Art: Leslie Baker paints colorful magic
October 6, 2005
Leslie Baker's illustration from "Honkers."
Illustrations courtesy of Leslie Baker
Artist Leslie Baker.
Photo by JJ Gonson
Artwork from "All Those Secrets of the World."
Cover art from the book "A Song For Lena."
There is something magical about walking into a space filled with an artist's work, especially when they are illustrations for children's books. Enter the meeting room exhibition space at the Chilmark Library and step into the world as seen by Leslie Baker.
Leslie is a good friend of mine, so when she asked me to help hang her show, I was happy to oblige. I was familiar with her book illustrations but had never really studied the original art. From an artist's perspective, they have all the elements: composition, color, an amazing facility with the watercolor medium, and an elegance of design. Most importantly, they also have the "spirit" of a work of art that captures the imagination. Looking at them closely as we arranged the framed watercolors on the walls, I was able to observe the subtleties of line and colored washes. Leslie pointed out areas where she flooded the colors over one another to make a luminous warm gray or where she let the edges of two colors soften as they damply merged. I know nothing about the techniques of watercolor, so looking closely at these paintings was an education.
It was also a biographical journey with the artist. "A Song for Lena" was illustrated with images of Leslie's young daughter, Emma, in the kitchen baking an apple pie with her Grandma Gorenberg. The "Third-Story Cat" was a Baker/Gorenberg cat named Nellie who escaped from Leslie's third-floor studio window on a regular basis. Lulu, a Border terrier, and Bridget, a Rottweiler, were the models for "You Bad Dog." Steve Costa and his daughter, Blanche, formerly of West Tisbury, appear, as does Sarah Greenberg, currently a student at Yale.
The most personal images were those of "All the Secrets of the World," a story set in World War II. "The secret of that book is that I used images of both my parents. I think of my mother as a 20-year-old nurse, going across the Atlantic in a Liberty Ship. She met my father, a hospital administrator in the Army, putting patients under the hospital beds during an air raid." The paintings depict her parents as the young parents in the story. The model for their daughter, waving goodbye to her father, is Emma, the granddaughter they never lived to see. Cousins, aunts, and uncles long dead, are among the faces of the crowd looking out of the pages.
Leslie has illustrated 15 children's books over her 20-year career as an illustrator. This exhibition, fittingly at a public library, is the first retrospective of her book illustrations to date. Six of the books were written by Leslie. Others were written by admired authors Jane Yolen, Jane Aragon, Hilary Horder Hippely, Patricia Hermes, Valiska Gregory, Susan Vizuraga, Doug Wood, and Gerald and Loretta Hausman. Her work has been included in anthologies of children's book illustrations and she has written a textbook for art teachers. Leslie is also a premier fine artist. Her watercolors, oils, and monotypes are exhibited on the Island at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.
Barbara Bader, in "American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within" wrote, "A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document; and, foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning of the page. On its own terms its possibilities are limitless." ◆
The paintings will be on display at the Chilmark Library through the month of October. They are a treat and an instruction on all levels, for artists, readers, appreciators, and especially for kids. Please plan to visit, to observe, and to dream. If possible, bring a child along with you.