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The fabulous Belfast baker boy

How the talent and charm of disabled Belfast artist James Baker persuaded a raft of stars to pose for him for charity.

By Stephanie Bell

There is a smile ever present on James Baker's face and he has a quick wit which makes him easy and enjoyable company. And his natural charisma along with fantastic warmth of heart has seen James attract a steady stream of virtually every top star we have to the doorstep of his north Belfast flat over the past two years.

With their busy lives and tight filming schedules, a request from a young Belfast artist to come to the city to pose for a portrait is one which you suspect big stars like actors John Lynch and Adrian Dunbar might struggle to fulfill.

But not in James' case. Long hours spent contacting showbiz agents to track down our most famous faces for a charity art exhibition have been rewarded beyond what he could have hoped with 31 stars posing for paintings.

The 25-year-old's ability to rise above the terrible hand fate has dealt him and instead reach out to help others has made him a celebrity among celebrities in Northern Ireland.

Housebound because of a rare condition which has threatened his life countless times since he was a child, for many years now James has spent the long hours confined to home using his talent for art to raise money for charity.

Indeed, he has spent the past two years working on his latest fundraiser which culminated in what must be the most comprehensive contemporary collection of portraits of local celebrities.

Many of his well-known subjects went along to support James in what was a star-studded unveiling of his collection in Belfast's Europa Hotel earlier this month. But it was unassuming James who proved to be the real star of the show.

The talented artist found himself in the spotlight when UTV presenter Sarah Travers surprised him with a People Like You award from her show The Magazine. It's just the latest in a long line of awards which have recognised James' immense courage over the years.

Life has been a battle for him since birth. He has had to deal with a multitude of serious health problems due to a rare genetic condition called PTEN Harmatoma Syndrome. James was never well enough to go to school and has been in a wheelchair since the age of seven.

He has spent a large part of his life in hospital and has endured immune deficiency, epilepsy, cardiac problems, osteoporosis, arthritis and more.

His very rare syndrome brings with it lots of different degrees and from the age of two has put James in many life-threatening situations. He has suffered so many serious illnesses, any one of which could have taken his life. His parents have been told many times that their only son might not make it only for him to astound everyone by fighting back.

James was taught by the Belfast Hospital Schools where he made such a big impact that some of his former teachers are now among his best friends.

He would have loved to have gone to Art College but his immune system is so low that it was too grave a risk.

James hasn't been able to eat or drink anything since the age of 16. It's another aspect of his condition which shocks those who don't know him but which James takes in his stride.

He says: "It's been nine years since I ate or drank anything so I don't really think about it anymore. I suppose it is a bit hard at Christmas and on birthdays because food is such a big part of those but it's ok. In fact, it can be handy in a way as when I'm working I can just keep going and not have to think about meals or food."

Through it all James comes out with a smile and an incredible fighting spirit that endears him to everyone he meets. His natural instinct is to shrug off all that he has been through and it's clear that he is a young man determined to look on the bright side: "I don't think about it. My health can be up and down but thankfully I have had a good year and not been in hospital too much which has allowed me to get on with working on the portrait collection.

"I concentrate on my painting and that's what keeps me going. I do get out now and again if I am well enough but I need to have mum with me. I love to go shopping."

His collection of portraits of local stars featuring people like Eamonn Holmes, Eddie Irvine, Dame Mary Peters and Tim McGarry will no doubt raise thousands for his favourite charity Helping Hands at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

James feels deep gratitude to all the celebrities who took time to call at his home and pose for their portraits.

He says: "I was flat out and right up until the week of the exhibition I was still working on the last two or three of them.

"It's been a fantastic experience. No one refused when they were approached and many of them had to come to my flat to pose. It was just amazing that they were prepared to do that. I've made friends with some of them and they were all really fun to meet.

"Bronagh Waugh has a great personality and she has become a friend and unfortunately couldn't make it to the exhibition because she was busy with the current series of The Fall.

"John Lynch was so nice and keeps in touch by email. Eamonn Holmes called one Sunday and spent about an hour with me and the week before that I had Tim McGarry from Give My Head Peace in my living room.

"Eamonn wanted his portrait to be a country and western theme so I painted him with a cowboy hat. It's been weird but so nice having so many famous people in my home.

