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Artist emerges from behind the scenes to make his mark (6 photos)

Paul Baxter once made shows come alive for Elton John and Lady Gaga, but a move to Orillia inspired him to express himself in bold, ambitious ways

How do you inspire creative expression? How do you liven up a blank wall or alleyway in the downtown? Or bring a beloved children’s storybook character to life at the Leacock Museum?

How do you create “Keep Orillia Safe” masks to fit over the City of Orillia’s welcome signs? Or re-create a World War I bunker for a Remembrance Day exhibit?

You call on the creative services of local artist and scenic set builder, Paul Baxter.

Baxter has spent the last decade or so helping to make Orillia more colourful, fun, festive, and vibrant. Through his creations, whether compelling true-to-life replicas, original works of art, or whimsical props, he has contributed to the creativity and success of many organizations and individuals.

After spending almost 40 years working as a commercial artist and production specialist in the fashion, film and music concert world of Toronto, Baxter and his wife Carol decided to leave the hectic lifestyle of the big city and take a chance on small town living. Not knowing much about Orillia, they came for a visit and ended up finding the perfect house on Harvey Street.

“When I saw this house, I thought – Well, Gordon Lightfoot lived on this street. And they’ve got those big Texas donuts downtown – I’m in!” exclaimed Baxter.

“I was intrigued by how quaint the place was and immediately saw lots of potential – the downtown, guitars on the street, farmers’ market, the park and beach – I could tell that this was an artsy town.”

Before his transition to small town living, Baxter worked as a commercial artist and set designer with some of the world’s biggest stars in entertainment. Whether it was setting up a dressing room for Elton John, re-creating Mr. Dressup’s tickle trunk, or helping Lady Gaga up a set of stage stairs he designed, Baxter was always working behind the scenes to make shows come alive and thrill audiences.

Baxter had always been attracted to the creative arts and following high school, enrolled in an animation program at Sheridan College.

“During college, I worked part-time with the National Film Board – it was great learning how to make my drawings move, but it was tedious work. Turns out I was better at the large, scenic work.”

This is what excited Baxter as he created fantastical fashion show sets, rock and roll spectacles, or real-life props for TV and film.

Once in Orillia, it didn’t take long for Baxter to get involved in his new community.

During the Orillia Spring Blues Festival and Chamber of Commerce boat show, Baxter met an artist showing his work in the Couchiching Beach Park pavilion. Before long Baxter was organizing annual Art Under the Pavilion events for the waterfront festivals. It was a way for local artists to showcase their work.

He soon discovered other events like Starry Night and Streets Alive where he was able to contribute his talents.

“I jumped in with both feet,” he said. “And I’ve had the opportunity of meeting some pretty incredible people who are doing some pretty incredible things. I’m the guy behind the scenes, but I can’t do it alone.”

Community leaders in Orillia quickly realized how Baxter’s skill and talent could contribute to and enhance their projects. Baxter’s work has been seen by visitors to special events at the Leacock Museum, on murals in the downtown, and in interactive art presentations at events such as See You on the Patio.

He has also worked with the Orillia Youth Centre creating opportunities for youth to express themselves through art, whether on a mural or alleyway exhibit.

“I aspire to inspire,” explained Baxter. "We are all expressive and it’s great to be able to bring this out.”

In 2018, Baxter won the Orillia & District Arts Council (ODAC) Arts Achievement Award for his vision and creativity.

Baxter said the move to Orillia has also inspired him. “I’ve wanted to do more painting for myself. I’ve done a lot of work for other people – I’ve ‘been there, scenic’ – and now I’m taking the opportunity to create my own work.”

In addition to showing his work at Art Under the Pavilion and other venues, Baxter has participated as an artist in the Streets Alive project for eight years.

“Streets Alive allows a lot of us to express ourselves in ways we normally wouldn’t,” said Baxter.

Baxter has not only found creative outlets for his artistic talent in Orillia, but has really thrived by helping others express themselves. With his fresh perspective as a newcomer to Orillia, he has also inspired us to see just what a creative community we have.

As Baxter states, “Just look around; what’s not to love!”