Professor’s artistic side helps give him a sense of place

By: Thomas Johnson / Contributing Writer

As far as art exhibition titles go, it would be hard to find a more fitting one for John Bailly’s paintings in the new show: “A Sense of Place.”

But for Bailly, who was born in the English town of Slough to a French father and American mother, then spent the first 10 years of his life in Long Island, Paris and Lyon, feeling a strong sense of attachment to one specific geographic location was something of an abstract notion.

Bailly, a professor in the Honors College and winner of the 2010 Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching regularly exhibits his paintings at galleries across the country. His work was part of the sense of place exhibit at Carol Jazzar Contemporary Art in Miami.

He admits his artwork is very much influenced by his sense of identity.

“I’m really interested in place and identity as it relates to place and culture. I think that’s kind of how my life is,” Bailly said. “When I’m in France, I’m the American guy and when I’m in the U.S., I’m the French guy and so I don’t really belong anywhere so I kind of have to invent my own place.”

For most of his life, he has been the French guy, never more so than when he first moved to Miami with his parents.

“I was 10 years old and I could only read and write the word “cat” in English,” Bailly said. “I could speak it because my mother always spoke English at home.”

Other words soon followed as Bailly became more acclimated to his new city, eventually attending Killian Senior High School. It was not until his sophomore year of high school, however, when he began to get a sense, not of place, but of his passion.

“I’ve always loved to draw,” he said. “I would neglect other subjects just so I could paint and draw and make artwork.”

Natalia Bailly, his wife of 12 years, noticed this aspect of her husband’s personality from the onset.

“He was pretty much exactly how he is now when I met him,” Natalia Bailly said. “He is incredibly driven. He gets up at three, four in the morning to paint every day for weeks in a row. It’s almost like he doesn’t get tired.”

This single-minded focus led to his acceptance into the Performing and Visual Arts Center program, the predecessor to the New World School of the Arts, which allowed Bailly to take art classes at Miami-Dade College, a memorable experience.

“It was great. It was wild. We had almost no supervision,” he said. “Imagine being in tenth grade and taking college level classes. We were out of control. We had a competition of who could skip the most classes. I think the guy that won had skipped 36 classes and he still graduated.”

What began as an abstract notion soon became the Aesthetics and Values class, a popular third and fourth year honors course. Although an art class, most of its students are not art majors and don’t have much experience with the art world.

“I took some art classes in elementary school, but A & V was my first college level art class,” said biology major Monica Font, a member of the 2009 class.

“When he explained the class to me, I was convinced that it was going to be a fantastic class because it’s a subject he is so interested in that he’d make it incredible for the students,” said Ana-Sofia Navarrete, also from the 2009 class. Part of the reason why the class is so appealing to honors students is its “Socratic approach” to teaching, said Miryam Rodriguez, an English and art history graduate.

“He doesn’t seem to believe the classroom is some academic vacuum, but rather a meeting place where people can just continue to observe, analyze, and grow,” Rodriguez said.

“His style keeps you invested as opposed to other professors that make you feel like they’re just trying to pass on useless information or get through a syllabus,” Navarette said.

“I have no spiritual convictions at all,” Bailly said, “so I believe that my life is the only life I live and this time is the only time I have so I want to use it to the fullest so that’s how I approach my life.”

His wife admits that although there generally is not much time for going shopping or out to movies, he does manage to balance his time well.

“He’s only interested in painting, teaching, and being with us,” said Natalia Bailly, “and he does all three with the same amount of enthusiasm.”

Gwyn Davies, a fellow honors professor who has known Bailly for nine years and has taught a second year honors class with him for five years, describes Bailly as “one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met.”

Davies watched Bailly’s Aesthetic and Values course develop from a class of 20 students to one that had 66 students enrolled in it last semester, with many more hoping to get in.

“It’s a fantastic course he’s created,” Davies said. “It’s now a venue of choice for artists and a fixture on the Miami art scene.” Ideally, Bailly would like to eventually have the time to just focus on his paintings.

On a recent trip to France he was impressed by the sheer size of some of Jericho’s paintings and realized that we wants to work on a canvas far larger than any he’s worked on before.

“I just want be in the house somewhere, working on large paintings and that’s it, just happy with my family,” Bailly said.

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