Leslie Baker: Finding her artistic voice


She works in a spacious, light-filled studio attached to her West Tisbury home that her family shares with two Border terriers, a mellow Bernese mountain dog and Betty, a calico cat.

A landscape artist, portrait painter, and successful book illustrator, Leslie Baker is equally adept with watercolors, oils, acrylics, or pastels. Art has been her life for close to 40 years, and has taken her on a creative journey from figurative work to landscapes, children’s books, portraiture, and still life paintings.

“She’s one of the very few artists I know who is extremely accomplished in many mediums,” says Nancy Cramer, owner of Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven, where Ms. Baker’s work has shown for the past 10 years.

“People sometimes say that I change my style, but my work never really reflects a new style,” Ms. Baker says. “There have been new genres. My style has remained constant. I am a classical contemporary painter.”

Known for her luminous Vineyard landscapes in both watercolor and oil, as well as her commissioned portraits of people and pets, Ms. Baker took a calculated risk with her new show, on display at Shaw Cramer Gallery through August 13. Instead of the anticipated pastoral Island meadows, trees, and shoreline, Ms. Baker is showing a new series of still life paintings entitled, “Shades of Grey.” The serene canvases depict many of the same objects or shapes: a vase of roses, pears, a potted plant, a bowl, a box, a pitcher of flowers, all painted against a backdrop of varying shades of grey.

The elegant still lifes began as an exercise, a way of experimenting with color and light. “I was playing with different ways of creating grey without using black or white,” Ms. Baker explains. “The grey is made from pure color. You’d be surprised at how much grey there is in the landscape, so I thought I’d use the still life genre to explore how to apply grey to future paintings.”

When Ms. Cramer saw the new images in the artist’s studio, she asked Ms. Baker if she would complete a series to show, and Ms. Baker, who did not do them with that idea, agreed.

“The show represents a part of me that people haven’t seen here on the Island,” she says. “I’m striving for a contemporary way of working in still life.”

A graduate of the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, she soon began showing her work at the prestigious Rosenfeld Gallery, and teaching art in both elementary and middle school, as well as at the college level. At 32, expecting her daughter Emma with husband David Gorenberg, Ms. Baker decided it was too difficult both to teach and to complete the large watercolor landscapes that had become her signature. She turned instead to the writing and illustration of children’s books, the first of which, “The Third-Story Cat,” published in 1987 by Little, Brown, received critical acclaim and honors. She went on to produce 14 others, each filled with beautifully rendered watercolor images.

In 1997, she and her family traded urban life in Center City, Philadelphia for their home down a quiet lane in West Tisbury.

With her daughter Emma enrolled in veterinary school, Ms. Baker, 61, is happily focused on her art, painting plein air interpretations of the Vineyard landscape and extending the boundaries of her portfolio.

“The idea of stopping to do a book right now is unthinkable,” she says. “I love what I’m doing. This is what I’ve been trained to do. Art is constantly looking for your voice, and thinking about what you’re going to say.”

Ms. Baker has spent the past three years building a body of work to exhibit in a major show for the Copley Society gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. Her series of oil paintings of Vineyard landscapes, “Saved Views,” opens there September 11, and will hang for a month.

An huge triptych fills most of the largest wall in her studio revealing a sweeping expanse of marsh and water. It will join approximately 17 other works for the Boston show.

The prospect of filling the large walls of the exhibition space thrills her: “I haven’t mounted a show of this size since I was in my thirties,” she says with enthusiasm.

Ms. Baker is “dreaming big,” and says she’d like even more wall space on which to create her landscapes. “Artists have to be brave,” she says. “You can’t worry about what people expect or you begin to mimic yourself… I’m in this because I have something to say.”