Tree, Lawrence Baker

The best visual artists tend to tilt the status quo of perception, making us see a little differently. The worker in this age-old exchange between mind and matter renews human understanding, finding form anew, feeling the vertigo and vibrato of the edges of things, like a beachcomber on the shore of changing consciousness, as change and sameness wash by turn against human generations.

Not every artist is able to contribute a new angle to the slant of an era’s seeing, yet there are some who do just that. It can be hard to recognize them, maybe because what they’re doing often seems off-base, somehow unfamiliar—and therefore wrong. And of course, these innovators are rare. Still, in our time and place Lawrence Baker may be one such unusual, important soul.

Baker is an American artist working in a contemporary vein who has been making his paintings and drawings at his home in Cleveland Heights for several decades. After earning undergraduate and graduate arts degrees from Kent State University in the 1970s, Baker went on with his life, continuing to grow, with his brush in his hand. For a number of years, he painted the faces and fashions of the passing eras. He observed and rendered his friends, his beautiful wife, and soon his growing daughters. He discovered and mastered the shapes and intersections of colors and limbs, fabrics and hairstyles as they passed before his eyes. Sometimes he used a camera lens as a point of reference, at other times people posed in his studio. And like the observational painters before him, he painted himself.

Lawrence Baker was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1947, and has lived and worked as an art instructor in the Cleveland municipal school system for more than half his life. Despite challenges of all kinds, he has in fact achieved a notable career in the visual arts. Although not yet “famous” in the Art in America centerfold way, or in an international art fair sense, many institutions, collectors, galleries, and curators around the country have taken note of his accomplishments.

The ups and downs of Baker’s eventful life are detailed in a fascinating book, Middle Passage: The Artistic Life of Lawrence Baker, which Baker coauthored with the artist and writer Louis B. Burroughs, Jr. Published in 2013, the book’s laconic, mainly first-person account of growing up and coming of age brings to life the desperate, paranoid atmosphere of 1950s Jacksonville. Raised in part by his mother Chilonia—a hardworking and, Baker concludes, courageous woman of Gullah Geechee heritage originally from the South Carolina coastal region—and by an alcoholic older brother (who introduced the young boy to the world of drawn images), Baker faced challenges beyond even those presented by racial prejudice and economic hardship.

Baker observes, “You set goals in your life. I’ve achieved some of the things I wanted to do.”

One of these was to find his long-absent father, who was known to live in Cleveland. Another was to become a professional artist.

Louis B. Burroughs, Jr.’s book goes into some detail about selected periods and moments in Baker’s life. These highly readable and engaging tales are adaptations of Baker’s own accounts, interspersed with a loose history of African American art, from the early days of slavery through the Black Arts Movement, all the way to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kara Walker. Baker’s influences along the way included at least one of his teachers at KSU, the venerable Joseph O’Sickey who became a friend and mentor, and Alfred Bright, the African American abstract expressionist painter who taught generations of students at Youngstown State University. During his college years Baker also admired and had a chance to speak with Alex Katz, who encouraged his work and advised him to experiment with style.

His first solo exhibit, held around the time he earned his MA, was mounted at the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Ohio, in 1980. That show was a vindication and a well-earned tribute to a very promising artist. Yet, as he notes in his book, it was followed by a long string of rejections.

During more recent decades, while he was steadfastly teaching in Cleveland’s public schools (he retired in 2005 after nearly forty years), he was accepted into dozens of prestigious exhibitions around the country, presenting his work in many solo exhibitions. Venues included the Erie Art Museum, Cleveland State University, Massillon Museum of Art, Alabama A&M University, and on three occasions at Karamu House. His work is preserved at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and it should also be mentioned that Baker was awarded a grant for 2017-18 by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation of New York—one of the more prestigious badges of recognition available for artists in our time.

But it’s the work that matters. Some years ago Baker stopped painting and began devoting his energies to works in graphite—large drawings made on heavy fine art paper. Some show the human figure (there’s an hypnotic self portrait), though most are depictions of weeds and fields, or trees and the forest floor. These are pictures that demand the viewer’s attention almost as if they were made as performance pieces rather than mere drawings.

They’re puzzling, because they avoid the choices that most artists would make, given the subject matter. Rather than imposing compositional strategies, like a push-pull dynamic, to capture the eye, Baker presents each stick and stone, root and rock and branch as they lie and tumble through the seasons, bound in their discreet forms. Baker’s drawings are meditations, rather than exercises, and their artistry lies in the force of concentration that they can communicate, and the more subtle movements that begin (almost) to shudder and crawl from one inch of cream-colored paper to the next.

To sit in the woods and draw can introduce the eye and the hand to the earth. It’s a manner of seeing that slows the great centrifuge of the modern world, modifies the gravity and weight of things and restores them, somewhat at least, to themselves. Probably Baker’s result, which seems almost like musical notation, could not be achieved with paint and color. Certainly, in his hands the X-ray quality of the drawn line is able to speak of stillness and motion in one sharply taken, long-held breath. This, it may be, is part of Baker’s contribution to fine art, to another way of seeing.