaulay captured nicely in this article, originally published as the cover story of the Spring 2013 edition of The Townships Sun:

Artist Naisi LeBaron “Naively” Paints Our World

Dr. Seuss would love artist Naisi LeBaron’s work/living space:

There’s not a nook or a cranny in her studio space
that’s not taken up by some thing in its place.
Hundreds and hundreds of things here and there:
on tables, on shelves, and even on chairs!
Cups with their saucers, and in soup tureens,
carvings and carpets and small figurines.
Goblets and glasses and fine china bowls,
some newer, some medium, some very old.
You’ll find boxes with lockses,
and then some without,
clockses and rockses,
and things with a spout.
Gidgets and gadgets and gobbledygook,
is she really an artist, or simply a kook?
Trays to be stenciled, stuff to be scraped,
junk to be sorted, it’ll just have to wait!
Sixteen blue whatsits,
and four that are pink,
the only thing missing
is one kitchen sink.
Chaos and clutter! (you may be reflecting)
To Naisi LeBaron, it’s stuff worth collecting.

Colour!

Colour!

In the midst of her living room /studio, happy as a clam, antique dealer, collector, and artist Naisi LeBaron paints. Just as she has done for the past 20 years.

“I got started by stenciling and painting on furniture, chairs, mirrors, chests of drawers and things like that for The Pomegranate,” she says.  “People bought the furniture because each piece was unique. Then one day, one of my customers asked me to paint him a painting.”

The Pomegranate (also part of her home and directly below her living/studio space) is LeBaron’s there’s-no-place-quite-like-it-stuffed-to-the-rafters-with-antiques-and-collectibles shop, a fixture in “downtown” North Hatley right across from the Connaught Home for Seniors and Retirees. The Connaught Home, like most care facilities, has a sign out in front. The Pomegranate, unlike most business establishments, does not.

“Yes, I know. I need to paint a new sign and put it up.” The quixotic LeBaron says. “I had one but it blew down.”

“When was that Naisi?” I ask.

“About four years ago, I think.” She replies with a grin.

The Pomegranate’s motto (“If you can find it, we have it.”), which may or may not appear on the next sign if and when LeBaron gets to it, hints at her quirky sense of humour. The same humour is reflected in her tongue-in-cheek art, especially “political pieces” like “Big Money and The Ethnics.”

“Big Money” is an early work painted “in response to Jacques Parizeau’s remarks on losing the vote for Quebec sovereignty” in 1995. She produced it a couple of years after the one she did for that first unexpected commission client, the one who set her, albeit reluctantly, on her painterly path.

“I kept refusing to paint something for the client. And no, I wasn’t playing hard to get,” LeBaron jokes. “I just didn’t feel qualified. I said: ‘I can’t to that. I’m not an artist.’ And he said, ‘Well, you do it all the time, on furniture. I don’t see any reason why you can’t do it on a flat surface instead of on a dresser or chair.”

The client persisted. LeBaron resisted. She relented eventually and created “a tiny painting of a sheep.”

(“A sheep!?” I laugh. “Yes. A sheep,” she smiles.)

The client bought it. Then he bought another.

“I soon realized it took far less time to paint a painting than it did to paint a piece of furniture, which I had to strip first, and put three coats of base coat on before I even got to the artistic and creative part!” LeBaron says.

That was in 1993. LeBaron’s fanciful “art naïf” has since become highly sought after throughout the Eastern Townships and beyond.

Her biannual shows at the Bibliotheque North Hatley Library (she held one last year; the next will be in summer 2014) draw sizeable crowds. People queue to buy her work, which usually sells out within hours of a show opening.

The Rummage Sale

The Rummage Sale

LeBaron is beloved in the community for her whimsical takes on local scenes and subject matter, and her reasonable prices despite the high demand for her art, and the time it takes to complete each painting.

“It’s important to me that my paintings are affordable,” she says, by way of explanation for her competitive pricing.

Her work is labour intensive, painstakingly detailed, and requires almost-but-not-quite-forever to finish.

Like most creative people, LeBaron begins with an idea, that’s a given. But their source? Another matter.

“Where do your ideas come from Naisi?” I query.

“Scraps of paper I find in drawers.” She shoots back.

“Really?”

