It’s impossible to begin the story of mixed media artist Jane Lawton Baldridge without first telling a decades-old sailor’s tale.
“I was sailing around the Gulf of Mexico at age 13, and that trip resulted in sailing through a hurricane,” recalls Baldridge of a 1972 sailboat race in Veracruz, Mexico that still influences her work in watercolor, acrylic, and digital media art. “Luckily, when you’re 13, you don’t understand that you could die. We sailed out [to return home to the Texas coast] and, before the night was over, we were in the thick of it. When we got out of the hurricane, we had no radio, no engine, and we had been beaten up pretty badly. Obviously, I have stories that I need to get out. My paintings are all sea stories—they’re all about storms.”
She took that experience, along with hundreds of formative memories from her childhood at sea (her mother put a bassinet underneath the seat of her sailboat when Baldridge was a baby), and combined it with her interest in art to foster a 45-year career as both a painter and a competitive sailor. She had quite the career kickoff, winning the National Scholastic gold medal for drawing in 1974 and the gold medal for sailing in the Adams Cup U.S. Women’s Sailing Championship just two years later. Since then, Baldridge’s water-inspired work has been shown in galleries around the world, including the Louvre Museum and the Library of Congress.
Now, after roughly a decade spent living exclusively on boats in Fort Lauderdale and North Carolina with her husband, Baldridge has a home and studio space in Stuart and can focus more on her artwork, which is currently on display at the Elliott Museum. Sea Stories is part of the museum’s Portfolios exhibition (running through October 31), which showcases local artists; Baldridge’s display includes several large-scale acrylic canvas compositions modeled after the waves, streams, and rivers she knows so well.
“I’ve raced offshore a lot, I’ve raced inshore a lot, I’ve been to beautiful places snorkeling, I’ve been in crystal-clear water with 10 knots of breeze on the perfect day, and I’ve also been in over-80 mph winds,” she says. “These things come out in my art; it can vary depending on what I’m experiencing in the outside world or personally.”
Baldridge’s current passion project, Ocean Phenomena: Sea Level Stories, stems from a personal interest in local and national water conservation. The collection, which is part of her display at the Elliott Museum, includes a growing number of recycled mannequins she papier- mâchéd with donated nautical charts and painted to create a figurative glimpse at what rising sea levels might look like in the very near future for people living in coastal towns.
“Storm flooding has been a large part of my life, and now I’m in the heart of the matter,” she says of her interest in rising sea levels, beach erosion, and water pollution. “Part of it is looking out over Galveston Bay [in Texas] and wishing it looked like the beaches here in Florida. There was a period of time when I lived there that everything was dead. Those things stick with me.”
Baldridge hopes her work will help inform locals interested in learning more about the waterways surrounding our area and inspire other artists to use personal experiences as their artistic muse. “If people can take away my message, that’s great,” she says. “But if they can take away their own message that touches them, that’s great too.”