Down East 2013 ©
Photography by Sarah Baker
Visiting David Baker at home is like stepping into one of his paintings. Two white cardboard stars dangle from strings taped to the living room ceiling. A pile of Legos sits on an end table. Morning light spills in through tall windows, illuminating a chocolate Lab dozing on the sofa. You half expect to see a trinity of Baker’s portrait subjects here: a woman lounging next to the dog, and two small boys playing quietly nearby.
The elegant old farmhouse and its pine-rimmed fields have provided both subject and setting for Baker’s paintings ever since he and his wife, Sarah, moved to Hancock in 2002. At first, Baker painted landscapes and interiors without figures, along with still lifes. Gradually, however, women began appearing in his paintings, and, when the Bakers had children, two small boys.
Art is following life. As a work-at-home dad who helps care for Finnegan, 6, and Corin, 4, while Sarah works as dean of admissions for College of the Atlantic, Baker finds inspiration in the “grit, stress, and beauty” of his daily round. He smiles as he gestures at the toys on the table. “It’s hard to paint a picture of an idealized situation when you’ve got Legos and building blocks underfoot, “ Baker says. So, he puts them in his paintings.
Baker’s latest figurative paintings depict his family and friends surrounded by the clutter of everyday life: toys and shoes, paper crowns and suitcases, a life jacket. By juxtaposing figures, objects, and settings in quirky ways, he creates ambiguous narratives that compel the viewer to engage. His evocative imagery entices the eye to play over his paintings and the mind to begin inventing stories.
In July Bride, Baker depicts a young woman in a party dress reclining on the sofa, gazing dreamily into space. A toddler in diapers reaches for a toy on a table and a slightly older boy holds a butterfly net as he looks out an open door into green fields and a distant shore. A star chart of summer constellations covers a wall and a jumble of objects litters the floor: a toy airplane and a glass jar, an origami crane and blue rubber boots, and, yes, building blocks. The atmosphere of languor is so palpable in this painting, you can almost feel the summer heat and hear the crickets chirping in the field. The woman and the boys are immersed in their own worlds. A viewer can’t help but wonder what each is thinking, and whether something momentous is about to happen, or has already occurred.
“Collectors sometimes ask me what a painting is about,” says Baker, a soft-spoken and fair-skinned man in his early forties. “I want to give them something, but I also want to make sure viewers have their own experiences that are very personal to them. The whole point is that there isn’t a single story about a painting." Baker’s richly narrative work explores the lulls between life’s big events. Little seems to happen in his dream-like scenes, but currents stir in the depths. He paints the inner life with its complicated longings and tangled questions. His pictures hint at the bittersweet mystery of existence.
Baker, whose family emigrated from South Africa to the U.S. when he was a year-and-a-half old, never dreamed he’d be spending his days at an easel. He liked to draw when he was a child and took art books out of the library, but never received formal instruction when he was young. The Pennsylvania boarding school he attended for high school didn’t even have an art department. It wasn’t until his junior year at Wesleyan University that he decided to major in art. Soon, he began to discover the painters who would later influence his own work, from Dutch masters like Vermeer to American realists like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.
In 1995, Baker enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, an epicenter of American realist tradition in painting. “I immediately felt at home,” he says of the academy, where his main mentor was the painter Glenn Rudderow, whom Baker calls a “gentle, philosophical soul.” Other American realists associated with the academy who inspired Baker’s work include nineteenth-century painters Thomas Eakins and Cecilia Beaux and twentieth-century painters including Ben Kamihira and Bo Bartlett.
Shortly after he graduated in 1999, Baker visited Bartlett in his studio just outside Philadelphia. Known for his iconic figurative paintings, Bartlett painted a small portrait of Baker to demonstrate a few techniques for bringing painted surfaces to life. Bartlett has commented on the quality of sprezzatura, or “studied nonchalance,” in Baker’s compositions. The expression, attributed to Italian Renaissance man Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth century how-to, The Book of the Courtier, is apt. The seeming lack of effort in Baker’s elegant, modest paintings belie their complexity and depth. His pictures don’t shout overt statements; they whisper compelling questions. That’s what makes them so intriguing.
