madelife caught up with Stella Maria Baer to ask her a few questions before her group show at madelife. See Stella’s Incredible moon paintings and more at the Vibrant Femmes Opening Reception on April 7th!
Describe yourself and your work.
I am a painter and photographer originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico. In my work, I explore the mythology of the desert, the cosmology of space, and the topography of the human body. I live in Denver with my husband Seth, my 18-month-old boy Wyeth, and a sheepdog.
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
Most of my work is a meditation on the cyclical, almost gravitational pull I feel to where I grew up in northern New Mexico. When I was in high school I wanted to leave the southwest and never come back. I went to college and graduate school in the northeast and didn’t think I’d ever live in this part of the country again. Then five years ago my husband Seth and I took a road trip through southern New Mexico and for the first time I fell in love with where I was from. When I got back to my studio I couldn’t stop thinking about the colors and lines. I found in moons and planets I could explore what haunted me in the desert while still moving into another space. In painting celestial spheres I drew out a sense of feeling at home in a place that looks like another world. There is a mythology of the desert in the cosmology of space.
How did you get started in your career as an artist?
I started painting eleven years ago. For many years my paintings and drawings were a secret practice that I showed to almost no one. While in graduate school I got a job working for artist Titus Kaphar as a studio and research assistant. Titus cast a vision for me for what it meant to be a working artist. He gave me critiques on my paintings and answered questions I had about techniques, materials, and color. Titus taught me to listen to my work. In graduate school, I took studio classes in painting and drawing, and in one class the professor assigned a hundred paintings a week. In those classes and in the critiques with Titus my painting moved from being something private to out in the open. At some point during those years I realized I wanted to be a painter.
What piece of work best represents you and why?
While I was making “Abiquiu Mars” I was going back and forth between photographs I took of Ghost Ranch on a horseback ride several years ago, NASA images, and topography maps of Mars. When I look at the
photographs taken by the rover on Mars, the rocks remind me of the canyons in Abiquiu where my mom took me and my brother camping when we were little. This painting was a way of remembering what it was like to live in a place that looks like another planet.
How do your materials influence your work?
I work in both watercolor and oil but more with watercolor, mostly because it is unpredictable, and always slightly out of my control. I love working with pigments I make myself from sand and dirt. In the paintings I make with these pigments the landscape doesn’t just inspire the work but physically becomes part of the painting.
Where do you go daily / weekly to get inspired?
I drive to the desert, go camping, gather sands, take photographs, paint. I read books about other artists’ processes. I go to museums and galleries. I try to spend time alone with my work, listening to it. I avoid looking for inspiration on screens. For me screens are a tool not a source.
What have you learned through creating that has surprised you?
Nothing goes as planned. The work has a mind of its own.
Describe your work routine for your artistic practice.
Before my son Wyeth was born I worked in the studio Monday – Friday, 9-5. I spent the mornings painting and the afternoons writing, working on prints, or returning emails. Since becoming a mother that’s all been turned upside down. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now I write and do administrative work while he naps and painta couple full days a week, sometimes in the evening after he goes to sleep. I’ve had to become more creative about my studio practice since becoming a mother.
Tell us about any recent collaborations, why they worked or didn’t.
This past fall I made a mural for a restaurant in the RiNo Arts District in Denver.
The painting is of the 48 moons closest to the sun, to scale. I made a decision not to use traditional mural techniques but rather build up textures and paint it by hand like my other paintings, so that it would feel continuous with my other work. That meant it took a lot longer than expected. It was so physical, working at that scale, outside in the sun, and I was exhausted at the end of every day. But I had dreamed of making a painting that size for many years, and when the owner of the restaurant approached me I knew it was something I wanted to do. I loved being able to interact with strangers on the street walking by as I was painting the wall. And I love having the moons be so visible in such a great neighborhood in Denver.
How do you balance being an artist and making a living?
So far being an artist is the most consistent way I’ve been able to make a living.
What is your process for coming up with new work?
I try to spend time once a week writing about what I want to make and why. Sometimes when I look back over journals I realize I’ve been writing about paintings for years and know they’re going to haunt me until I bring them into being.
Why do you believe art has value?
There are elements of human experience that are beyond language. Art speaks to those things that can’t be spoken.
What is playing on your stereo these days?
I’ve been listening to the Modern Art Notes Podcast and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern sounds in Country Music.
What are you reading right now?
A book about Fairfield Porter’s creative process.
Where is your favorite place to visit?
I’m always returning to New Mexico. I loved going to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan a couple years ago and want to go back. I want to go to the Atacama Desert in South America.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your creative career?
Take time to listen to your work. Treat your work as something sacred.
Which new (or newly discovered) artist is currently inspiring you the most?
My friend Kristin Sink is a photographer and I love how uncomfortable her work makes me. Her photography makes me wonder if discomfort is something I should value more in my practice.
What’s the best thing about your studio/ workspace/ workshop?
The late afternoon light.
What do you do when you hit a block?
Switch mediums. Play around. Clean the studio. Put old work away. Read my journals. I keep making things even when I don’t feel inspired.
What’s the best part about being an artist?
Bringing a vision into being. Hearing from strangers that my work speaks to them in ways I never could have predicted or imagined. Watching something I’ve made live a life of its own.
For more of Stella’s work, click here.