Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Interview with John Baker @ Vudu Lounge, West Chester PA

I was in High Street Café, no, the Vudu Lounge but wait the menu said High Street Café to interview the most interesting man in the world. Well ok, maybe not the world, but to West Chester University he is. After asking the waitress where I was, she confirmed my guess that it was High Street Café. They had done some renovating, more sunlight coming in and a bar to boot. Can’t go wrong there.  It was Monday around lunchtime and they allow BYOB. Monday’s aren’t looking so bad. It was me and a bottle of Big House “The Line Up” waiting for the man of the hour, a man that wears many hats, [soft drum roll please] John Baker! At West Chester University he is the Chair of the Art Department; this month at Serpentine Gallery he is an artist, and to me he is a victim. John found some time in his busy schedule to sit down at High Street Café on High Street of all the places in West Chester. A great place to sit down, share some stories, and eat some great spicy Cajun food.

If you haven’t believed the hype so far, let me introduce you to John Baker, one of the nicest, most generous gentlemen I have ever met. You would swear he was southern, but there ain’t no accent. He’d give you the boots off his feet or the jean jacket off his back. He has a quiet and reserved temperament, yet quietly knows everyone and seems to be helping out on some board or committee. If you find him at work in his office he usually has a few students waiting outside in the hall contemplating their life choices or at least class choices. Out of his office, he is polishing his exotic cowboy boot collection, tinkering on a motorcycle, or waxing one of his bowls. Keeping a strict schedule helps him manage his time. It is on Fridays that he is in his studio focusing on his bowls. Vessels are the more appropriate term.

I introduce you to John Baker.

1.     How did you get started making art?
I actually started, I guess you could say, somewhat by accident. I never really had a strong interest in the arts through high school. I was more of a jock, you could say. But my first year in college I was a bio–chem major, and the friends I became acquainted with were all art majors. We’re talking about a time period where things were fairly open and casual. So at the art studio, I ended up making a visit more and more often. I saw someone throwing on the wheel, thought that was interesting. A friend of mine was a print maker, so I would basically hang out and see what she was doing. So just through osmosis I became very interested in the arts.

2.     Did you receive any formal art training? Where and what did you major in?
Yes, I graduated with a bachelors in studio art and a MFA in fine arts, so I had a fairly extensive career in higher education. I started as an undergrad as a bio–chem major and left that institution. Went on to be a potter and found I really had to go back to school. At that point in time I had enough credits that I only needed a year and a half at West Chester University. I came to finish up my bachelor’s degree at West Chester. I completed my degree in ‘74 and was asked at this point in time if I would be willing to stay and teach part time. At the time, I had been accepted to east Carolina state university for my MFA. So I thought I’d stay at West Chester teach a year, maybe two, and pay off some of my student loans, and again this was back in 74, my loan is paid off!

3.     Describe your work in general for the readers?
I consider myself a vessel maker. My work really encompasses influences from my environment, mostly my travels. I try to travel on a regular basis that is where a lot of my influences come from the southwest and they have really grown to more of the third world opportunities.

4.     What do you find exciting about a bowl? 
Actually the bowl, if you look back in history, has a very ceremonial context where the bowl and the vessel were always affiliated with ritual whether it is ceremonial or everyday appearances. To me the bowl is a container, which enables me to create the imagery or the sculptural objects in the interior.

5.     You are currently exhibiting at Serpentine Gallery in West Chester. Do you have  theme to the work in the show?
The show is called Influences, where three of us from West Chester, three faculty members; Gus Sermas, Bell Holland and myself, all selected three past alum who are full time artists in the field. Looking at the exhibition I’m wondering who actually influenced who. I think it’s going to be a great show.

6.     “How do you decide when an artwork is done?"
Most of the cases, I am doing three or four pieces at one time. So I’m not just working on one individual piece. So they will all culminate as finished pieces usually within a week or two. I may be working on a piece for four months or five months, sometimes it is hard to identify when it is complete. The beauty of the materials I work in, much like canvas, I can go back and rework the surface. So often I may set aside one of the forms for two years and then rework it. So as far as when a piece is done, it’s probably done when it goes to an exhibition or a show.

