MasterMind 2015 Finalist: John Bailly

One of Bailly's paintings in the studio
One of Bailly's paintings in the studio
Courtesy of John Bailly

"Home," painter John Bailly says, "is an abstract place."

John Bailly has spent most of his life thinking about the concept of home, as a physical place but also as a state of mind. Maybe that's because the painter has never really felt at home anywhere.

The 46-year-old was born in the United Kingdom to a French father and an American mother. Raised between Paris, Long Island, and Miami, he's never really identified with one single place as home. But Bailly keeps returning to Miami. He earned his BFA at Florida International University, left to earn his MFA at Yale University, and returned again. He's now the faculty fellow at FIU's Honors College.

"Consequently," Bailly says, "personal and cultural identity, as it relates to place, has persistently perplexed me."

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See also: Congratulations to the MasterMind Awards 2015 Finalists

Bailly's semi-abstract paintings and mixed-media work are his attempts to explore his own confusion, to answer his own questions about cultural identity and origin. It's a question he's been working through most of his career.

In 2006, he collaborated with Poet Laureate Richard Blanco on the series "Place of Mind," which explores the "thematic overlaps" and "cultural mix" that underpin Blanco's poetry and Bailly's paintings. "Richard's poems and my paintings," Bailly says, "create a dialogue."

The dialogue between a "homeless" painter and a poet of Cuban heritage is meant to delve into how identity is created. And the combination of image and text plays with the "confusion and wonder" both Blanco and Bailly feel about their own points of origins. "Cultural mutts" is how the painter describes both himself and Blanco.

Bailly credits Blanco for coming up with the exhibition's title. It's a reference "to the idea that home only exists in the mind," Bailly says.

At a quick glance, Bailly's paintings might look like standard abstract works, articulated with heavy brush strokes and vivid color. But on closer inspection, his paintings reveal a combination of abstract references with drawings of maps. Bailly combines the two and puts them into one work.

It might be "a street map of Paris," Bailly says, "but over it is painted the shape of Cuba, so that both places become one new place." In doing so, Bailly creates an entirely new location -- one that's imaginary yet expresses the "oneness with one land" that he's never felt in his own life. Painting, then, is more than a simple artistic expression; it's a way to build a home.

But there's no need to feel sorry for Bailly. "Always being the outsider," he says, "has advantages." Since he's not tied to any cultural traditions, he often feels as if he has more freedom. "More freedom but more confusion," Bailly laughs. "I always feel like I'm on vacation."

And that sense of freedom likely helps Bailly navigate the four months a year he spends abroad. Part of his duties at FIU include leading a study abroad for undergraduates in France. The painter says the experience is central to his work; the experience of being in Europe "feeds my large paintings."

Lately Bailly's been interested in exploring the concept of place at an even more abstract level, introducing proportion and mathematical equations into his work. To that end, Bailly draws again from maps, painting medieval maps of cities he's been to, adding a sky from Miami and then overlaying it all with mathematical patterns. In doing so, Bailly articulates the "objective order" of our aesthetics. "They have implications on the way we think of place," he explains.

Ironically, Bailly admits he doesn't know much about the abstract mathematical concepts he's tapping into but rather "explores subjects through painting to understand them."

Bailly will show some of his latest paintings at Artopia. He hopes "viewers will reflect on the questions" of origin, order, and identity that they raise. "My paintings ask questions," Bailly says. "They don't make a statement."

We'll be profiling those honorable mentions, and eventually the finalists, in the weeks to come. This year's three Mastermind Award winners will be announced February 26 at Artopia, our annual soiree celebrating Miami culture. For tickets and more information, visit newtimesartopia.com.


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