“Yes, in a roundabout way…”

“To be honest, the ideas come from everywhere – conversations, observations, news, views, anything at all,” she explains. “Sometimes they just pop into my head while I watch TV or look out the window.”

“For example, I see St. Barnabas Church through the window as I paint. Years ago, a group of ladies met there regularly to play bridge. I watched them come and go, week in and week out, and then I thought ‘Hey, that would make an interesting painting.’ So I painted them.”

Some of her ideas are funkier and funnier.

“One time,” LeBaron recounts, “a friend of mine went England to attend the funeral of a friend of his who had died. The dead friend had requested a particular type of burial and funeral arrangement in which there was no embalming.”

“Basically, you’re buried in a basket instead of a casket,” LeBaron quips.

“So this friend of mine goes on to say how his dead friend was, well, let’s just say, he wasn’t an easy man when he was alive, which gave me the idea for a painting based on the expression ‘going to hell in a handbasket.’ So I painted it, and someone bought it.”

LeBaron also paints a lot of nuns: nuns washing cars, nuns doing laundry, nuns playing bingo, nuns going swimming. For some unknown reason, nuns fascinate her, as do political issues and current events.

“Other times I read something in the paper that makes me so crazy I just have to paint it,” she says.

Such craziness inspired (among others): Big Money and The Ethnics (see above), But I Now RecruitingThought I Was King (an observation on Lucien Bouchard attending the funeral of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 2000), Reluctant Christians (in response to the abuse at residential schools in Canada), The Demented Dance of Humanity (in response to the Abu Ghraib military atrocities, 2004), Now Recruiting (in response to the pope’s announcement that he would welcome back Anglicans, 2009, and pictured at right) and 9/11, all of which are included (along with 60 more of her works), in LeBaron’s recently released coffee-table book Lemonade & Gossip,

“And where do the scraps of paper come in?” I ask.

“Well, when I get an idea, I jot it down on a scrap of paper, so I won’t forget it. I put the scrap of paper somewhere “safe” to be retrieved at a later date, and of course promptly forget where I’ve put it. The problem is I don’t have a specific place to put the scraps of paper.” She laughs softly.

“As you can see,” she looks up from her painting, and sweeps her eyes around the room, “Things are a bit random in here…”

(“Yes, indeed, I do see!” I think, but I don’t say, being on my best journalistic behavior.)

“When I’m in the mood to start a painting, and I don’t have a specific idea, I sometimes go through the drawers looking for those scraps of paper, and when I find one with an idea that strikes my fancy, I say ‘oh yeah, that one! I’ll do that one! And away I go.”

LeBaron is clearly amused by her own process, which, after the idea is chosen, moves on to execution.

She starts with what most artists do last: she chooses a frame, usually sourced from her own inventory, which, as you might guess, is extensive.

Using existing frames suits LeBaron as well as her clients. It’s cost-efficient, and, because the frames are often old (if they aren’t, she “antiques” them to make them appear so), they are also unique, and thus well suited to her work. Most clients keep her pieces in the frames she chooses.

LeBaron paints on Masonite, a type of hardboard made of steam-cooked and pressure-molded wood fibers, which she cuts to fit the chosen frame (normally about 16 x 20 inches), sands to roughen the surface, and covers with a white base coat (the Masonite is brown) before she starts actually painting.

Interestingly, she doesn’t begin with a finished image in mind. Rather, the piece evolves as she paints. She does the background first in one fell swoop, without interruptions, then fills in the rest in fits and starts between attending to customers in The Pomegranate, and living the rest of her life.

“Painting is very calming for me,” she says. “When things get to me, the best thing I can do is paint. And I think that’s why, once I get going, I’m okay. Once the background is done, I don’t mind interruptions, like the beep from the store for example. But when I’m doing the background, I can’t stop, interruptions are a real problem, they really make me stressed…”

Beeeeep!!!

As if on cue, the alert sounds – someone has walked into the shop below. She rests her brush on a varnish lid, and scoots downstairs to attend to the potential customer.

She’s back within minutes.

“Did they buy anything Naisi? I question.

“Not this time.” She sits back down, re-arms herself with the brush, and picks up the conversation where we left off.

“I’ll often say to my husband Pierre, ‘You run the store for me for four hours, while I do the background.’ Because, when I’m painting the sky I’ve got to keep going. But when I’m painting shingles, like I am now, I can put the brush down and come back and paint more shingles. Once the background is in, I relax, because I know I can be interrupted and it won’t be the end of the world.”

