By Gina Malone
Asheville artist Richard Baker never finds himself at a loss for what to paint next. His landscapes depict, with evocative clarity, autumn creeping along the curve of a mountain or light playing upon the French Broad River or Fraser firs like soldiers in formation on a hillside tree farm.
“The beauty of the Western North Carolina mountains cradles me,” Baker says. “It feels like home. Standing on a ridge-line and seeing the beauty of the mountains in the distance or up close, the earth stands still for me. I am grounded here. I hope that my passion for these mountains shows in my artwork.”
A Tennessee native, Baker spent his childhood traveling. “My father was in the military and we traveled all over the US, Europe, Central America and the Pacific,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to see the world and different cultures and how we’re all just one.”
He began painting at age three and has been painting ever since. After 30 years working as the curator of mammals at a Florida zoo and following a health scare in 2010, he began to paint full-time. “Painting is my breath, my drive, my passion,” he says. “I’m the happiest man on this street. I get to paint these beautiful mountains every day.”
Self-taught, his influences range from the Barbizon School to the California Impressionists. But it is the Hudson River School and its attendant Luminist style of the latter half of the 1800s that most distinctly informs his work. Among those artists who have inspired him are Sanford Robinson Gifford, Frederic Edwin Church and Edgar Payne. Baker likes to say that he is painting the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the Hudson River School style, and indeed many of his paintings of these mountains have found homes in New York and New England. Contemporary artists of the western United States Clyde Aspevig and Matt Smith are also among his favorite landscape painters.
“Driving around Western North Carolina and, especially the Jonathan Creek and Maggie Valley areas of Haywood County, every place I see is inspiring,” he says. “Different times of day, different light, different seasons. Every hour, the mountains have a special beauty to them, constantly changing, constantly inspiring me to paint it.”
Baker has drawn critical acclaim through the years for his realistic paintings of water, whether it is a river, stream, waterfall, lake or ocean. Favorite subjects include the French Broad River, Lake Logan, Jonathan Creek and the waterfalls of DuPont Forest. In his younger years, as a fisherman, he studied water in order to learn the habits of bass and trout. As a consequence, he learned how sunlight and shadows lay upon the surface and how wind plays against it, how constantly changing skies and the subtleties of seasons leave their marks.
A favorite memory is of an elderly lady who came into his studio and asked him if he would please take a painting of a lake off the wall. “Are you interested in purchasing it?” Baker asked her. “No, son,” she replied. “I want to see what’s behind it making the water move.” It was, he says, the best compliment he has ever had.
His habits are simple. “I paint every day. I can’t not paint. Something within me makes me get up and do it. It is not work. It is not a job. It’s what I do and who I am.” Even after a lifetime of experience, he finds the process no easier when he sits down before a blank canvas, oil paints at the ready, brush clasped in his hand, mind mulling over the beautiful scenes stored there. “It’s always a puzzle, a complicated process. It’s not a Zen moment. It’s different every time. That’s why we’re always learning and growing as artists.”
Richard Baker’s work may be found at 362 Depot and on the second floor of the Wedge Studios at 129 Roberts Street in the River Arts District. To see more, visit richardbakersstudio.com or contact him at email@example.com or 828.234.1616. Join him and the other artists on the second floor of the Wedge Studios for a Groundhog Day celebration on Friday, February 2, from 5–8 p.m.