by Nancy E. McCarthy
After a 40-year career as an educator and fine artist, Chris Baker retired from teaching in 2008. Retirement freed up much time for more painting, travel, and competing in triathlons. Baker finds rigorous physical training to be a healthy counterpoint to standing in his Weedsport home studio and painting for up to six hours daily. This prolific artist produces 50 to 75 works annually.
Gouache, a versatile opaque watercolor, is Baker’s preferred medium. Though he previously worked extensively in oil, acrylic, and watercolor, Baker likes gouache because of its flexibility, low odor, and non-toxic nature. While traditional watercolor is transparent, gouache can be mixed to be thin or creamy, or even applied thickly with a palette knife. Using different textures and layers, Baker can create realistic paintings akin to a mixed-media work.
“He starts the process with a very active and sporadic abstract wash,” says Bradley Butler, gallery director of Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs. “This has an immediate impact on the composition he ends up with, and it also makes for an interesting texture in the finished piece. There is often evidence of this first layer even after the painting is finished.”
Baker, 74, has been an artist since childhood. His mother, a hobbyist landscape painter, was a role model early on. She encouraged his interest in art by enrolling him in art lessons. Baker’s favorite subject matter is also landscape (both rural and urban), with meticulous attention to color and light.
Baker graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1968. There were scant opportunities for his initial goal of magazine and book illustration, so he shifted his focus to teaching. It was a great fit. Baker characterizes his first job out of college as an Auburn School District art teacher as “one of the most joyous decisions of my life.”
He also continued to paint and exhibited his work at the Muggleton Art Gallery in Auburn. Gallery owners Robert and Virginia Muggleton, who were childless, took Baker under their wing. When Baker fell in love with Barbara Bisbee – another Auburn teacher – both became so close to the Muggletons that their 1972 wedding reception was hosted at the gallery. Although Robert passed away in 2010, the couple still visits weekly with Virgina, who is almost 100 years old!
College and teaching provided draft deferment status during some of the tumultuous Vietnam War years. But after a year-and-a-half in the Auburn schools, Baker received his draft notice. He completed the school year and reported for training.
Baker left an artistic lifestyle and serious romance behind to face a lot of frightening unknowns. Although trained as an Army infantryman, he ultimately wasn’t exposed to much action. Assigned as a Military Police headquarters clerk because he could type, Baker also often served as an all-night bunker guard stationed at the perimeter of headquarters, and traveled with his commanding officer as an armed aide around Vietnam and in Laos.
Exposure to a new culture provided fresh inspiration for the artist. Although Barbara sent him sketchbooks and acrylic paints, Baker also drew with ballpoint pens on paper bags, capturing landscapes featuring Army vehicles or Vietnamese locals going about their daily lives. Works were sent back to the states and sold through the Muggleton Gallery.
It was during his Army stint that Baker became physically disciplined and started running. This eventually lead to cross training with a coach to compete in triathlons (swim, bike, run). “I find that painting and exercise are a great balance for me,” says Baker. He won first place in his age group during the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Omaha, Nebraska, and has qualified for and participated in other nationals as well as world championships held in Chicago, Lausanne, Switzerland, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The Artist’s Process
Baker takes photographs and interprets these images on brown paper in pencil and white charcoal. Next, he paints a rough base layer of light and dark areas on cold pressed illustration board, according to the sketch. Referring to the photo and sketch, Baker draws over the base layer to define the chosen subject. Then he paints, working with a limited color palette based on a selection of warm or cool color temperatures.
His work is representational, but Baker takes liberties with his depictions. “When I paint landscapes or cityscapes, I often put figures in the piece to act as a scale, helping to bring the subject matter to life.”
Baker’s primary framer is Edgewood Gallery owner Cheryl Chappel. “He has an amazing drawing ability as well as painting style, incorporating precision and impression at the same time,” says Chappel. She frames each piece based on colors, textures and subject matter.
After almost two years in Vietnam, Baker returned home and married Barbara. They had a daughter, Alice, in 1975. Baker attained his Master of Fine Arts degree from RIT and taught art in the Cato-Meridian schools until his 2008 retirement. “During all my teaching years, my personal focus was on my own painting, so I have always been actively involved in art and exhibiting,” he says. His work has been exhibited at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn (where he has taught art classes) and widely shown at many galleries, including West End Gallery in Corning, Oxford Gallery in Rochester, Gallery 3040 in Old Forge, Edgewood Gallery in Syracuse, and Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs.
Because of the impressive volume of work that Baker produces, he holds a biennial art sale out of his Weedsport home. He is currently represented year-round at Gallery 3040 and Oxford Gallery.
Baker has a busy spring ahead. On May 1, two of his paintings commissioned by Clifton Springs Hospital will be unveiled in the hospital’s renovated lobby as part of a new collection of historical village depictions. On May 2, his painting Home-Less will debut in a multi-artist exhibition at Oxford Gallery in Rochester. The themed show, “Coming Home”, runs through June 13 with an opening reception to meet the artists on Saturday, May 9 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. In between, he’ll be training for the Keuka Lake Triathlon on June 14.
For Baker, it’s the perfect combination of art and athleticism.
For more information about Chris Baker, visit paintingsbychrisbaker.com.