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Meet Nick Baxter

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nick Baxter.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I’ve been making art and tattoos professionally for almost 20 years, but have been an unconventional creative thinker and problem solver my whole life. I was raised with a sense of fierce independence and instilled with an adventurer’s spirit largely by summers spent as a child on the family boat, sailing throughout the Northeast and collecting unique experiences outside the typical suburban box.

I think this upbringing eventually led to a teenage fascination with the rebellious mystique of the tattoo art form, and subversive art of all kinds. As I pursued these interests, often recklessly, throughout high school my father built his own 40-foot boat with plans to leave behind the confines of suburbia and sail it around the world. By the time I entered a local art college to begin a bachelor’s degree, he and my mom had left New England behind for a trans-Atlantic journey on their newly christened boat.

Although I had intended to focus on graphic design in art school, the first 2 semesters of required still life drawing and painting captured my interest above all else, and turned that plan upside down. These courses were taught in the classical realism tradition, with a focus on the Trompe L’oeil niche, and opened me up to what has become a lifelong pursuit of classical realism painting.

In the midst of all this, I’d finally secured a tattoo apprenticeship at a local studio in Connecticut, and begun my learning there in earnest as well. That learning turned into a temporarily all-consuming passion, soon leading to a crossroads where a choice between art school and professional full-time tattooing had to be made. In my typically adventurous spirit, I left the controlled and certain environment of college for the wide open, unconventional uncertainty of a tattoo career.

Around the time my mother’s longing for home brought her and my father prematurely back across the Atlantic to re-settle on the east coast, I was venturing further and further from home, as tattooing success gave me a myriad of opportunities across the country and world. As I became established as a high end custom tattooer, I re-focused my energy on my artistic learning, taking numerous workshops, seminars and courses in classical drawing and painting skills, while also beginning to exhibit and sell paintings on a professional level through various galleries and art shows. Eventually my wanderings led me to settle in Texas, which is where I’ve called home for the last 10 years.

My mission all along in tattooing was to help show the world–along with a new breed of fine art trained tattooers who came up with me–that tattooing could be a respectable fine art form just like painting, drawing or sculpting. My pursuit of painting and fine art knowledge outside of tattooing and its typical symbolic language has helped me further this mission over the years, and unified the various parts of my life into a symbiotic, wholehearted pursuit of creative self-expression and visual art in all forms. As a result, I’ve been able to bring outside art knowledge into the tattoo community through various seminars, workshops, and the publishing of an instructional oil painting book written for tattooers. Alternately, my immersion in the tattoo craft and unique experiences outside the confines of the traditional BA/MFA art establishment has led me to explore my own painting style and subject matter with unconstrained sincerity and personal purpose.

At some point as an adult, I realized that my life’s goal has always been personal transcendence through the pursuit of creative self-expression, whether that creative expression takes the form of tattoos, paintings, or the occasional dabblings in other media like photography, video, graphic design, writing, or teaching. My independent, adventurous spirit and determined focus has helped me navigate my unique career path on my own terms, and I hope to leave a legacy of meaningful and beautiful work in multiple genres and mediums for others to find enjoyment and inspiration from.

Please tell us about your art.
For pure, unfiltered expression with deep symbolism I prefer painting, but for more illustrative or graphic work, and especially for the collaborative creative process between client and artist, tattoos are a perfect outlet for other aspects of my creativity.

When I tattoo, I work in a style perhaps most easily described as color surrealism, where my compositions display a rendering precision similar to my realism paintings, yet are stylized to flow seamlessly with the body they are placed on, as well as adapted to fit the unique requirements of contrast and clarity that living skin presents. I’ve found that the collaborative process of navigating the unique tastes and preferences of each tattoo client lends itself to a wide array of graphic problem-solving strategies, where numerous artistic styles can often be mixed and matched. I enjoy employing this diversity of visual vocabulary in my tattoo work.

My paintings, however, are almost entirely focused in the classical realism style. I enjoy striving for the utterly convincing illusion of exacting realism to create a sense of questioning, awe, and wonder in the viewer. My genre of highest expertise is still life, though I’ve also recently branched out into landscape and begun a more serious focus on figurative art as well.

