Gene Baer

Generations of Vineyard kids studied art with "Mr. Baer." So how come we’ve never heard about his art?

Gene Baer housepaint cartoon“It’s hard to remember a forgettable past,” says Gene Baer. His tone teases, yet is tinged with some truth. Whether he’s joking or not, it’s time to profile a man whose artwork has never been fully recognized.

Baer is probably best known for his three decades as an art teacher. For many of those years he traveled from school to school across the Island — Oak Bluffs to Chilmark, Edgartown to Tisbury, West Tisbury to the regional high school, and back again — schlepping art supplies with each trip.

Baer received some notoriety for writing the children’s picture book Thump, Thump, Rat-a-Tat-Tat. (Published by HarperCollins in 1991, the book had the prestigious stamp of Charlotte Zolotow as editor and was illustrated by Lois Ehlert, a Caldecott honoree and the illustrator of the children’s classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.) He published other books as well, primarily for art teachers. Yet in spite of a lifetime making and teaching art, not many people are familiar with Baer’s work as a cartoonist or as a painter with an expressionistic bent. In fact, the 87-year-old Tisbury resident said that this is the first time anyone has interviewed him about his own artwork.

Gene Baer scribble“The best thing that happened to me in my old age,” said Baer, “is that Christopher [one of Baer’s four children] decided to put up this timeline.” For Baer’s 86th birthday, Chris Baer, who is the chair of the Art, Design & Technology Department at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, created the Gene Baer Art Page on Facebook.

“About a year ago he moved his office from upstairs to downstairs and in the process unearthed a lot of old work,” Chris explained in an email. “Although he published a respectable number of books over the years, he made loads more than he could ever sell — little paper prototypes that had been sent back from his agent’s office in New York decades ago. I wanted to show them off a bit, I guess.” The Gene Baer Art Page has 339 “likes” as of this writing. According to Chris,

“After getting positive feedback to his old work on Facebook, he began picking up his pencils and brushes again, something he hadn’t done a lot of in recent years.”

Gene Baer face doodles“I start with a scribble,” explains Baer. He pulls out a small stack of papers with lines swirled recklessly across them, eager to explain the Rorschach-test approach he uses to find his subject matter. “It’s like a crystal ball. I look into these scribbles,” says Baer. “What am I looking at? What does this bring
to mind?”

When his subject is revealed, Baer will sketch over the scribbles to pull out figures that were submerged under the scrawl. A rescue mission of sorts. He then makes new sketches to create either a cartoon or a painting. While the end products are vastly different, the origins are the same: a scribble.

Gene Baer cartoon studyThe cartoons are single-panel gags. Baer has a sure line and a swift wit. In one cartoon, a well-dressed couple is seated at a table for two under a massive chandelier. The caption reads, “I don’t care if it’s the largest glass chandelier in the world —
do you mind if we eat somewhere else?” In another, a safe-cracker in the buff is seen breaking into the main office of a nudist colony.

Baer’s paintings, many of which are hung on the walls of his house, are far removed from his cartoons in both temperament and style. He generally paints in watercolor or acrylic and says, “I’m basically an expressionist.” When talking about his paintings, he is apt to confess, “I don’t know what it means…I don’t know how it was done…I haven’t the slightest idea.”

And then there are the children’s books. In spite of the success of Thump, Thump, Rat-a-Tat-Tat, Baer had a difficult time getting his other stories published. Some of these books-in-the-making are sweet and wistful, yet others have a darker humor; the type of humor that often appeals more to children than their parents. A sketch from a page in a book called Have You Seen My Finger?, which was published by Random House in 1992, has a page with a finger-footed clown, a finger-nosed witch, and a boy — can it be he is barfing up a finger?

Gene Baer safe crackerBorn in New Castle, Pennsylvania, as a young man Baer aspired to become a cartoonist. While serving in the army, he sold cartoons to a military newspaper. But after returning from the service, he was unable to sell enough of his work to make a living. “I thought I was pretty good, but nobody wanted them,” he says. He attended the Massachusetts School of Art, now called the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, or MassArt, and during a summer on the Vineyard, while working as a counselor at the Saint Pierre School, he met Jacqueline Lair, from Vineyard Haven. Two children and some half a dozen years after marrying Lair, there was an opening for an art teacher on the Vineyard, which Baer applied for and got. “I had to do all the schools,” he explains. “They called me the long distance runner.”

An assessment of the Island’s schools, conducted in the 1970s by Harvard University, described the challenge of Baer’s pedagogical task this way: “He is responsible for designing and teaching an art program for all of the high school and down-Island elementary school children. In the course of a week he sees between eight and nine hundred students, each of them for a very short period and most of them only once during the week.”

There were no designated art rooms. Baer traveled from classroom to classroom. “All the supplies had to be carried around, upstairs and downstairs,” he recalls. “Sometimes I had to teach in the cafeteria.” Most of the rooms he visited didn’t have sinks, so he couldn’t teach painting.

The Performer, oil, 24 x 36”

The Performer, oil, 24 x 36”

Which Came First?, watercolor 12 “ x 18”

Which Came First?, watercolor 12 “ x 18”

Toward the end of his tenure as an art teacher, he divided his time between the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs schools — where he was given studio space in which to teach.

The absurdity of trying to teach art to so many students inspired Baer to develop innovative programs that could be done during short classes with limited supplies: paper, paste, scissors, and crayons. He developed a method of teaching that was educational and fun for the kids, and wrote several popular instructional books for art teachers. Funny how an island so purposefully devoid of fast-food restaurants cultivated a drive-through art teacher.

Since retiring from teaching in 1990, Baer has had the time to focus on his own painting, drawing, and writing. And now that his work is online, Gene Baer, the painter and illustrator, is making a comeback. And he is anything but forgettable.

Loves Me, Loves Me Not, watercolor, 11 x 17”

Loves Me, Loves Me Not, watercolor, 11 x 17”

Boy with Peace Sign, watercolor, 5” x 7”

Boy with Peace Sign, watercolor, 5” x 7”

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