Suzie Baker | Defining Beauty

Suzie Baker’s lively canvases convey beauty and authenticity in all kinds of subjects

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Suzie Baker, Mill at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, oil, 20 x 24.

Suzie Baker, Mill at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, oil, 20 x 24.

This story was featured in the May 2019 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2019 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

The May sky was gray and the wind whipped through the naked trees as Suzie Baker circled a weather-worn water mill near Santa Fe. A slash of sunlight poked through the dark shadows, illuminating the stucco structure. Intuitively she lifted her camera and clicked away. Reference material for future works, she thought to herself. She couldn’t wait to return to her studio to recapture the atmospheric mood and light in oil paint. “The scene at the mill was on my short list to revisit later,” she says. “I wanted to communicate the wintry look and capture the pensive atmosphere.”

The historic mill is on the grounds of the legendary El Rancho de las Golondrinas (Ranch of the Swallows) on El Camino Real, a major trade route linking Mexico City with Santa Fe that dates back to the 1700s. This month Baker’s painting of the scene, MILL AT EL RANCHO DE LAS GOLONDRINAS, is on view in Oil Painters of America’s National Juried Exhibition in St. George, UT.

Baker is well known as a talented artist, both in the studio and on location. Travel inspires her, and the artist’s calendar is packed throughout the year with plein-air events in locations stretching across the country. Not only does she participate in the shows, but also she often brings home top honors. In 2018 she garnered top awards at Plein Air Easton in Maryland and at the Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational, and she also received kudos at four other national plein-air events. “My love of travel and meeting new people makes me ideally suited to the itinerant life of a plein-air painter,” she says. “I get to see so much of America, and it feels like a privilege.”

Baker also is that rare painter who is equally accomplished in the landscape, figurative, and still-life genres, says Jane Bell Meyer, owner of Authentique Gallery of Art and Design, which represents the artist. “Every time she paints a work, it’s fresh and alive,” Meyer says. “She’s a representational painter with a loose, impressionistic flair. I would describe her works as peaceful but at the same time exciting, no matter the genre.”

Recently, at the prestigious Art Renewal Center Salon, Baker won recognition for two very different paintings: one featured a 100-year-old vessel undergoing restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD, and the other was an evocative portrait depicting an artist friend. No matter what she’s painting, her mission is straightforward: To always convey the spirit, authenticity, and truthfulness of every subject she paints. To stay creative and accomplish this artistic mission, she says, “I like to experiment. I can’t be pigeon-holed.”

Baker grew up in a small, central Louisiana town where, early on, she established a reputation among peers and teachers as “the art kid” in the classroom. She enjoyed drawing, and fortunately teachers recognized her gifts. In high school, after she had taken all of the art classes that were available, the school created a special art program tailored just for her. So it came as no surprise to her family and friends that, when the time for college arrived, she chose to pursue a degree in fine arts and advertising at Louisiana Tech University.

After graduating in 1992, Baker worked for a small design firm in Monroe, LA. A few years later, and now married, she moved from her native Louisiana to Houston after her husband’s company transferred him. In Houston, Baker once again secured a job at an advertising agency and quickly moved up the ranks to an art-director position. Eventually she established her own successful firm, Baker Art and Design Studio.

A decade passed—and then everything changed. In 2008 her husband, a mechanical engineer with an oil-drilling company, was transferred to Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. And thus the family—the couple now had two children—embarked on a two-year sojourn in the Middle East. “Moving to the Middle East was my reset button,” Baker says. “I traded in my Pantone swatches for a brush and palette.”

In addition to providing her with more time to paint, life in Bahrain offered the artist many unexpected, rich experiences. She settled comfortably into a culturally diverse community where locals and expatriates converged from all over the world. Soon she met other artists in this global community. In 2009, Baker traveled with three of her newfound friends to Kerala, India, where artists painted on location for a week in bustling marketplaces and harbors as well as serene backwaters and byways. Upon their return to Bahrain, the Indian Ambassador invited the artists to exhibit their treasure trove of artwork at the Albareh Art Gallery in Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. “I had a misconception, based on prejudicial thinking and a wrong worldview, that all the people of the Middle East were hostile to westerners and women,” Baker says. “While that might be true in some parts of the Middle East, it is not true in Bahrain.”

In fact, Baker is fond of quoting a passage from The Innocents Abroad, the well-known book by Mark Twain, to describe her worldview—and her approach to her art career—today: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

As this story was going to press, Baker had just returned from the plein-air invitational in Maui. When we caught up with her, she was settling back into her home studio in Shenandoah, a small town north of Houston. If visitors step inside her ranch-style house, the first thing they notice are the paintings covering the walls of the foyer. There is an array of landscapes and figurative works by Charles Hunter, Colin Page, and Rob Liberace, with whom she once studied, and a dozen more that she has traded or purchased from other artists. “It’s like having a hallway full of friends,” Baker says.

Look to the left of the foyer, where one might expect to find a living or dining room, and voilà—the space is overrun with more paintings, palettes, easels, work tables, brushes, flat files, and frames. Baker says she “annexed” the rooms for her studio space long ago. “Occasionally, my studio tries to exert Manifest Destiny onto the rest of the house, but I usually manage to marshal it back,” she jokes.

While her studio may not be a beautiful space, she says, it is “utilitarian,” and that’s good enough for her. Luckily, Baker says, her husband is supportive. He puts up with the territorial takeover and the occasional whiff of oil paint wafting about. “I often say that the best art supply is a supportive spouse or partner,” she says.

When it comes to beauty, Baker has her own definition. She isn’t necessarily interested in painting “picture-perfect, postcard” scenes featuring fields of bluebonnets or other beautiful views. She can see and create something beautiful amid devastation, rubble, and ruin with her masterful compositions, her ability to capture striking light effects, and her spirited use of color.

A few months after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast in August 2017, Baker visited Rockport, a seaside village about three hours south of Houston. The occasion was a plein-air show hosted by the Outdoor Painters Society. Roofs were still covered in blue plastic tarps. Tree limbs were stacked at curbs. Many buildings had been shredded into toothpicks. In her painting HARVEY WAS HERE, Baker portrays a small bungalow with stacks of lumber in the front yard. A jagged, uprooted fence cuts a wobbly line through the property, suggesting the
chaos of Mother Nature.

In another Rockport scene, titled HIGH AND DRY, she depicts a boat resting on a rack waiting for repairs. More piles of lumber can be seen in the foreground. “Although recording history is not my primary concern when choosing subject matter, I am aware that we, as plein-air artists, are recording places and events in our present time,” she says. “Painting scenes that show what the community faced in Harvey’s aftermath is an example of this pictorial record-keeping.” Evidently, her peers in the show thought the pieces were much more than just pictorial records. HIGH AND DRY won Best of Show, and HARVEY WAS HERE won the Artists’ Choice Award.

“I will be painting until I am an old woman,” Baker says. “I think, in this life, you can only be truly good at one thing or maybe a handful of things. The idea that I might have another 35 to 40 years to paint and explore my own personal creative direction is a very compelling notion.”

Authentique Gallery of Art and Design, St. George, UT; Pitzer’s Fine Art, Wimberley, TX; The Gallery at Round Top, Round Top, TX; Tartaglia Fine Art, Ojai, CA; Lovetts Gallery, Tulsa, OK.

This story was featured in the May 2019 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2019 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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