Hugo Baratta, artist, activist who was homeless; at 62

Baratta used a straightforward style that occasionally veered into the abstract. Flowers and somewhat realistic bodies gave way to flowing shapes or heads that float above highways. A few of his works hang in Cambridge shops. Baratta used a straightforward style that occasionally veered into the abstract. Flowers and somewhat realistic bodies gave way to flowing shapes or heads that float above highways. A few of his works hang in Cambridge shops.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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On good mornings, and there were many in his life, Hugo Baratta settled in at Au Bon Pain amid the hum of Harvard Square, setting out watercolors and brushes on the customers’ metal tables or atop the gray and green patterns of the stone chessboards.

His makeshift studio was partway between First Church Shelter, a frequent refuge when he was homeless, and St. Paul Church in Cambridge, his spiritual home. To attend early Mass, he pedaled 2 miles from a spare Somerville apartment he meticulously decorated with cast-off furniture, while paying rent with disability checks. Prayers finished, Gospel digested, a pack of Camels at hand, he began to paint, selling his work to passersby for a few dollars.

“He cultivated a persona as this artist in residence in front of Au Bon Pain,’’ said Jim Stewart, the First Church Shelter director who met him more than 20 years ago, when Mr. Baratta participated in protest walks from Boston to the nation’s capital, to Kennebunkport, Maine, and across the state to call attention to homelessness.

“It provided other people an entree into engagement with him,’’ Stewart said. “There was a way to deal with his eccentricity. He was an artist, not just a sometimes cantankerous homeless person.’’

An artist and activist who was formerly homeless for about two decades, Mr. Baratta found a niche in the street life of Cambridge, where his sense of humor, generosity, and paintings made him stand out among sidewalk compatriots.

Like many who have been homeless, he was wary of doctors and learned too late that he had bladder cancer, cardiac ailments, and emphysema. Mr. Baratta was 62 when he died June 11 in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications of an infection. For the past several years, he lived in a top-floor Somerville apartment with sharp sloped ceilings and a tub that let him savor long baths.

“He was one of the beloved fixtures that made Harvard Square the colorful, rich place it is,’’ said Steve Brown, a supervisor at First Church Shelter who knew Mr. Baratta for about 11 years and managed his money.

“Hugo was so much fun,’’ said Barbara Watts, a friend of a dozen years who helped him navigate life. “He was the kind of person people liked to know.’’

People also liked his art. Mr. Baratta used a straightforward style that occasionally veered into the abstract. Flowers and somewhat realistic bodies gave way to flowing shapes or heads that float above highways. A few of his paintings hang in Cambridge shops, and some customers commissioned cards.

Before his final illnesses, Emmanuel College in Boston planned an exhibition of Mr. Baratta’s work. An opening reception on Sept. 17 is scheduled to begin in Gallery 5 at 4 p.m. His paintings will be displayed until Oct. 7.

Cynthia Fowler, an associate professor of art, hopes the show inspires discussions about homelessness and the way art is used to contend with life’s difficulties.

How Mr. Baratta came to be homeless is a question no easier to answer than whether mental illness or drugs and alcohol nudged him off the path his parents envisioned as he grew up in comfortable neighborhoods of Arlington and Belmont. For privacy, or just for fun, Mr. Baratta would sometimes adjust the stories of his life’s narrative arc with the same skill he used to retouch a brush stroke.

“I was fascinated by this guy, with all the stories people told about him and the way he carried himself,’’ said George Caponigro of Quincy, who met Mr. Baratta about 17 years ago when he, too, was homeless.

“He would be my epitome of the nonconformist, someone who just found a life to be happy with. And don’t get me wrong, he had his moments of sadness and misery, but most of the time he loved his life, loved his community, loved his faith. I think he was one of those rare, unique people you could never define. You can’t put the pieces together with him.’’

Hugo Charles Baratta Jr. was the second of three children whose father was a successful contractor. He was 20 when his father died after being treated a few years for leukemia.

The confluence of a flowering drug culture in the late 1960s and his father dying slowly unsettled Mr. Baratta, who still managed to graduate in 1973, at 25, from Bentley College with a bachelor’s degree in business education.

Through the years, a chasm opened between him and his siblings, though he kept in contact with his mother until she died in 1981. The discomfort of the split became so painful that Mr. Baratta’s brother asked that he and his sister not be mentioned by name in this obituary.

At one point, Mr. Baratta received an inheritance in the low six-figures. He told Caponigro that he lost a lot of it through bad stock investments and that he lived for a while in an upscale hotel. Most who encountered Mr. Baratta could guess where some of it was spent, however.

“He was just sort of absurdly irresponsible with money,’’ Brown said.

Even when Mr. Baratta was homeless, gathering cans and bottles to pay for endless packs of cigarettes, “any extra money he made he would give away to the less fortunate,’’ Caponigro said. “He might collect two bags of bottles and cans, then give them away to someone else. Hugo thought his only path to salvation was by suffering, by being humble, and by staying small. That’s how he lived to his last breath, helping out the less fortunate.’’

No one remembers Mr. Baratta holding sustained employment. He told Caponigro he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

By the late 1980s, Mr. Baratta started taking part in protests to highlight the plight of those who, like him, squatted in abandoned buildings, lived on the streets, or stayed in shelters.

“He didn’t have any grandiose political ambitions,’’ Brown said, “but he realized the virtue of putting his body in the cause.’’

During and after a memorial service a couple of weeks ago in First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, friends recalled Mr. Baratta’s taste for the good life. Though homeless until submitting, several years ago, to mental health examinations required for disability checks, he cultivated a taste for well-prepared meals, baths that lasted two hours, and Brooks Brothers shirts he plucked from clothes donated to First Church.

“Hugo had exquisite taste,’’ Stewart said. “He’d always pick out the very best things that were in the bag.’’

When sunshine brightened a good day, he rode his bike to Revere Beach.

“He would refer to himself as the designated tanner here,’’ Brown said. “Hugo had a real zest for life. He was really poetry in motion.’’