Naisi painting The Hermitage Club

Naisi painting The Hermitage Club

An elongated desktop lamp illuminates the piece on which she is currently working: a commission for the Hermitage Club in Magog (pictured above). It’s to be auctioned this summer as part of a fundraising campaign.

“I paint the big blocks of color, the sky, the sea, forest, or lawn, or whatever the main background is, and then I fill it in. I knew, for example, that for this one I wanted to have the main club building, the playhouse, and the dock. So I painted those in first, on the background of the lake, the sky and the lawn.”

As I paint the main elements, and the detail of the main elements, such as the shingles on the Hermitage Clubhouse, I think about what I might put in the rest of painting. So, for example, the golf course is kind of behind the clubhouse, so I’m thinking about perhaps some golf carts there with some people in them. Golfers obviously.” She  smiles again.

“Obviously.” I agree, smiling back.

“Painting the shingles is monotonous and repetitive, as I imagine working on an assembly line would be. But while I do it, I think about what else I will add to the painting. My mind is creatively engaged. There are two processes going on at once: creating and execution.”

She’s focused on the main clubhouse now, defining the roof shingles and cedar shake on the exterior walls with teeny tiny individual brushstrokes. I’m amazed at the detail, which LeBaron says is relatively new to her work.

“My early work is more primitive, or at least that’s how I would describe it. A little more crude,” she says. “There’s not as much detail, everything is a little more rudimentary, a little more basic in style. I can’t paint like that anymore. Now I get much more caught up in the patterns and details than I used to.”

The proof of her words is before my eyes.

She’s been doing building trim and shingles for the past 45 minutes: dip the brush in paint, then varnish, then stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke. Then do it again. It takes about six weeks to complete one of her average-sized paintings, though she usually works on two at a time, one drying while she paints on the other.

“What kind of person does stuff like that, Naisi?” I ask, referring to the minutiae.

“Obsessive-compulsive? She chuckles. “Obsessive-compulsive and untidy?” She chuckles again.

“I would’ve been very good in a factory,” she expands. “I like to do the same thing over and over. I like to paint leaves, for example, all the leaves on the trees individually. I find it enjoyable. Completely relaxing, in fact.”

LeBaron does indeed look Zen-like as she paints. I, on the other hand, am getting twitchy just watching her. I leaf through Lemonade & Gossip until I come to a painting of the Connaught Home, the place in which my mother now resides, and the reason I’m here in North Hatley.

“Naisi, why does this one look like there’s a frame in the painting?” I’m curious.

She answers my curiosity with a bit of mischief.

“Sometimes, if I find a frame that has deep sides or an interesting shape, I paint it as well. I continue the painting around and over the edges of the frame onto the sides of the frame. See the clothes on the ground in the top right hand corner of that one?”

“Yeah.” I look a bit closer.

“They belong to a naked man who is on the side of the frame. You can’t see it in the book, because the book is flat; it’s a one-dimensional picture of the painting. But if we had the piece here, you could turn it sideways and see him in all his naked glory.”

It’s my turn to laugh. “You’re too funny Naisi!

Quirkily, magically and wonderfully funny like Dr. Seuss, but in a localized, countrified, Eastern Townships kinda’ way.

It's me! Photogenic yes?

It’s me! Photogenic yes?

Between shows, Naisi LeBaron accepts commissions for individuals and organizations, and runs The Pomegranate, her antiques-and-collectibles shop in North Hatley. Her coffee-table book, Lemonade & Gossip, is available here. LeBaron teaches stenciling at the North Hatley community center in the fall and winter.

More about Dr. Seuss here.

susan wannabe model

Writer / editor Susan Macaulay

Susan Macaulay is a writer, editor, blogger, public speaking coach and occasional model. After living and working in Dubai for 18 years, she returned to the Eastern Townships in 2011 to care for her mother Patti who has Alzheimer’s. She is writing a book about her caregiving experience.

Susan loves travel, scrabble, and triathlon, among many, many other things ranging from soup to nuts. She lives in North Hatley with her mother’s cat Pia Roma, and may be reached through her blog CrackerJacks and her website AmazingSusan.com

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