Words by Edgar Allen Beem
David Graeme Baker paints small-town Maine kids waiting for life to begin.
On the easel in a Hancock studio stands a work in progress, an oil painting of a teenage girl wearing a skull-and-bones T-shirt standing on a dock holding a Hula-Hoop. She seems suspended between girlhood and adulthood. A teenage boy sits on the dock beside her lost in his own thoughts.
This is the quiet, reflective world of David Graeme Baker, one of Maine’s rare figurative realists. Other paintings evoke a similar sense of suspended time.
Three teens, a boy and two girls, loiter outside a VFW hall waiting for something to happen. Two boys lounge on a couch, one reading, the other dozing. A blond girl in a fetching blue dress and matching knit hat with pom-pom stands in an empty municipal parking lot scarred with rubber tracks where local boys have been “doing doughnuts.” A pregnant teenager stands in a snowy yard. Like all of the young people in Baker’s paintings, she is expectant, only more so, waiting for life to start.
“Other than portraits, most of my paintings have been of young people,” says Baker, a trim, fit, athletic man of 50, his bald head and rimless glasses giving him a bit of an academic air. “It’s not nostalgia exactly. It’s reliving your childhood and trying to figure it out. There seems to be this Maine reality. Young people can’t wait to get out. It’s as though they are longing for the future.”
David Baker views this small-town Maine ethos as an outsider, not just as an adult and an artist but also as a man who has always stood outside his immediate experience.
David Graeme Baker was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His family came to the U.S. when he was 1½ and he grew up mostly in Erie, Pennsylvania. His education was something of a dialectical pendulum swing from the conservative prep school The Hill School to liberal Wesleyan University and then back to a very traditional art school in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
PAFA has historically been a redoubt of figurative realist painters, its graduates in Maine including, in addition to Baker, Bo Bartlett and Brett Bigbee. Where Bartlett creates costume dramas and Bigbee makes iconic portraits of family and friends, Baker has focused on enigmatic slices of adolescent Maine life.
Baker and his wife, Sarah, moved to Maine in 2000 when she was hired as admissions director at the College of the Atlantic (COA). Sarah Ketchum Baker now works in communications at Jackson Laboratory on Mount Desert Island.
In 2002, the couple purchased a spacious old farmhouse on the road to Hancock Point and populated it with two sons, Finn and Corin, and a succession of well-loved Labs. Zizou, the latest, is named for superstar French soccer player Zinedine Zidane. Soccer is a family passion.
The young people who have appeared in Baker’s paintings over the years include his sons, their friends and soccer teammates, COA students, babysitters, and neighbors.
The work in progress in his studio features Baker’s son Finn and Finn’s friend Addi posed on the dock of a camp at a nearby pond. The idea for the painting occurred to the artist when he saw young people Hula-Hooping last summer. It was early fall, as evidenced by the color in the foliage behind Finn and Addi, before Baker actually began the painting, which he was still working on in the dead of winter.
David Baker is a precision realist but not a photorealist. He is not a slave to appearances. Addi was not wearing a skull-and-crossbones T-shirt, for example. Baker made that up. He describes his methodology as “reverse engineering” a painting. First, Baker takes hundreds of photographs and Photoshops them into a composition that pleases him. He then does a series of drawings and small studies to work out color, scale, and visual details before tackling the main event—an oil painting on linen mounted on an aluminum panel.
Of the Finn and Addi painting, Baker says, “The painting is about the dialogue between the two of them. The idea itself is more important to me than the regime of making a painting.”
Finn and Addi are featured in an earlier painting, Imperfect Orbit/No Bingo, that depicts them outside the VFW hall in Ellsworth with another teenage girl. Weary and wary, the young trio seems to be waiting for their ride—or their future—to arrive. “At the heart of humanness is something so fragile, something so dependent on knowing yourself and being close to the people around you,” says Baker. “I find myself wanting to explore that. I’m always happiest in the making.”
To celebrate the people around him, Baker has arranged an exhibition of his work at the Hancock Point School in August. His paintings can also be seen at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland and Artemis Gallery in Northeast Harbor.