7.     You are also the Dean of the Art Department at West Chester University. What is your toughest job? 
Well first I should say that I am actually the Chair of the Art Department, I work for the Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. I work for my students really. Probably my toughest job is coordinating, right now, our future as a department. We are in the process of national accreditation, and we are moving to a new building. So there is a lot of change on the horizon.

8.     What is the easiest job?
Well maybe not easiest, but most pleasurable, is awarding scholarship money to the students.

9.     How long have you been there?
Well I started in ‘74 so I guess I passed the 35-year mark.

10  Are you living the dream?
I really am living the dream. I think to be able to have the type of job I have, have the support of my family and my wife, be able to work in the studio and know that when I go to the University I am doing a job I love.

11  Friday is your studio day. Do you have any habits or morning routines you do before going to the easel?
Usually Friday morning I get up around 7 o’clock or so, I just have my coffee, I start my day with half a pot of coffee and yogurt. From there I’ll go up to the studio and actually assess where I am with what exhibition, what show, or what commission is upcoming.

12  What tip do you have for an art student going out into the world of art?
Well for any student going out into the art world, who really is serious about the fine arts, they have to understand the commitment to the profession. Things don’t come easy but they do have to be committed, be patient, and sacrifice a little.

13  What is your favorite food?
My wife’s meals, anything she cooks. I guess you could say one of my favorite foods is what we are eating right now. Eating Cajun, I love spicy foods.

14  What are you eating right now?
Well what I have right now is a walnut encrusted chicken breast with a little bit of Cajun sauce. Outstanding, I highly recommend it.

15  Rumor has it you like dark spirits and you have a barrel of Makers Mark with your name on it? True?
That is true, you can dispel that rumor, it actually is true. I do enjoy a spirit now and then. Maker’s Mark is one but I do have to emphasize to those who may be reading that Crown Royal is my top preference.

16   You also collect motorcycles. True? What is your favorite?
True, my Harley is my favorite.

17  On campus you are usually seen wearing cowboy boots. What is the appeal towards cowboy boots?
I’ve been wearing boots for over 35 years. I just find them very comfortable. I like collecting boots, especially exotic ones I do not own. And they just have a really good fit to my foot.

18  What’s the most exotic?
Lets see, probably my eel skin, I do have elephant. I am somewhat reserved in telling you all of the exotic ones since some may be endangered. I do have crocodile, python. Oh the list goes on. It’s quite a zoo.

19  Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
A lot of my influences go back to my college career,  so people like Jack Troy, Mitch Lyons, and Victory Spinsky. They all had a prominent role in my vision, in my aesthetic today.

20  Your proudest moment?
My proudest moment has to be with my children for sure, and my grandchildren, just seeing them grow and mature, kids have been in my life most of my life.

21  What was your mother right about?
My mother was right about if I really want to pursue art and that’s my true love then I should, even though she disagreed with it.

22  Your best birthday?
My 50th birthday when Sally through this huge party for me and 150 people came out to help celebrate and tip a glass.
Dock of the bay
Well this was back in the days of the spectrum when they had dance concerts and it was probably an Alman Brothers type concert
First date, hmmmmm, I have to go back in the memory, yeah it was good.
Plane ride
First plane ride. We were infants flying back from San Diego to Philadelphia.
Piece of art you sold
The very first piece of artwork was a ceramic piece that I was just amazed someone bought. I was a student at the time.
I paused often so John could finish his Cashew Chicken Sandwich, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Either he wanted to share it with his wife or I asked too many questions, but he took a portion of it home. I on the other hand had no problem finishing my Johnny Cash Burger. I was intrigued by the name and the thought of a ring of fire left in my mouth. It was a blackened filet burger topped with Folsom Blue Cheese. Come on, the humor alone was reason enough to get it.

With the bottle of wine gone and his schedule filled we returned to the school for the speed round of questions. 


