AFTER 16 years spent living as a recluse deep in the rainforest of Tobago and more than three decades in total on the Caribbean island, Jennifer Baird felt it was time to return to the UK.
She travelled the length and breadth of the country over several years on a quest to find the perfect place to settle before deciding upon Hastings 18 months ago.
The Kent-born artist has been on an incredible journey, which is not over yet. Swapping the tropics for an English coastal town was no mean feat.
“The culture is a very strong part of why I chose Hastings,” Jennifer said. “I felt that the people here are much more liberated than much of modern England, with an anarchic, bohemian freeness.
“I was searching for a like-minded tribe.”
Although well-established as an artist in Trinidad and Tobago, Jennifer’s work is largely unknown here - but not for long. Her first UK exhibition, West Indies to West Hill, is to be held at Hastings Arts Forum, Marina, St Leonards, from May 22 to June 3, and comprises a powerful and vibrant selection of paintings, that represent not only her physical and spiritual journey, but also her journey as an artist as she navigates a transitional period in her work.
Jennifer has painted her whole life, and was born in 1955 into an artistic family, growing up near Sevenoaks and discovering Buddhism aged 17. In her early 20s she emigrated to the tiny island of Tobago, after falling in love with a local man during a family holiday.
In 1994, Jennifer built a home on a plot of land deep in the forest, where she lived a simple reclusive life with only her horses, dogs and cats, and the rainforest creature - including armadillos, river dogs, and giant snakes - as regular company. In fact for many years she had no electricity or any other modern conveniences.
During this time Jennifer painted, meditated, and read voraciously, and her work was exhibited regularly in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was a founding member of the Arts Committee of Tobago.
Despite spending several months at a time without human contact, Jennifer said that she did not feel lonely, describing the forest as ‘wild and sacred’.
“It was extremely beautiful,” said Jennifer. “I have always loved nature. The way I was interacting with life and the world was radically different. I was not lonely, because of the richness of the environment. It was normal for me, because that’s how I lived, but I never took it for granted.”
Jennifer said of her decision to leave Tobago: “I am a natural recluse. I had thought - this is paradise, I will always be here. I was surprised that a feeling began to grow in me that I had “done it” - of completion of a phase of life and time for a new direction.”
“I had a sense of the forest womb of my hermitage, which had gestated me for so long, now having contractions and birthing me out into the world, yet also that the world was drawing me out as very interesting movements were evolving to do with consciousness and culture. It was a big decision, but there were no two ways about it. It was scary, and exciting at the same time.”
In 2009, she put her house and land up for sale and spent four summers travelling around the UK in search of a new home.
Jennifer is enchanted by Hastings, and the view from the West Hill (where she lives) in particular, describing it as offering ‘great clarity of vision’. “I’m still very much in that state of being excited by Hastings visually; I don’t know how long that will last, but with some aspects of Tobago I never got tired of it, “she said. “For me, aesthetics are really the most important thing in life. Much of my art is about the aesthetic of beauty, but not just on a superficial level.”
Around 45 works will be on display, created using oil, acrylic, metallic leaf, watercolour and mixed media. Intricately painted English landscapes hang alongside works from her Tobago days, which evoke the sights and sounds of the tropics, and are included to give context.
Jennifer’s work is increasingly moving towards the abstract, where colour combinations, complex layering, texturing and other techniques are the primary focus, though all reflect the artist’s deep connection to nature, and interest in the mystical
Jennifer’s ties with Tobago will never be completely severed, as there she has family and friends, including a son and four-year-old grandson, and her artwork still has a presence in local galleries, though she now views Hastings with the same sense of wonder.