Bill Baker | Colors of the World

Bill Baker’s paintings chronicle the indigenous peoples he meets on his global adventures

By Norman Kolpas

Bill Baker, Piggyback Lollipop, pastel, 23 x 32.

Bill Baker, Piggyback Lollipop, pastel, 23 x 32.

This story was featured in the January 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

They traveled on foot for many miles, winding through the steep chasms of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico’s Chihuahua state. The people of the Tarahumara tribe were headed by the thousands to the town of Norogachi to celebrate Semana Santa, Holy Week, with their own unique Easter rituals. The men would dance in the church plaza, their legs and torsos decorated with dots of white paint, their heads adorned with cloth headbands topped with crowns of feathers.

The Tarahumara women presented their own quieter spectacle. Arriving to observe the men and mind the children, they marched across a rustic bridge to the plaza, wearing voluminous skirts, shawls, and headscarves dyed in the brightest of colors and joyous patterns.

Close by, but at a respectful distance, artist Bill Baker stood intently observing the spectacle. With his camera, he snapped frame after frame of reference images. In a sketchbook, he dashed off quick drawings to capture the participants’ gestures and movements.

Weeks later, back in his 1,000-square-foot studio in the village of Corrales, NM, Baker prepped a horizontal 3-by-8-foot Masonite panel with layers of black gesso and pumice. Beginning with a white pastel pencil, he first drew out the shapes of a composition he had already meticulously worked out at a smaller scale. “I map out and accurately contour-draw every detail, down to each shape in the faces and the highlights in the clothing,” he says.

Then, working slowly and fastidiously from left to right—so he wouldn’t smudge each figure as he completed it—he spent the next six weeks creating ACROSS THE BRIDGE TO NOROGACHI, a vibrant scene of Tarahumara women with their children, heading barefoot across rustic wooden planks to witness the joyous, sacred ceremonies. The epic work was soon purchased by a couple who own a gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM, and it now hangs in their home.

“I’ve always had an innate anthropologist in me,” says Baker. Early on in his adulthood, he “discovered the life of travel, meeting new people and new cultures.” Now, at the age of 56, he reckons he has visited “about 55 countries and counting”—with a particular passion for capturing cultures that have clung to centuries-old traditions in the contemporary world, from the jungles of the Amazon and Africa to the steppes of Mongolia.

Baker’s life began far less adventurously. He grew up in the town of Fishkill, NY, not far from the Hudson River, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. Although he enjoyed drawing during his grade-school years, “You couldn’t tell my stick figures from anybody else’s,” he says with a laugh. “I was a so-so talent.”

But something profound clicked for him one day in high-school art class around the age of 17. “I heard a voice inside my head saying that this is what I need to do and this is what I am,” he says. “I was called to be an artist as surely as a pastor is called to the ministry.”

Before answering that call, however, he heeded another one right after graduation: the urge to travel. Baker and a buddy made their way south to Florida, where, “too proud to go back home, I stuck it out for a year,” he says, sometimes subsisting only on fruit picked from backyard trees.

Once back home, he enrolled as an art major at Dutchess Community College. “A year of life-drawing class is the only formal training I’ve ever had,” Baker notes. “But it really set forth the groundwork for my figurative work. I remember we worked for one month just on the hand in all its complexity.” Meanwhile, he also gained a skill that would help him support himself more reliably, working alongside his father as a construction carpenter finishing the ceilings of office buildings in New York City. It was work he could pick up whenever he needed it, while he embarked on the globetrotting life of his dreams. “I discovered my love of travel and meeting new people from different cultures,” he says.

Baker bought a van in Australia and spent seven months sleeping in it while traversing the continent. During a year spent in Hawaii, he made a meager living selling small $25 paintings of hula dancers and feeding himself with fish he caught and pineapples he picked in the wild. With a friend who played drums in a band Baker had formed, he journeyed by car, boat, bus, horse, and mule into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia to seek out the remote Arhuaco tribe. He lived peacefully among them until his bandmate thoughtlessly snapped a photo of the camera-shy people, who chased them away armed with spears, machetes, and bows and arrows. Baker chuckles at comparisons that have been made to Indiana Jones. “I love the character,” he says, “and I have had a few adventures that were pretty hair-raising.”

Despite those journeys, Baker says, in his 30s he was “still an artist without a subject matter.” And then, “just all of a sudden, I had this epiphany: Why don’t I paint the people I’m seeing on my travels?”

Around the same time, influenced by two artists he admires, Baker began to evolve the particular artistic style for which he is now known and admired. Works by master painter George Carlson, who uses highly gestural, almost abstract strokes of pastel to create realistic landscapes and figurative works, “sparked in me the urge to define shapes with finely detailed, mosaic-like patterns of color.” And the bravura pastel palette and simple, self-assured landscapes of the late Mary Silverwood—“a brilliant colorist” who lived not far from his New Mexico home and became a friend during the final decade of her life—taught him to be acutely mindful about his own compositions and colors.

Like those two inspirations, Baker gradually began to work predominately in pastels. “The time it takes for oil paints to dry stunted the gestures I try to capture in my paintings,” he explains. “It hindered me from going with the flow and capturing the expressionist feeling I was after.” Baker notes that he can still achieve complex color effects with pastels, either by blending one color into another or by spraying a fixative on a work in progress and then layering more colors on top. “For all practical purposes,” he sums up, “they are just like paints.”

With his subject matter defined and his style and medium developed, Baker’s fine-art career has lately progressed from strength to strength. His multiple-award-winning paintings are now found in private collections worldwide, and some of his large works are at Oklahoma’s Museum of the Red River and the Albuquerque International Airport.

Last June, he enjoyed a more deeply personal triumph when he brought his son, Bryson, now 14, along with him on an adventure journey for the first time. They traveled more than 16,000 feet high into the Andes, in Peru’s Sinakara Valley, to witness the religious festival called Quyllurit’i (meaning “bright white snow” in the Quechua language). He documented the experience in paintings including INCA STONE STAIRCASE.

Baker also now looks forward to his endeavors being documented in an episodic film project with the working title of Artist Adventurer from Emmy Award-winning producer/director Tim Aydelott. Scheduled to begin production this coming fall for broadcast on the Travel Channel, each of the 10 episodes will follow Baker as he visits a different “disappearing culture,” starting in Mongolia, learning about the people and their region as he completes a painting based on that journey.

Despite such manifest success, Baker remains both modest and deeply grateful. “I’m a believer in God, and I believe we have a purpose here,” he says, harking back to the personal, near-religious calling to art he felt at the age of 17. “Because I’m getting so much from the people I visit, I want to give back.” To that end, for example, when he learned several years ago that a Tarahumara town he had visited was suffering from a severe drought, he donated thousands of pounds of beans, rice, and other staples, which he helped trailer into the remote site with his own fleet of five all-terrain vehicles. When water has been needed, he’s had wells drilled. In extreme cold spells, he’s delivered blankets. When a village suffered a shortage of firewood, he brought its people a dozen solar ovens to help cook their food. “I don’t want to be intrusive,” he says, “and I always want to go in giving. I’d like to be remembered as a person who lived an extraordinary life, found his gift early in life, gave his poetry—my art—to the world, and made my contribution to something that’s good.”

Michael McCormick Gallery, Taos, NM; Acosta Strong Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.

This story was featured in the January 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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