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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Sugar House resident and painter Ken Baxter stands in his home and studio surrounded by his works.

It wasn't a love of art that got local artist Ken Baxter into his first art class but the cute girl in his seventh-grade class — and the fact that he hated sports.

"We become what we are for a variety of reasons," he said.

Baxter's junior high art teacher was one of the strongest influences on his love of art. Winning first place in the state high school art division for his second painting also didn't hurt. He eventually earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Utah.

It wasn't until later when he was teaching high school and earning his master's degree from Utah State University that a major breakthrough came for him. Surprisingly enough, it was a piece of sandstone that helped him discover his niche.

As Ken Baxter held in his hand the stone that originally formed Salt Lake streets in the 1800s, he became fascinated with the idea that at one time all the streets in the city, including the curbs and gutters, had been made out of sandstone.

"It made me feel kind of special that I knew about it and had a piece of it in my hand," he said.

The stone had been removed as part of a reconstruction of the streets in Salt Lake City. Baxter's mother, who worked at Trolley Square, had given her son the piece of stone. His fascination made him contemplate what life might have been like back in the days when Main Street had been made out of sandstone.

Baxter was just preparing to do his master's thesis, which would comprise a series of paintings. He had been doing research on President William Howard Taft's visit to Salt Lake City and had done 13 sketches about that. However, after discovering the sandstone, his focus changed, and he started doing research on history.

His research led him to start painting pictures about the past. All the paintings he did for his master's thesis were about historical events. Through his research, he grew to love history and could imagine himself in the past and visualize what it might have been like.

"I could see myself on the fifth floor of a building looking out and picture what it would have been like and paint it," he said.

Ken Baxter had found a niche he really enjoyed: historical painting. Over the years he has done numerous historical paintings, some of which can be seen in galleries around the valley.

On one occasion, he was commissioned to do a historical painting for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The painting was going to be called "Embarkation of the Saints from Liverpool — 1851." Baxter had asked the church to pay for him to go to England so he could get a better visual of what he was going to paint, but they weren't able to do so.

He did his own research on the project, which had no visual documentation of emigration from Liverpool. As he was researching, he remembered that Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype around that time. He found pictures from the history of photography to document and provide him the visuals he needed for his painting, which he then made up based on that.

After doing historical paintings for a number of years, Baxter needed a change of pace. He had become so immersed in history that he was starting to separate from the real world. "It was taking me away from reality into a different space," he said.

As such, he stopped painting historicals to paint landscapes. The technique he favors is called "plein-air," which means he paints what he sees, mostly outdoors. This can be tricky because he is in a race against time with the sun. It can also present concerns with inclement weather.

Baxter has traveled all over the United States and around the world to find scenes to paint, from Washington to New York to California to Indonesia, Germany and other places in Europe. Along the way he's encountered interesting and unique situations. On a trip to Germany to paint some Roman-made caverns, Baxter was so intent on his desire to paint that he pretended he didn't speak any of the native languages so he wouldn't be disturbed.

In another instance, he was doing a painting of rice fields in Indonesia. A man came up to Baxter and kept repeating something to him over and over again. Not knowing the language, he didn't know what the man meant, but he came to find out that the man was also a painter and wanted to compliment Baxter on his painting.

Baxter discovered, to his astonishment, that the man had 10 paintings, each the size of a large postage stamp, in his wallet. The man thought Baxter's painting was too large, while Baxter thought his paintings were too small. He offered to sell some to Baxter for $5 each, but Baxter didn't have any money with him and thus was unable to buy any, which he still regrets.

When doing a painting, Baxter has a strict regimen he follows. He first chooses a subject, asking himself why he wants to paint it. Once he has the subject, he composes a design for the painting. Once the design is finished, he has to take a break so he is able to step back and look more critically at his design to see if he wants to change it.

The third step is the easy part for Baxter. He mixes his paint and "paints like hell," he said.

Still he says that it takes a lifetime plus several hours to truly complete a painting. He has done so many paintings over the course of his lifetime that he can't remember all of them. One day he was in the Brushworks Gallery in Salt Lake City, and he saw a couple of paintings he admired. When he looked down to see who painted them, he realized they were his paintings and he had forgotten that he'd done them.

Being a painter has changed his perspective on people.

"When I look at people, I look at them in terms of light and dark," he said.

Although being in the art business hasn't always been easy for Baxter, he said he doesn't regret it.

"The art business is tough, but it's the only business I know. I like it. It's sweet and sour," he said.

E-mail: twalquist@desnews.com