Regardless of genre, I love form—the way light illuminates the world we perceive—and I love seeing the illusion of a reality that’s so convincing it can transport your mind into the world of the painting. And as alluded to previously, there’s a subtler aspect of realism that I also enjoy, which occurs with the most convincing pictorial illusions: that brief moment of disorienting wonder, a tiny temporary crack in the veneer of mundane certainty when the viewer who thought they were looking at a photograph realizes that’s not at all what it is. I’ve heard that moment described as the point where “emotional certainties waver, and taste loses its bearings.” I like trying to access that vulnerable place with what I do, I think an artwork can be impactful there.

Simultaneous with my love of art, I’ve had a lifelong obsession, or compulsion, to find or expose truth. Whether that be in the form of thought, in the human condition, or in society. It’s led me to confront many intense or sometimes dark themes in my work, along with many attempts to marry the beautiful with the grotesque, unnerving, or shocking. I enjoy questioning the frailty of the body and mind, and teasing out the limiting mental constructs that human culture and our very civilization are based on. I see psychic disruption or subversion as one of the artist’s purposes in society, so my art doesn’t shy away from intensity.

Aside from my recent foray into landscape and plein air (outdoors, on location) painting, I’ve been focusing most of my studio still life’s and figurative paintings on a series called Blood Rituals. This ongoing body of work uses various containers, vessels, and medical phlebotomy instruments as metaphors for the body, life and the struggle with our own mortality, and the confines of the human condition.

Blood in particular–while of course shocking and unpleasant to many–is such a powerful and universal symbol of life, and ironically, of death as well. I wrote in my artist statement for the debut Blood Rituals exhibit at Sacred Gallery in New York City in 2016 that blood “is the liquid life force that feeds our physical vessel, the container of our soul. Its hidden presence sustains us; the breach beyond its borders horrifies us. It plays an ever-present and meaningful role in the human lexicon, as a symbol of love and sacrifice, of familial bond and battle alike, its deep scarlet hue representative of passion and our most powerful, primal urges.”

But one of my primary goals, or hopes, with this series is to use blood imagery and symbolism in a way that doesn’t evoke the shock value of gore or the campiness of the horror genre, and I’m not trying to comment on a specific medical condition or treatment. So, I wanted to surround it with unlikely juxtapositions and temper its visual power with an understated classical sensibility.

My use of blood-related subject matter has several layers of symbolism, from personal struggle and loss to the brutality inherent in all human civilizations, ancient and modern. I hope these images cut through any immediate reactions of fright or repulsion to access the vulnerable state of emotional freshness or tenderness that lies at the core of all our psyches.

As a respite from the heaviness of all that stuff, I love adventuring in the outdoors and trekking into the wild with my painting gear, to capture the natural wonders of our planet. Painting like this is a very refreshing and invigorating release from the tighter constraints of studio painting, and allows an expression of other aspects of my personality, creative energy, and passion. Plein air painting provides a more immersive, raw and visceral experience for me as a painter, one that helps me to better capture certain elements, aspects, or the mood of the scene.

Do you have any advice for other artists? Any lessons you wished you learned earlier?
My all-purpose general advice is to follow your passion with authenticity, being true to who you are and what you envision regardless of outside pressures, criticism, rejection, or praise. I went to a David Lynch lecture once and heard him say “always retain final cut”, and what he meant was always be yourself, and never compromise your artistic vision if you truly believe in it. To arrive at that level of belief, you first have to know yourself; you have to have some kind of introspective, contemplative practice that centers and grounds you, or keeps you aligned with your core values and sense of purpose.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
Lately I’ve been showing paintings at Davis Gallery in downtown Austin, and prior to that in numerous galleries and group shows around the country. On the tattooing side, I work by appointment at my studio Art Realm Tattoo in Austin, TX and occasionally at tattoo conventions around the country and world.

I Have a pair of websites devoted to my art: one for painting, and the other for tattoos, as well as an Instagram account where I post all kinds of in progress tattoo and painting updates, behind the scenes stuff, and other interesting tidbits from the artistic life.

My tattoo studio website includes a webstore where people can buy any art prints or any merchandise, I have available, as well as my instructional painting eBook, and a limited book release compiling the first few years of my Blood Rituals painting series.

Fine art:
Instagram: @burningxhope

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Photos of Nick Baxter by Tara Schaefer

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