Mara Baker is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist and educator. She is a graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art (MFA, 2007) and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA, 2005).
Baker’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues such as The Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), The Soap Factory (Minneapolis), Luminary Arts Center (St. Louis), Ferencvarosi Pincegallery, (Budapest) and The Annex Art Center, (Toronto). Other notable recent projects include: a solo exhibition, Two Forward, One Back, at 65 Grand, Chicago IL, The Tyranny of Good Taste a traveling group exhibition (Columbia College Glass Curtain Gallery, Chicago IL and L’Esquina Gallery, Kansas City); and Interstice a group show at (308 at 156 Project Art Space, New York, NY) curated by Rachel Adams and Rob Green projects, LA. Baker teaches foundations and drawing as part of the full-time art faculty at the College of Dupage in Glen Ellyn, IL.
The primary inspiration for my paintings, drawings and site-specific installations comes from found materials and the recycled byproducts of my studio practice. I often work site-responsively in alternative raw spaces like repurposed factories and homes, treating the sites as an opportunity to engage with larger ecological issues of decay and life-cycles. My work also explores the interplay between the real and the representational, often using tactile materials that reference the language of formal painting.
Hi Mara! Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice? What is the most important part of maintaining a successful studio practice?
I have organized my life and teaching schedule to allow for concentrated amounts of time in my studio each week. This varies from week to week, but for the most part I work towards at least four times a week for more than three hours with one of those days being a full day. For me, having the space and time to let the process of making unfold is essential. It usually takes one to two hours of playing around before I am able to get down to serious work. I used to find this extremely frustrating, especially as like most artists, I always have too little time and too much to do. But, over the years I have learned to embrace the way I work. In the end, once I get into a rhythm I produce work relatively fast.
I also am a firm believer in breaks. When I am working on a big project, every free moment is occupied with my studio practice. When I finish I will intentionally take a two to three week break to refresh my reserves. Often times this allows me to read, travel and interact with friends and colleagues in meaningful ways that feed directly back into the work. Being a studio artist can be tough as most of us have other jobs and obligations that we are balancing out along with our studio. I think finding the right balance of consistent work and the right times to give yourself a break is what makes it sustainable.
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin? Do you keep a sketchbook/does drawing play a part in your work?
I am inspired by materials and spaces and thus usually the jumping off point in my process is a material or a space that I want to generate a response to. In painting I often will begin by stacking materials that have visual relationships I am interested in on top of each other. I keep an ongoing tumblr blog entitled collection and filtration that serves as a visual reference for me and also allows viewers a window into my process. Often, my blog posts will be labeled ‘todays stack’ or some derivation of that phrase. For me these quick pictures taken on my phone serve as quick sketches of where I want to go. The name of the blog very much references how I work in general. I collect images, materials and slowly sift through them until I come to a place where they fit. The blog also serves as a record of artists that I feel inspired by and is currently influencing the direction of my work. I have kept this blog for over four years now and I still go back to the early posts regularly.
I do also keep a traditional sketchbook, in fact I have many, for jotting down notes and very rough sketches of ideas as I am beginning to formulate a project. But I rely mainly on tactile experience and studies that I create when I am working in my studio.
You talk about referencing the language of formal painting with tactile materials. Can you talk about how you push the boundaries of the application of more traditional materials such as canvas and paint?
My undergraduate training was in painting. I was initially attracted to the lushness of oil paint as well as the frame conceptually. However, ultimately I found the conversation around painting limiting. I have always been interested in how material and process function within work and I wasn’t getting the critiques or dialogue I was looking for in painting discourse. I believe that has actually changed quite a bit in the last ten years, however at the time I wasn’t finding what I needed conceptually from the medium. My graduate work was in Fiber and Material studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art. I found myself able to keep what I loved about painting while at the same time extending the reach of the dialogue and materials I used. For many years I created only site-specific and experience driven work, but in the last four years I have found a bridge that allows me to move back into painting. This bridge embraces the physical, functional and conceptual properties of materials ranging from plastic wrapping found in home depot parking lots to residues that are a result of former installation projects and abandoned paintings. When you look at my paintings the first level of information is very formal (line, shape, color, texture etc.) and how those formal properties can be manipulated within the context of the frame. The second level of information is about giving the viewer a window into the action, gesture or history of a material. I seek out materials that have a rich history and can function on both levels.
