A wide-ranging conversation with the longtime local artist

Nearly every piece of artwork Tom Baillieul has created in 50 years of making is an investigation.

Whether it represents the outset or culmination of the investigative process, the work reflects the artist's inquisitive nature. Be it into the science behind the way the world works, or the nature of the way humans live in the world, Baillieul is ever asking questions and seeking out answers.

“Science and art are two sides of the same coin for me. I don't know that I could separate the two,” Baillieul said in an interview at the Cultural Arts Center, where “Journey Through the Open Door – A retrospective look at 50 years of art by Tom Baillieul” will open Friday, June 28. “I'm not a painter by the traditional route, but art has always been there, at least in the background. I've always found a place in the house, no matter where we've lived, to paint.”

Baillieul is a scientist by trade. A career that began as a geologist with the Peace Corps in Botswana in the 1970s and included work for the U.S. government in the Department of Energy has afforded him ample opportunity to engage questions and seek out answers. His undergraduate studies also included history and anthropology, owing to an interest in human dynamics. Throughout most of the journey, making art has been a way to continue his contemplation of questions, answers and ideas.

“I'm excited about the world around me. I'm always wanting to know how things work, whether it's a social construct, whether it's a mechanism, a climate system. … It's got to interest me, hook me in some way, [present] a challenge in how to make something, or [offer] a new perspective or something that sends me off to do research to get it right,” Baillieul said. “Inspiration comes from ideas that pop into my mind, wherever they come from.”

Spend time with Baillieul and you're likely to learn something. For example, his paintings of historical aircraft began as an investigation into an old painting at Port Columbus airport, which led to learning the airport had its start as one of five stops on the first transcontinental rail-air passenger service, charted by Charles Lindbergh. Or, in another transportation-related story, Baillieul's paintings inspired by the 1943 invention of Irish coffee, first served to transatlantic air passengers forced to return to Ireland due to poor travel conditions.

A brief list of additional topics that have moved the artist include: spiral galaxies, Eleanor Coerr's children's novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, how to depict chaos in art (Baillieul decided you can't), the history of human migration, bamboo, Wassily Kandinsky's philosophies of abstraction and a trip to investigate Baillieul family history in southern Scotland.

“My artistic imagination can be triggered by just about anything,” Baillieul said.

Baillieul's curiosity has resulted in a sort of creative wanderlust. Fifty years of creating art in this way means that Baillieul doesn't have a distinct medium or style. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

“I'll get that critical comment sometimes: ‘Doesn't have a consistent body of work,'” Baillieul said. “And it's true, because I paint whatever's in my mind at a particular time.”

The through line in his work is the story, both the search for an explanation or history, and the story Baillieul creates with his work.

“Almost everything I do is narrative. But I'm often tweaking or twisting it somehow, building a question into it,” he said. “I just want people to stop, back up a little and think about what they're seeing.”