"So many of them also turned up for the exhibition which made it very special. They all seemed to love their portraits and there are still some who haven't seen them yet.

"I've sold a few and it's going to take a bit of time before I know how much money will be raised. I'm leaving it up to the people who buy the portraits to decide what they want to pay."

For James, it is all about raising as much money for Helping Hands which he is passionate about supporting and over the years he has raised thousands for the charity through the sale of his art work.

He explained why the charity means so much to him: "Helping Hands buys very important equipment like toys and soft chairs for the sick children and their families. When I was in hospital as a child they didn't have that type of stuff and there would have been two or three of us fighting over a TV.

"Now, thanks to the charity there are Playstations with every bed and when you are a child in hospital for long periods of time all of that is so important, it makes such a difference."

James has also supported the Make a Wish Foundation, helping bring some special moments into the lives of very sick and terminally ill children.

An Arsenal fan, it was typical of him that when he got to realise his dream of meeting the team a couple of years ago his first thought was to give something back.

He went home and raised £500 for The Willow Foundation set up by Arsenal goalkeeper, Bob Wilson, whose daughter died of cancer when she was 26.

James lives independently with his parents, Susan and William, living upstairs in the same apartment block. They are on hand to administer his medication. He also has one sister Laura (28) and three nephews whom he adores.

His mum Susan, who is on the Board of Trustees of Helping Hands, is one of his greatest admirers.

It was Susan who was one of many people who nominated James for the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Overcoming Adversity Award which he won two years ago.

She says: "He has been brilliant through so much. In spite of everything he is so positive and just so happy all the time. I don't know where he gets it from.

"It really gave him a lift to win the Spirit of Northern Ireland Award and he genuinely didn't expect to get it. When he read all the other nominations in the paper he said to me 'Mum I haven't a hope of winning this'.

"That's just James - he doesn't appreciate just how much he does think of others."

James has also been presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Belfast Hospital School which has also launched an art award, The James Baker Shield in his honour.

His mum is naturally proud of his latest charity effort and grateful to the many stars that have supported James.

She says: "Since he started this latest fundraiser he has been working hard to get people to support it and working on his paintings.

"Every one of the local personalities who have called to support him has really shown an interest in what he is doing. They are not just sitting for two seconds and then running out the door. They have been brilliant in the way they have taken time to talk to James and show real enthusiasm for what he is doing.

"James has his good days and bad days but he just takes it as it comes and is always happy and cheerful. He loves doing stuff for charity and because he spent so much time in the children's hospital he knows what the kids need and he wants to help.

"He is really grateful to all the celebrities who have supported him and he got quite used to having famous faces call at the house."

James's great artistic talent also saw him recently commissioned to design artwork for a new hairbrush from international company Denman, which were distributed on the night of his exhibition.

He is thrilled by the success of his latest exhibition and even though it was two weeks ago he is still coming to terms with the shock of being presented with the People Like You award by The Magazine show which aims to recognise the special contribution to society by unsung heroes.

Visibly moved when the cameras captured his surprise moment in the limelight, he says: "I had been working really hard to complete Sarah's portrait in time for the show as I knew she was going to be there but I had no idea that they were planning to give me an award.

"I was so shocked and I actually got quite emotional at one stage. I had no idea it was coming and was totally gobsmacked. It was lovely."

One would think James would be enjoying a well-earned rest after all the hard work of the past two years, but already he is working on his next fundraising project.

James adds: "I would prefer to keep busy and now that the collection is complete I have a few ideas about what I am going to do next. I haven't finalised anything but I hope to soon. Watch this space."

Portrait of an artist ...

  • James was a pupil with Belfast Hospital School and received home tuition for almost eight years
  • He was just 12 years old when his tutor, who enjoyed painting as a hobby, decided one day to bring her paints to James and was surprised to discover he had a considerable talent for art
  • His style has changed and matured over the years
  • He uses a variety of media in his work including watercolours, oils, acrylics and pastels
  • His beautiful pieces of art include portraits, animals, landscapes and street scenes
  • James has displayed his work widely and has had many sell-out exhibitions although he rarely profits from his work, preferring instead to donate what he makes to charity
  • Last year he launched his first long-term exhibition in the Ulster Hall
  • Now well renowned his work is sought after and can be found in private collections locally and overseas

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