Can you talk about how the process and mentality for creating site-specific work differs from work created in your studio?
It is actually fairly similar. I view spaces as a material and a frame just as I do in painting. I am either trying to interrupt or collaborate with the frame and history of wherever I am working with each project. Site‐specific work additionally has the advantage of bringing the viewer into the experience and I think about the body a lot more when I am working in this way. I try to always use the site as an important part of the formation of an idea. Often I will make an initial site visit, take lots of pictures, and then bring that visual information back into my studio. A really good example of this was my recent installation, Chameleon Blind 2, at the Chicago Artist Coalition in Chicago. The beginning inspiration for this piece was a large storefront window. I was interested in deconstructing the layers of a painting within the context of the window frame. What would normally be viewed as the side view of the work was for me the most important as it gave the viewer access to the buildup of layers within the context of the window. From the “front” views of the work, much of the visual information was concealed. Only by walking around the piece was the viewer able to access all the levels and layers of information.
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
For site‐specific sculptural work I am currently inspired by Kara Black, Kate Levant, and Jack Henry. Painting I am responding to now includes Jay Heikes, Rosy Keiser, Sam Moyer and Luis Miguel Bendana. There was a lovely show at called Painter, Painter at the Walker Art Museum in 2013, which featured many of these painters. My tumblr blog also has a more full list of what has inspired me lately.
Has your work been influenced by other disciplines that aren’t rooted in the visual arts?
Yes, in fact I am often more inspired by reading poetry and philosophy as opposed to looking at visual work. I first found a conceptual vision through studying philosophy in undergrad.
Specifically, I was inspired by a lot of continental philosophy including Kierkegaard and Sartre’s writings about Giacometti. Philosophy taught me how to pursue a studio practice with conceptual intention and to think through the relationship of process to outcome. Recently the writing of Rebecca Solnit and poetry of Jennifer Michael Hecht have been influential.
Finally, geology has become an interest in my work. Concepts around time, strata, rifts, and pressure all resonate with what I am interested in conceptually. Although it is sometimes hard to sift through, I find reading science books and looking at diagrams to be incredibly exciting. I just finished a collaborative sculptural project with artist Nina Barnett entitled A Primer: On Dolomite in the Upper Peninsula (both mined and eroded). In order to see this project through we spent a lot of time learning about the rocks from the region we were working with as well as the geological history of the region.
What do you listen to while you work? Any music or podcasts we should check out?
It depends where I am in the process of a project. If I am working on mindless tedious work I will listen to podcasts. Some of my favorites are The Moth, 99% invisible, This American Life and Tara Brach. If I am in a place where I need to be fully engaged with my work I will turn on NPR. Often, I have no idea what is being talked about, it is simply a way for me to shut off the analytical part of my brain and allow me to intuitively make. Music strangely usually doesn’t work for me in the studio.
You are a professor of art at the College of Dupage in Glen Ellyn, IL. Does teaching influence your perspective as an artist?
Yes, definitely yes. I feel extremely grateful to be able to spend a large portion of my time teaching and learning from students. I am invigorated to go back into my studio when I see students discovering visual language and their own ways of making and communicating.
Furthermore, teaching at a community college keeps me grounded in the world outside of art. I have to teach language and concepts which are a given within the art community. Often I am met with great distrust for contemporary work, specifically abstraction. This keeps me honest and although sometimes tiring, I think it has made me a stronger artist.
Do you think the internet and social media affect those of us who identify as artists and makers? Can you describe how you feel about the role of social media in the life and career of an artist?
Speaking from personal experience, social media is very important for artists today. I feel lucky to live in a time where I can share my studio practice and exhibitions with a great number of people incredibly easily. I regularly have opportunities come from people finding my website or a link to my work through other forms of social media.
I also rely greatly on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram to keep me informed of what is happening within the art community. I have found or followed artists that I have not met in person and as a result read articles and learned about shows that I would have never known about. Social media has allowed for more dialogue with less mediation. On a much broader level social media and the internet is an ingrained part of visual culture at this point and thus influential in how we make and what we make as artists. Of course it is not all good, I wish I spent less time on Facebook, but I do think it is important and beneficial.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Mara and her work, check out her website.