Creating a new narrative
Thomaston — Songbirds rule the spring, filling the outdoors with a sound that promises a fertile summer ahead. Avian images filled the indoor studio of Midcoast artist Nancy Thomas Baker this spring and look to stay as summer begins.
Baker, a longtime art instructor and painter who works in oils and pastels, is showing a spring harvest of bird paintings in the season-opening "Fowl Play" show at Mars Hall Gallery in Martinsville. Her inspiration, however, came from a show at an exponentially larger venue — the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Baker, who moved to Thomaston from D.C. in 2008, had an April show in her old stomping grounds. Although the city's famed cherry blossoms showed up a bit early this year, the National Gallery mounted an April-only exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Japan's gift of cherry trees to this nation's capital. The "Colorful Realm" exhibition presented 18th-century silk panel paintings, each an image of nature meant to embody a specific stage of enlightenment.
The works, originally intended for use during religious ceremonies, were sold by a monastery to the Japanese government in the late 18th century and ended up being split up. After more than 100 years, they were re-united for the National Gallery show, lining the walls of a long hall, which ended with images of Buddha and two bodhavistas.
"It was one of the most mind-boggling things I've ever seen. I just stood in front of the hall with tears … when I came back, I started painting birds," said Baker.
Baker is an energetic and enthusiastic woman, but tears have salted her life and work for the past decade. A week before the Mars Hill opening, she marked the 10th anniversary of the death of one of her daughters, at age 7, who was entrapped by the suction pump of an in-ground spa. That accidental drowning led Baker and Amjad Ghori, an international banker and global energy project developer who lost his only child under similar circumstances, to advocate for spa safety regulations, an effort that led to the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool And Spa Safety Act. In a book of photos of her daughter Virginia is one of Baker with then President George W. Bush, who signed the legislation into law.
"The one gift of loss is that it leads to a huge re-adjustment of priorities," said Baker, explaining the series of circumstances that led her to move to Maine. "The day the bill was signed, I put my house on the market."
In the years following her daughter's death, Baker had spent a lot of time in Maine, where her sister and brother-in-law have vacationed for many years. She recognized the value of the slower pace and deeper connections with people and with nature she found here. She said she paints more — and lives better, finding time to learn to play the guitar and take care of her health and make friends just by walking her dog.
"When I go back now, it's a whole different way of being, you have to always be on alert there," she said.
One tradition she left behind has followed her north. Baker has been giving art instruction to a group of young people in Virginia since they were young children; they are headed off to college this fall, but will spend time with her in Maine this summer. And now there is a new group of young people she expects to work with for years to come — but she must do the traveling to meet with them.
Ghori, who became a friend during their advocacy work, has established a non-governmental organization in memory of his daughter. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the NGO founded Aziza's Place, a school to offer some two dozen children a way out of the extreme poverty they were born to. When Baker posted something on Facebook about showing with Mars Hall for the first time last year, Ghori sent her a message and asked if she would consider coming to Aziza's Place and offering art instruction.
"It's a boarding school but really, they live there. They get education and good food and health care … I left Christmas Eve and got to Phnom Penh on Christmas Day," she said.
Her first day, Baker worked with all the children, who range in age from 6 to 17, "though we really don't know how old the girls are who say they're 17 are; they don't hold on to birth certificates so much for girls there, and the girls don't want to leave the school," she said. The children asked her to "draw Christmas" and she complied. Then they wanted Cinderella and Angry Birds and, above all, Michael Jackson. Baker did her best to cover a whiteboard with these cross-cultural requests.
The rest of her several weeks stay, Baker worked with smaller groups, introducing the idea of creating art oneself rather than copying what someone else creates. It was a concept initially hard for her students to grasp.
"They would watch me, the little ones tucked right up against me and under my arms, and I would tell them, 'You can do this!' but it took awhile," she said.
What made believers of the children was a project Baker conceived using long strips of canvas. She encouraged the children to paint their lives, and illustrated the idea by painting images from her Texas childhood, then of travel to the East and so on. The finished works were displayed during a family night; in order to get the families to the school, Baker arranged for a rolling platform to be driven to the neighborhoods and back across town.
The families — particularly, the mothers — were polite but reserved when they were picked up. Baker does stand out in a Cambodian crowd.
"There aren't many tourists from America there, and I'm tall and blond and 'old' — there are a few elders, but people of my generation are almost non-existent in Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge," she said.
Once the families arrived at the school, saw the children interacting with Baker and saw their paintings, things were different.
"The generosity and warmth and unconditional acceptance there is just incredible," said Baker.
Baker is already planning her next trip, which also may include a visit to Vietnam. Visiting Aziza's Place has changed her, she said. She also has changed the school, working with a Virginia friend to fund apartment housing for the older boys, giving them skills to make the transition out of school as well as opening up beds for new young children.
While in Cambodia, Baker traveled alone to see some of the famed temples in Angkor Wat and other locations. Their beauty, and the surreptitiously snapped iPhone photos of the saffron-robed Buddhist monks, may start to crowd out the birds on her easels, thanks to the season Mars Hall owner Dona Bergen is setting for the summer.
"Dona's going a 'You can't get there from here' theme show, so now I can do paintings of places I've been," said Baker.
Mars Hall is located on Route 131 and is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 to 5 p.m. For more information on the gallery and Baker's work, visit marshallgallery.net and nancytbaker.com. For information on Aziza's Place, visit azizafoundation.org.
Courier Publications' A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.