In Winter People, Baker depicts a woman wearing a down jacket over a wedding dress perched on the tailgate of a pickup truck parked at the beach. She gazes up at an overcast sky as a small boy behind her holds a pinwheel to the wind and another boy sits on his tricycle looking down the shore away from the viewer. An overturned dinghy rests on the beach and a pirate flag has been planted in the sand.
The picture feels at once light-hearted and melancholy. At first glance, the subjects seem to be enjoying a day at the beach, even though it’s winter. Look again, and the body language of the woman and the older boy suggest they long to be elsewhere. By juxtaposing these figures with a scattering of objects on a stark landscape, Baker evokes the tension between the freedom and isolation of living year-round in a remote place like rural Maine.
“It’s what we do in winter,” Baker says of the painting. “We wonder about what it’s like to not be here.”
The narrative in Baker’s paintings feels so believable, his scenes seem to be painted directly from life, but this is an illusion. For Winter People, he had Finnegan ride his tricycle around his studio until he found the right pose. He fashioned the pirate flag after one he spotted by the side of the road and made up the landscape. In other words, Baker’s scenes are completely invented. He’s like a fiction writer with a paintbrush.
“In the evolution of my painting, my earlier pictures are more like poems in which I’m trying to convey an impression,” Baker says. “My longer term goal is a novel — a group of related works that have a much deeper and more considered visual and emotional energy.”
An avid fan of children’s book illustrations by N.C. Wyeth and others, Baker often finds inspiration while reading to his sons, discovering archetypes and imagery that he later puts into his paintings. Baker’s creative switch also has been tripped by everything from ideas his wife Sarah has given him to the way light strikes an object to the music he listens to while he paints, usually Americana like Gillian Welch and Crooked Still and neo-traditional bluegrass. “One could think of my inspiration as the flow of ideas and emotional energy through the world,” Baker says. “I gather it from many sources to make a painting and then hand it off to someone else to unpack in their own mind.”
Once Baker lands on an idea for a painting, he draws the main elements on paper and transfers them onto the canvas. He lays in the shadows and tones using a technique called grisaille and then builds up many thin layers of translucent color. He often adds images as the painting evolves on his canvas. His typically classical compositions are meticulously rendered, but with a freshness that transcends mere depiction. “David has a unique touch. It is aware of the history of the American realist tradition, but it doesn’t rely on anyone else’s mark-making,” painter Bo Bartlett says. “He has developed his very own language. There is an economy of means in his touch. Nothing is over described, but it is right on that edge — always enough without being too much.”
Baker’s paintings, which often evoke the sensation of chancing upon a private moment in the lives of his subjects, are growing increasingly provocative and complex. A recent example from his 2010 show at the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth is Burn Permit, a triptych in which a female figure flanked by two boys sits on the porch steps, looking away from a brush fire burning precariously close to the house. A small toy boat that appears to have been forgotten lying next to the burn pile adds to the picture’s tension. One boy, wearing a red hooded top, points a small bow and arrow at the ground, while the other rests his head on the woman’s lap. The third panel depicts a young boy facing away from the flames as he listens to headphones. A garden hose next to the fire makes the viewer want to grab it to douse the flames.
“I wanted to convey the feeling of walking the fine line between protecting the boys and allowing them to experience the world and learn their own lessons,” Baker says. “The toy boat, which I actually made just for the painting, reinforces the looming danger of the fire.”
In exploring the personal, Baker’s paintings illuminate the universal. This is what all great art does, but the best artists offer us another gift as well: a glimpse of the world as they see it. Baker reminds us that the ineffable can shimmer through the ordinary when we’re least expecting it.
If You Go:
To see more of David Baker's work, visit the Courthouse Gallery, 6 Court St., Ellsworth. 207-667-6611. www.courthousegallery.com