ASHTABULA — Ever wonder what the owner of a bicycle shop in northeast Ohio does when snow converts bike trails to snowmobile paths?
In the case of Bernie Baker, owner of B.J. Bicycle Shop, the shop stays open throughout the winter, but Baker trades his mechanic’s wrenches for artist brushes, the arcs of bicycle tires and handle bars for the crisp lines of bridges, barns, steamships and fishing villages. Like tires that are always turning yet never deviate from their destiny on the spoked wheel, Baker comes full circle every winter. The photographs he snaps during those rare, leisurely hours of summer are extracted and studied; the most promising of the images interpreted as vivid acrylics with a sunny disposition and enough depth to create an ocean.
Baker’s exhibition of acrylics and several airbrush works, “Full Circle,” hangs in the Ashtabula Arts Center gallery through Nov. 25. Although Baker’s prints are familiar to both local and regional art buyers, the exhibition marks his first solo effort at the arts center. He also has exhibited with other members of the Lake Shore Artists.
“This is the first time I’ve seen them all hanging together at the same time,” Baker said as he stood back and examined the exhibition in toto earlier this week.
Baker said he liked what he was seeing — the mostly bright, bold paintings reflect his experiences and the mood in which they were enjoyed.
“I try to make sure I paint what I feel like painting,” Baker said. “That’s when you do your best work. You paint what your mood is at the moment.”
He also has the satisfaction of painting what buyers want. Baker has sold thousands of prints to locals and tourists alike. He’s also done numerous commissions. His work is sold in art galleries and fine gift shops in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York; his paintings hang in private homes throughout the United States and Scotland, England, France and Canada.
Income from these sales has allowed him to purchase the materials that perpetuate his passion.
“I want to thank all the people who have purchased my prints,” Baker said. “They’ve been my inspiration to go deeper into art.”
Baker, 59, took up painting in 1987, although his creative bent goes back to childhood. His introduction to painting came from Bob Ross’ television shows.
“I bought a bunch of books and videos, and I learned how to paint through trial and error,” Baker said. “I am mostly self-taught.”
There is not much Baker has not attempted to paint — from covered bridges to lift bridges, from barns to animals, flowers to people, he’s not afraid to try something new. But even a cursory examination of Full Circle reveals themes of mankind’s mark on the landscape. Whether be a wooden bridge, trim schooner, sleek lake freighter or row of seaside cottages, those encroachments seem as natural as the sky and earth around them.
One of the most dramatic and dimensional of these efforts is his rendering of the Netcher Road Covered Bridge, painted from a photograph. The image captures a dramatic moment as random dapplings of sunlight build depth and intensify the iconic luridness of the foliage, ominous sky and scarlet bridge.
Perhaps his most detailed work is that of the Ashtabula Lift Bridge, a painting that took months to complete. He says that landscape, plus renderings of the Ashtabula Lighthouse, have been his best sellers as art prints.
Baker’s repertoire is not limited to local nautical and rural landscapes. The exhibition includes paintings from his travels to Maine and South Carolina, as well as virtual visits. One of his images, of two lakes vessels passing in a channel, is based upon a photograph taken by Dennis Hale, who was a passenger on one of the ships.
Like most artists, Baker has a “gallery” of unfinished work, more than 70 of them by his best estimate.
“A lot of times if it doesn’t have a three-dimensional feel to it, I will put it aside real quick,” Baker said when asked what moves him to abandon a project.
Baker’s most faithful critic is Tommy, a 2-year-old schnauzer wo goes just about everywhere with him; he helped supervise hanging the exhibition.
“When I paint, he stands and watches. It actually surprises me, he stands right next to me, and it makes you wonder, ‘What is he thinking?’” Baker said.
With the bicycle season waning, Baker is looking forward to another winter of painting. He said preparing and framing his works for the exhibition has consumed his “down time” this fall. Nevertheless, Baker is likely to be the only Ashtabula businessman who feels a sense of sadness when spring arrives.
“I have to stop, I can’t paint (once business picks up),” he said. “You get frustrated trying to (paint and run the store). It’s not a good thing. I say, OK, it’s time to quit painting and work on the bikes.’”