Monday, March 21, 2011

Silent like the “T” in tsunami

It’s Sunday and I am supposed to write my blog. I thought all week, and all day today about what I was going to write. Nothing! I came up with nothing, but I can’t write about nothing. Seinfeld did that already. I could write about the politics of the times but I have never really publicly voiced an opinion. Do I really want to start a debate between my 394 friends? Passing posts and hitting like, even though it is fun and many times informative, it isn’t comparable to sitting across from someone and watching a smile come across their face because of something you said. Or on the other end, a comment that falls flat because they disagree.  There is that uncomfortable reaction in human nature that flows quickly through your body and ends with a silent awkwardness. Then the subject quickly changes to the weather.

So I blog on this Sunday in protest of something that happened this week. I blog in excitement because of something that happened this week. I silently praise something that has happened this week. I share something that happened today. I invited three sets of people today to my studio for brunch. They didn’t know each other but I believed they could share something and maybe benefit from four hours of casual conversation. There was no agenda, just a chance to introduce a few people that I know who share an interest in my life and in my art.

In a world of protest, excitement, praise, and sometimes a difference of opinion it ends up being about real people, real conversation and body language. Of course there is always libations and food, the common denominator, to bring all the people together. I base all intellectual conversation on how long it takes to reference pop culture. We had wonderful conversation for 3.5 hours until we mentioned Charlie Sheen, and I couldn’t help but talk about Fun Fun and Friday

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Am I old or productive?

I reflected upon the past week and am looking ahead at this week with a sense of satisfaction. Yet I can’t decide if I’m just getting older or more productive. Here is my argument; I actually have somewhat of a schedule or others call it, a routine.

I’ll use my grandmother as an example. She always tells everyone in that proud grandmother brag book sort of way “He is an artist.” Bless her soul, she is old but awesome. Here is a little story that should sum her up. Last summer we were sitting around the pool enjoying the sunshine. She had been staying at the studio and really had a chance to see my work and what I do. My gram turns to me and asks, “So who buys your stuff? It doesn’t really go with anything.” I tried to reply but she quickly said, “We love you, but…well God bless ya.”

Ok. That’s my gram. She has long been retired and now has a routine. Tuesday is laundry. Wednesday is change the bed sheets. Lunch is at noon promptly followed by tea. Some more laundry and cleaning with dinner at 5:00, followed by reading the paper and the news, more television, their favorite shows, then bed. Repeat.  This is a great way to get things done but ask them to go out to an impromptu lunch or throw a wrench in the plan and all goes to pot. The response is usually, “Oh no honey, we can’t go because I have to do laundry.” Really, how backed up is their week going to be? Is this being old or having a productive routine?

Then I started to look at my week. On Sunday I write my blog. Monday I type and post my blog. Later its out to lunch and some errands and then back to the studio to catch up on emails.  On Tuesday I catch up on everything I didn’t do Monday and then I paint. Wednesday is my paint day; with no one around I sequester myself to the studio. I really try to not check email; there are no meetings and no appointments, just painting. Thursday is a little more flexible. It usually involves some marketing, calling galleries, updating the website, bills and maybe some painting. On Friday I post the painting I’ve been working on Facebook, clean up the studio, and usually have a meeting or two. On Saturday it’s about family time, yard work, or kids sporting events. Sunday comes and repeat (see beginning of paragraph).

Now here is the dilemma; I feel like I’m being productive! And, the routine can even be broken down more. I wake up, get the kids to school, go to the gym or run, have my coffee, read the newspaper, (fill with day of the week). Then I have a 3:00 espresso, (back to day of the week), and at 6:00 it’s dinner time.

