Nicholas Baxter

Notes & Advice 10

Written by N.C. Wyeth in a letter to his son Andrew:

The great men forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect—to score a hit—does not know what he is missing!

In other words, paint what you love to paint, what feels true to you, what your passion leads you to create…regardless of how commercially successful it may or may not be, or what current trends or critics endorse as currently fashionable. Let go of worry over results and simply show up to do the work! Important words for any artist questioning their output or their vision (as we all should).


"Pariah", oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

“Pariah”, oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

My painting “Pariah” was an experiment in contrasts between the extremes of shocking subject matter and uplifting emotions, between surface appearance and underlying symbolism. It evolved out of an intriguing and unusual backstory, and I think anyone wishing to understand the painting on a deeper level than the initial shock value that its grotesque subject might offer could benefit from knowing the story. As an artist, I like to learn everything I can about a piece of art that interests me, in order to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for it. But if you like to interpret art completely from your own imagination, without the influence of explanations, this essay will definitely be a spoiler.

I completed this painting in late 2013 after forming its concept over the previous year of working on my Apostasy series. For that original group of 10 paintings my primary source material and visual reference was a batch of surgery photos “smuggled” to me by a nurse friend who happened to assist on a highly publicized procedure performed by a world-renowned pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles.

The surgery in question was the removal of a parasitic twin body–a set of legs and arms with a partial torso of their own but no head or brain–from a young Asian boy. This risky procedure also happened to be the subject of a documentary produced by The Learning Channel about rare cases of conjoined twins. As my friend explained to me afterwards, “there were cameras everywhere,” and so many unnecessary people in the operating room that it felt like a party, not a surgery. So, she figured, as long as I didn’t depict any precise likenesses while altering and cropping the source photos to fit my artistic needs, it should be okay for me to use them.

Little did I know, the day I first saw those photos sometime in 2011 would start a still unfolding artistic evolution, in which “Pariah” is but one chapter. I’d seen plenty of photos like those before, had often used visceral flesh and blood imagery in my work, being strangely attracted to the aesthetic of their glossy surfaces, warm colors and the soft organic patterns of flesh and body tissue. But never had I as close an encounter with the source of the imagery, nor had I seen photos of anything quite like the incredibly unique and rare procedure of separating two tiny conjoined bodies.

I stashed those photos for many months, looking at them occasionally while ruminating on the themes of life and loss, health and sickness, fragility and brutality that they suggested. It wasn’t until some health struggles of my own necessitated some frustrating forays into the modern medical system that the ideas crystalized and motivation appeared, and with a solo show at Last Rites Gallery in Manhattan approaching in the spring of 2012, I got to work.

Many of the surgery photos had an ambiguous quality that made them appear quite like mysterious snapshots of a strange and very serious, even frightening, ritual. I focused on these shots while culling down the imagery for my solo show, but never forgot one photo that was very unlike the others. Its stark brutality set it apart from those and made it too obvious for the intended ambiguity of the series, but its disorientingly grotesque beauty still haunted me, whispering a vague inspiration into my subconscious.

In this photograph, the disposed bodily artifacts from the surgery were arranged neatly like ornaments on a cloth-lined tray for scientific appreciation, in the precise locations they would have inhabited had they been the constituents of a fully formed little boy’s body. Oddly distorted in shape and size by the parasitism, the tiny limbs–two legs, two arms, a chunk of torso with bulbous intestines splayed out–looked tragically angelic, heavy with dead weight yet still full of lively color and capillary blush.

That loving commemoration of a dismemberment spoke to me more as time went on. It seemed a succinct representation of what a technological society does to its citizens, all of us in some way or another, starting at birth and continuing well into adulthood. One by one, or all at once, our wild traits, impulses, and inconvenient feelings are intercepted, punished, shunned, contextualized, repressed and denied, severed and forced into an individual and collective shadow psyche. Whether done with good intentions or bad, for better or worse, the disassembling is the same. This living dissection is the process of enculturation and assimilation: the purpose of civilization.

The inescapable cultural phenomenon filters down into individual lives, in turn influencing what we do to each other in personal relationships. Friends, family, lovers alike are each cut up into traits, moods, and moments. We categorize these desirable and undesirable, rewarding the former in order to encourage more of them, punishing the latter in order to banish them from our experience. We do unto others as it’s being done to us; part instinct and part conditioning. We end up severed, ashamed of some parts of ourselves while clinging to others. And so most of us grow up with fragmented psyches craving wholeness, wanting instinctively to be put back together again in the compassionate embrace of person and deity alike.

How fitting, then, to use that image for a painting honoring the pariahs in our world, and in ourselves. I wanted to create a visual wish that those who’ve been eclipsed could wear that crescent ring of light as a halo. That the broken could be seen as beautiful in their imperfection. That the cast out, the unloved and unwanted, could all have their day of acceptance.

"Pariah" (detail)

“Pariah” (detail)

I like to paint what many people would deem ugly and shocking things because I believe the grotesque needs to be fully accepted, and even seen as beautiful, in order for inward and outward progression to occur. I believe that each and every aspect of reality has its own intrinsic value while also being a necessary part of a complete whole.

Although not obvious to anyone seeing the work, in “Pariah” I enjoy the contradiction between its subject matter and the feeling I had while painting it. In other words, the unity of dark and light that resulted from painting a child’s severed body parts while meditating on compassion and love. Like the unification of all dichotomies, I believe the intersection of brutality and empathy is a fruitful place. I wanted this painting to be my document of that, and, once the backstory is understood, a map of sorts for getting there.

On The Road 10: Peruvian Plein Air

Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.

Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.


Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.


Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.


  1. Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
  2. Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
  3. Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
  4. Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
  5. Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from Walmart for carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
  6. Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).


So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:

  1. Functionality: A
  2. Efficiency: B+
  3. Cost: A-
  4. Size: A-
  5. Weight A-

Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.

As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.

Three location shots:

Cusco, Peru

First stop in Cusco, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Second stop in Ollantaytambo, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Third stop, Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, Peru.

Third stop, Machu Picchu, Peru: 4 hour study.


Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:

"Above Cusco"

“Above Cusco”

"Ollantaytambo Sunset"

“Ollantaytambo Sunset”

"Huayna Picchu"

“Huayna Picchu”

And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure: