Photographer and activist practices the art of life

Chris Bergeron

As a citizen and artist, John de Bairos is exhibiting his deepest feelings in very different ways in Marlborough and Sudbury.

Several days a week, the 75-year-old lifetime Marlborough resident can be seen at the intersection of routes 20 and 85 holding a sign that says, "Impeach the Lying Idiot" and sometimes even saltier alternatives.

"Somebody's got to do it," he said. "You can't just sit on your hands."

At the same time, the Navy veteran and candidate for Ward 5 city councilor is showing striking black-and-white photographs at Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

"What connects them? I try to live a spiritual life," said de Bairos. "I've always been a community spirit. That's just different parts of me."

For the last month, he's been showing 13 photos he took and developed in an exhibit titled "Calliope." Running through next Wednesday, it includes subtly nuanced portraits, still lifes and landscapes. The 11-by-17-inch photos can be purchased.

A sort of double-entendre, the title "Calliope" suggests both the Greek goddess of poetry who inspired Homer and the ability to make music by driving steam through pipes.

Using a Contax 35-millimeter camera with a Zeiss lens, de Bairos photographs seemingly commonplace subjects and scenes in ways that suggest layers of feeling simmering beneath a still surface.

In one photo an older man sits at a desk heaped with coffee cups and papers, holding in his hands a pen and a cigar. In the unlikely setting of a used car dealership, de Bairos somehow captures the man's utter serenity amid clutter.

He explained that he drove by the man's business over the Connecticut line several times over the course of a year, always asking to photograph a nearby abandoned house before he convinced the man to let him take his picture.

In a picture taken at Gates Pond in Hudson, de Bairos photographed an empty path passing between rows of trees casting long shadows that seem to signal a deeper melancholy.

"There's so much for the eyes in that picture. I really get into it," he said. "I'll take a picture of anything that strikes my fancy. When I develop them in my darkroom and see the images coming up through the chemical, it's like I just took that. It gives me great satisfaction."

Describing his more public displays, de Bairos said civic-minded citizens "should express their opinions."

A Korean War-era veteran who was stationed in Morocco, for 2-1/2 years he's been holding a series of signs in downtown Marlborough denouncing the Bush administration's war in Iraq, he said.

One sign reads "Impeach the lying ...." Using a movable piece of cardboard if children are nearby, de Bairos can change the last word describing the president to "idiot," "coward" or "bastard."

Another sign describes President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as "guilty of war crimes."

"It's so discouraging everyone goes along with what's being done by Bush. We don't have to take all this stuff he spews out," said de Bairos. "I just want people to take charge of their world and have a voice. That's how democracy works. If everybody expressed their opinion, we wouldn't be in this mess."

For the last several days, de Bairos has been ill and unable to mount his protest from his usual spot in front of Coral Seafood and Starbucks.

Born and raised in Marlborough, de Bairos considers himself a townie through and through.

He claims to be the town's "second Caesarian birth" after his sister Nita. Even in high school, he was both outgoing and civic-minded. Graduating in 1951, he was class president and captained the football and baseball teams.

While attending prep school as a prelude to earning a football scholarship to Columbia University, de Bairos was expelled for smoking and joined the Navy.

He remembered his duty as a seabee building roads in Tangiers and Casablanca as "very romantic," and said Morocco reminded him of California.

After his honorable discharge, de Bairos held a series of jobs, working for New England Power, as a custodian at the high school and running his own cleaning business. For more than a decade, he and his late wife Gloria owned and ran a downtown coffee shop. Ten years after his beloved wife died, de Bairos retired in 1995.

For de Bairos, retirement provided an opportunity to pursue things he had missed. He spent three years studying art and English at UMass-Boston, an experience he described as "enlightening."

About the same time, de Bairos began assembling and self-publishing books containing photos he'd taken of customers at his coffee shop, which he embellished with personal stories and reflections.

When he's not protesting or taking pictures, de Bairos indulges his love of reading very different sorts of writers. He named his favorite authors as Annie Dillard, Jack Kerouac and poet Seamus Heaney.

Asked how he reconciled his passion for photography and politics, de Bairos said many people embrace contrary interests. "You can be a softball player and love poetry at the same time."

Looking back, de Bairos said if he'd gone to college after high school his life might've taken a course that would've let him devote all his energies to art and politics.

"I never regretted it," he said. "Never did."


John de Bairos' exhibit "Calliope" will be at the Wayside Inn Gallery through April 30.

The inn is located at 72 Wayside Inn Road, Sudbury. The gallery is open for viewing free of charge during the inn's regular hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

For information, call 978-443-1776 or visit

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