Leslie Baker

Orange Petticoat, oil on wood panel, 40 x 30
"Sometimes the words from a poem will spur me on to paint. So a little spark will come from the words, and that probably comes from doing children’s books."

Orange Petticoat, oil on wood panel, 40 x 30″

I’m in Leslie Baker’s studio admiring a painting drenched in warm yellows called Calm Surface in the Afternoon. Baker explains that the painting is based on a small sketch she made on Chappaquiddick.

“A fall landscape?” I ask.

“Actually summer,” laughs Baker, who goes on to explain that months later, when she began to paint it, “all I remembered was that it was a hot, buggy day.”

Moving into the Night, oil on canvas, 30  x 40"

Moving into the Night, oil on canvas, 30 x 40″

That simple question revealed an interesting fact about Baker’s process: her palette often reflects how she feels, not what she sees. Which means there’s little point driving around the Vineyard in search of her secret vistas, though she has many. All her paintings, even her abstracts, feel familiar, because they were inspired by her feelings about this place.

In more than 40 years of painting, Baker has mastered an array of artistic styles, from representational watercolor illustrations to luscious landscapes and large format oil abstracts based on monotype prints — the most painterly style of printmaking. Her work continues to evolve. Lured by a poetic curiosity in her surroundings, she finds inspiration in whatever she sees, whether it’s the view from her studio, a Connecticut highway, or on a walk around the Island.

Lilac Barn, Fading Light, oil on canvas, 40  x 40"

Lilac Barn, Fading Light, oil on canvas, 40 x 40″

At times, changing circumstances have forced her to adapt her style, beginning with the birth of her daughter Emma in 1985. Before Emma was born, she had been creating oversized watercolors that demanded hours of Zen-like focus, a luxury incompatible with parenting. “When you’re working in watercolor especially, you have a lot of space to think about and deal with rather quickly, so you have to be very focused . . . When you’re working in a smaller size, it’s easier to stop.”

Birches: Seasons Spring (1)Birches: Seasons Fall (2)
Birches: Seasons Summer (2)Birches: Seasons Winter (1)

(From Birches series, clockwise from top left:) spring, summer, fall, winter, monotype prints mounted on board, 10 x 10″

Baker’s need to work in shorter spurts coincided with her desire to find colorful picture books to engage her daughter and motivated a shift in her work toward illustration. In 1987, she wrote and illustrated her first book, Third Story Cat (Little, Brown and Company). The book received the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award and launched her into a 15-year career in children’s books. She says that doing the children’s books forced her to be more productive in her artwork. “When you work commercially, you have to turn off your internal editor because it can get in the way of finishing your work…you’re on a timeline, and it’s just the best you can do at that time, and you have to be willing to let go faster.”

Creating small watercolor illustrations during this period allowed Baker to compartmentalize, seting aside the work when she needed to. It also required her to develop artwork in series, a skill that’s evident in her most recent work with monotype prints.

From Say When series, monotype print, 6  x 6"

From Say When series, monotype print, 6 x 6″

After moving to Martha’s Vineyard with her family in 1997, she gravitated to landscapes, and created small plein-air sketches that she later translated onto large oil canvases in the studio. When asked what she looks for in a landscape, Baker explains, “I’m really interested in light hitting form. My favorite light is early morning or late afternoon, when forms are a little diffused, when you’re not sure where things are, and there’s a sense of mystery.”

As a result, she doesn’t view her landscape paintings as portraits of particular places, and her titles won’t reveal the locations either. “My titles often come from poetry,” said Baker, whose Snow Covered Sisters and Edging In paintings were inspired by poets Mary Oliver and Barbara Guest. “Sometimes the words from a poem will spur me on to paint. So a little spark will come from the words, and that probably comes from doing children’s books.”

More recently, Baker was diagnosed with Babesiosis (transmitted by deer ticks and potentially fatal) and Lyme disease — both common occupational hazards for plein-air painters, which led her in an entirely new direction. Unable to create landscape studies last fall, she was left without material for winter studio painting and shifted to producing monotypes using the printing press at Featherstone Center for the Arts.

Her latest work is mostly abstract, but a viewer can still find glimpses of Island inspiration. Baker says, “I’m letting the imagery come from the process rather than thinking. I like to see what comes from mark-making.”

Watch Out, a series of small monotype prints that caught my eye, falls into this category. “These are based on the cliffs at Lucy Vincent that are falling away, and I’d just go there and watch . . . so these came from something I saw but they’re not representational,” explains Baker.

Another recently completed series captures the seasons and is based on a cluster of birches outside her studio window. The prints are mounted on wood blocks using acrylic media, and while each individual tile creates its own mystery, she prefers them viewed as a group, encompassing all four seasons.

“Once I finished these, I knew I was headed toward more abstraction.”

Baker acknowledges that some people have a hard time with abstract art, and want to see something concrete. “But there’s so much out there beyond our senses. Just think about how Beethoven composed when he couldn’t hear, right? He couldn’t hear and he was composing . . . There’s so much more than just seeing to paint, there’s all kinds of other stuff, and certainly doing the monotypes has helped move me in that direction.”

Recently, she has started translating her abstract prints into large oil paintings that capture a complexity and depth reminiscent of Mark Rothko. One such painting, Fall Birch 1, won first prize at the juried Copley Society of Art’s Sound of Color show last year. Not a bad place to start.

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