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Baker reception overflows SMC art gallery

For a guy Southwestern Michigan College paid to teach people, David Baker paradoxically needs abundant solitude. “My (minimum daily requirement) seems to be about three hours a day walking in the woods, paddling a canoe, riding a bike or, in the case of my sketch books, sitting in the coffee shop, mulling.

“I’m a romantic, so usually work I’m doing is more about what I’m feeling. I’m not strictly limited to just what you’re looking at. The hard part is taking a gem of an idea and turning it into something presentable on canvas,” Baker said.

A 41-piece retrospective of his 36-year career teaching art at SMC, “An Intimate Dialogue with Myself,” continues in the Dale A. Lyons Building gallery on the Dowagiac campus until Sept. 28.

“You are truly gifted as a teacher. I don’t think you hear that enough,” former student Jenny Mehlenbeck said.

“I tried to thank Marc (Dombrosky, Visual and Performing Arts chairman) for this honor. He kind of brushed it aside as a no-brainer, which I get because I used to do his job. But on my side of the easel, it feels like a tremendous honor. I see current students, former students, colleagues, artists and collectors. It’s almost overwhelming,” Baker said at the Sept. 20 reception.

Turnout overflowed the gallery and spilled into the hallway.

Works encompass a range of media, including oil, watercolor, wax crayon, charcoal, carved wood, video and hand-made books dating to Baker’s first year at the college, 1981-82.

“It’s a limited collection,” Baker said. “I didn’t show every path I tried or theme I explored. I didn’t ask any collectors to loan things back. These are highlights from my own collection, but it’s a fairly representative sample.”

Dombrosky did not install the exhibit in chronological order.

“It might be more difficult for you to follow,” Baker said, “but it’s way more fun to look at. It’s brilliantly done. I walked in and cried it’s so wonderful.”

Nine pieces on the right wall of the rear gallery were completed this year.

Baker has given six of nine scheduled student talks.

“Each is unique,” he said, “but a question that keeps coming up is, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ I don’t know if I know. Philosophers and artists for eons have wondered how ideas flash into our heads. (Greek mythology had nine muses) … In the Renaissance we came to the idea of the artist as genius. God gave special talents to select individuals and the rest of us got missed.

“I can remember a couple of times when the light bulb went on and I had that ah-ha flash. But most of it is musing on things I’m interested in. I look at other art, I study systematically and try to use devices I find.

“The last 20 years a lot of my work has been informed by nature. And religion, mythology and personal experience,” from the births of his son and daughter to his father’s war experience.

Baker recalled Jackson Pollock’s observation, “I paint when the pain of not working becomes greater than the pain of working.”

“It’s hard in the studio because we tend to be plagued by self-doubt,” he said.

“The only thing harder than being an artist is living with one,” he turned to his wife, Jackie.

Baker earned his bachelor’s degree in art education from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in fine art in painting from Indiana State University.

He taught public school eight years in Michigan and Indiana before coming to SMC.

“I’m one of the fortunate people,” Baker, of St. Joseph, said, “because in retirement I was running to something, not away. I miss the place a great deal. I worked with great colleagues and love the students, who are a source of energy and enthusiasm, but I was running toward having more time to paint.”

The business faculty’s Joanne Strebeck said, “A lot of what I see here is not what I would call ‘David Baker art.’”

“Good,” he replied. “I didn’t start painting landscapes until 17 or 18 years ago. I was a modernist.”

Director of Choral Activities David Carew opened the reception singing his favorite 19th-century art song.

“It paints such a beautiful picture,” Carew said. “It describes a young lover singing to the moon because he misses her and wants to be with her.”