That’s my week. But let’s not forget, I usually call my gram on Sundays to see how she is and how her week went. I call my mom on Monday to tell her how my week is going and then we reminisce about the time I was little and the teachers liked my drawings; even predicted that I would be an artist

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Herding Cats

Besides being the name of a decent bottle of cheap wine it is how I describe working with artists. For the past two weeks I have been working on two projects that involve twenty-four artists, myself included. The first brainstorm I had was to create a show of enormous proportions. Artists would be able to trade and sell work; the artists would be in every gallery in town. Gallery owners would be selling loads of work; collectors would be snatching up great pieces at below market value in the name of charity. It’s a win-win for everyone around, but I need twenty artists well nineteen because I convinced myself early on that I would do it. I now have to coddle, schmooze, appease and ask kindly for them to participate.

Artists are a weary brew of people. I say this with the utmost respect and compassion, because I am one. We march to a different beat. I don’t think any artist I know owns a watch. The world goes by as one ponders how daylight reflects the colors we try so hard to match on our palette. There are a multitude of personalities; some artists even have multiple personalities. There are egos that need stroking, doors that need widening so their heads can fit, pedestals brought in so they can stand. Then there are the artists that need coaxing, and a little encouragement because they have never been recognized for their talent and passion. These are the most easy to work with. But it is this mix of alley cats, tomcats and kittens that are really going to make this show a success.

My second project involves four artists myself included.  The dynamic of cats in this group are a bit different. We are more like alley cats that are coming from different boroughs in search of a bigger bowl of milk. Working with a smaller herd, personalities are easily relinquished to give favor to each others strengths. The screeching and clawing catfights don’t happen when there is a prize insight. Getting these four cats to play in the dog eat dog world of business has been a challenge. All the dogs seem to have watches and schedules. They eat regularly unlike cats, which saunter around taking time out to roll in catnip and will eat when they want.

One thing I have learned about herding cats is if you give them a bottle of Herding Cats they don’t leave. Don’t stray, if you join the cats you will be delighted with the conversation and see the world from a different vantage point

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Are you done?

The last blog post and comments made me question my own question. I asked artists in my interviews, “How do you know when a painting is finished?” There are so many good answers.  Then there are the artists that I didn’t interview - Picasso said “Woe to you the day it is said that you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul – to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.” DaVinci said “Art is never finished, only abandonded.” I’m starting to go this route now. I always thought I just knew when a piece was done.  It was a point in time where everything was figured out and nothing else was needed. The final task and ceremonial end was a signature in the right hand corner. No questions asked, bottom right, if there is a signature, it’s done. That has slowly changed. My signature began to move around. It became obscure and out of sight, mixed in with all the other brush strokes. It was still last but it did not need to be seen.

Once the piece is signed, that’s  it. It is to be admired, sold, and to be forever a mark in my oeuvre.  Good or bad it was painted as if it were in stone. I was capturing the careful accumulation of brush strokes. If the type, the figure, or the eyes were a little off it didn’t matter.  It was signed. It was done.

Not sure what changed but that theory is out the window. It seems I can’t keep my hands off anything that is left lying in the studio.  First it started with an older painting that I just wasn’t fond of. I thought it worked at the time but after being passed over by galleries and sitting in storage, I took it out placed it in the sun and let it melt.  Then I brought it in the studio and helped it a bit more with the blowtorch. After all it wasn’t stone. I’m painting in wax! I melted it and used the new melted abstract background as a new starting point.  It’s about as close to abstract as I’ve gotten. I had so much fun! Anything that was left in storage found its way to the front yard then to the torch. It has and continues to fill my palimpsest series.

My newest attempt at finishing a finished painting came last week. When I received a painting back from the gallery. They had the painting for over a year, so many close sales but never a settled deal. I couldn’t  wait to get it back. I already had ideas on what I was going to do.  I unwrapped it, took out the spray paint, the torch, and fired up the palette. I was going to get to work or get revenge. Between us, it may have been a little of both.

So here it sits, transformed for the better or worse. Better I hope, because I am not going back. It’s been published in books, seen by countless collectors, traveled through many states, shown at various galleries, and now is ready to go out again into the art world.

In conclusion, I’d have to say a piece isn’t finished until it’s sold. But I did hear that Jeff Koons asked one of his collectors for his balloon dog back because he didn’t like the color.