Material Relationships

Baker explores relationships in ‘Joining’ at TASI in October

Teresa Baker in her studio at 215 Orleans in downtown Beaumont. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

Teresa Baker can’t find her scissors. This is problem, like a painter losing his brush or a surgeon losing her knife — they are the basic tools of Teresa Baker’s craft. She shrugs. She knows they will soon show up in her studio, at 215 Orleans in downtown Beaumont, which, like many artist’s spaces, reflects her work — large empty spaces punctuated by areas that indicate intense activity.

Baker is completing work on “Joining,” her solo show at The Art Studio, Inc., which opens Oct. 7, with a free reception from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and runs through Oct. 27.

The show’s title is pretty literal, Baker said.

“I am basically using some new methods and some new materials, and so it’s really about that place where two points are meeting,” she said.

The 31-year-old North Dakota native’s media of choice is unconventional materials.

“Everything is a reaction to the last thing I did,” she said. “It’s a mix of being done with the last material and searching for the next, and reacting to what that last one was. I was using felt for quite a while and that got to where I was done with it. I wanted something I could see through, I wanted something that wasn’t so dense. That took me into vinyl — into plastics.

“CrossHatch” by Teresa Baker

“I love really common material, and I was in Home Depot looking for something else and I saw this amazing blue Astroturf. That’s how I got started on the Astroturf. It’s that thing about being open when you are looking for something else.”

Baker does not generally use “found” material, preferring to buy new.

“I usually don’t like to use found material because it has too much of a history — you can identify it.” She said. Of course, you can identify Astroturf, but I’m trying take that material and make a new identity with it — make a new object with it.”

Unlike many visual artists, Baker said she was relatively late getting started in the field.

“I was very much into the performing arts,” she said. “I was in ballet, then I went into singing, then I went into theater, so I thought that was going to be my avenue.”

But when she attended Fordham University in New York, Baker realized that she did not like being in front of crowds.

“It was too panic-inducing for me to handle any more, so I started taking art classes,” she said. “I took them with the intention that I would go into costume design — still staying in performing in some level. Once I started taking those art classes, that was it.

“What was important for me was finding my language at an early point, I felt a lot of pressure to be able to technically render a scene outside the window or still life — and that’s really important, I’m not saying it’s not — but for me that was really boring to make.”

Baker went on a study abroad program to an art school in Amsterdam and it was there that she found what she was searching for.

“It was there I was given the freedom to really understand that I like looking at relationship of shapes,” she said. “That was a big revelation for me because have you really have to allow that freedom, especially with the kind of environment you’re or being taught in, finding that language was big.”

With the original intention being costume design, it is appropriate that Baker found fabrics and materials as her primary media.

Baker has a strong connection to her Native American heritage (she is from the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, two separate tribes from the same region and now on the same Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. She is also half German-American on her mother’s side).

“It’s a big part of my identity. It is how I identify,” she said. “We were raised to know about our culture — we were raised in the culture. It’s a big part of who I am”

While the Native culture is infuses her art, it is not necessarily clearly apparent to the viewer.

“That is something, because you have a lot of native artists out there making work that is very clearly tied to the culture and it’s very obvious,” she said. “It’s not obvious in my work and I do know that, but it comes out in my belief system. It comes out in the materials — it’s a subtlety, it’s a way that I make decision. It’s there, but it’s not overt.

“I’m dealing with shape, color, material, I’m dealing with those relationships and that’s more of a universal language.”

Baker said she has been thinking about more direct ways she can talk about how her heritage coming out.

“Joining” by Teresa Baker

“In the work I am always thinking about, ‘What is Native art, what is not?’ I actually doing what I am drawn to but it sometimes feels like a bit of a rebellion because there is a category for Native artists and I don’t quite fit into that, and that’s something I’m always thinking about it.

“I really have, for a long time, looked at objects and wondered how they can have their own — viscera is an easy one to use because it explains it. I was raised in a culture where objects have meaning, they hold a lot of weight. Being raised with that reverence for materiality, that definitely comes into play in the concepts for me while I’m working.”

Baker said that Native American culture is traditionally organized through societies.

“Depending what society you are born into, what society your family is in, it’s a matrilineal system,” she said. “It’s a little different for me because my mother’s German. There are a lot of rules according to if you are a woman, where you are in life, whether you’ve been given rights. If I wanted to quill work with porcupine quills, I would have to get the rights to that — there’s these systems.”

There are ways to earn these rights.

“Sometimes there’s an exchange, we use blankets a lot — you give someone a star quilt if you are going to really honor them,” she said. “I would talk to my father and he would talk to someone who would be willing — then it’s like, I’m going to teach you — then there would be some sort of ceremony where we would give them gifts, which are generally blankets.

“I don’t know if I have a direct way to say, ‘This is how that is in my work,’ but I really believe that, for everyone making art, your process, how you’re seeing the world, that’s in the work.

Growing up in small towns, Baker said that she didn’t grow up thinking being an artist was even possible.

“It wasn’t even on the radar,” she said. “We were lucky if we had one art class in school. It’s a miracle. It’s amazing that I ended up doing this.”

Baker returns to the overwhelming philosophy behind her work — to figure out if an object can be visceral.

“It comes from that performing arts background a little bit,” she said. “I love performing arts because that is a visceral thing. Whether the audience likes it or not, you’re drawing up emotions.

“So I’m always thinking, can an object have something that is, in some way, at least creating a reaction. Can you do that with just working with shape and color and material? I guess it’s kind of wondering how you can get belief out of a material thing?”

Teresa Baker at work in her studio. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

Baker’s work is essentially the product of process, of play. She does not work from sketches, choosing instead to go into the studio and let the materials dictate where they want to lead her.

“Most of the work, it ends up, essentially, there are only three or four marks, but I spend so long making that one mark, and to really sure of that mark,” she said. “I may have had to work on three or four pieces before I realized that (mark) had to be over here.

“How does it change in a different space? I think about that a lot in my work. But that also requires us to be slow, to really take our time, take a moment. I think that’s really harder and harder to do now. That slowness is really important in my work and in my process. Making my life so that I can come in here and be truly present and slow down — that’s when I get to the places I need to.”

­Baker said landscape, such as in the Romanticism in the works of Casper David Friedrick, is really important in her life and work.”

“It comes in in the same way my culture comes, it’s there,” she said. “I often wonder if that’s why I leave so much material showing — I mean, I like material to do its thing, conceptually — but then also, living in those places, I wonder if that really formed how I’m seeing, you know, these large things with just a few little details.”

Baker works have a sense of scale — not literally their physical size, but an implied sense of scale that allows the pieces to convey a metaphysical size.

“Joining” will also feature drawings, a first for a Baker show.

“I’ve always kept them to myself,” she said. “I see them as objects in themselves. There is a freedom to the drawings that I have wanted to bring into the larger materials for a while.”

One large piece has a yarn “drawing” on the surface.

“It’s allowing me to play with shape and with color,” she said. “I’m so excited, because this is as close as I can get to bringing that genre into (the work) and to using the kind of methods that I’m using in my drawings, and I am, ‘Oh my gosh! I can finally do it.’ I’m using these lines and that’s what the joining is — I’m very line-centric right now.

“I’m really excited about this show because I feel there are some new things, new ways to think about shape.”

The Art Studio is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont. For information, visit

Baker hosts exhibitions at her studio. For more information, visit the 215 Orleans Facebook page.

Story by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor