Jackie Baer is 85 going on 19. She’s a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a collector, a jewelry maker, and a cartoonist, and she brings a blithe spirit and offbeat sensibility to everything she touches.
Jackie and her husband Gene live in a charming cape in Vineyard Haven, where they raised their four children and where they’re surrounded with decades of both Jackie and Gene’s artwork. There are even some pieces by Jackie’s father, Stan Lair, who worked for the fabled Van Ryper model shop in Vineyard Haven during WWII. After the war he made models for himself, including a hand-carved replica of the Flying Horses Carousel that sits on a table in the Baers’ living room.
Walking through the Baer home is to be constantly confronted with the unexpected — bedizened manikins, cabinet after cabinet of antique dolls, cases of jewelry, and a suit of armor that Gene brought back from Europe after WWII. Jackie’s son Chris calls it a “house of curiosities.” In keeping with our entertaining tour of the house, Gene treated us to a song on the piano. “At one time or another, he’s probably played in every bar in town,” said Jackie.
Jackie first showed an interest in art when she was in high school. Between 1947 and 1950, she did a series of cartoons depicting the real-life antics of her childhood friends, teachers, and familiar Vineyard Haven folks. “I didn’t have a camera,” Jackie said, “so I wanted some way to remember people and events.”
Following high school, Jackie went to the Museum School in Boston and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she studied drawing and painting. Following college, she and Gene were married and lived in Connecticut for two years before permanently returning to the Island.
Looking back at Jackie’s artistic career, she’s had a history of shifting genres. When she returned to the Island, she concentrated primarily on pottery. “Ruth White had a greenhouse in Vineyard Haven where she held classes, and I taught ceramics and pottery there,” Jackie said.
“When I was a kid,” remembers Chris Baer, “we had the old kiln and wheel and other equipment in our basement, but she never used it in my memory. By the time I came along, she was on to her photography career.”
“I was always interested in photography,” Jackie said. “My father was a photographer, and had a darkroom down in the basement.” Jackie primarily did portraiture, including all the high school yearbook photography.
For the past 30 years or so, Jackie has collected antique dolls, and as we tour the house, countless faces peer out at us from the living room and dining room. Several years ago, Jackie began combining the dolls with her passion for photography, and did a series of doll portraits. “It’s fun to photograph them,” said Jackie, “I have so many of them I can’t even count them; they’re spread all over the house.”
Not content to just photograph the dolls, about 10 years ago Jackie turned her attention to painting watercolor portraits of the dolls, and I think this is some of her best work. There’s a primitive quality to the paintings, but also hints of the Renaissance; the net effect is fresh and totally contemporary.
Concurrently with her watercolor work, Jackie also made jewelry, striking necklaces and pendants made from beads, stones, and glass. And having these materials on hand, in a way, led to the evolution of her next genre of art. The story goes back to last spring.
Gene was recuperating from a hip replacement last June, and the Baers’ daughter Gretchen came to stay with them to help out. One afternoon she was up in the attic and came across some old manikins and thought working on them might be a good project for her mom. Jackie was inspired.
She took beads she had been collecting for her jewelry and applied them to the manikins, bringing them to life. Artist Kara Taylor was the guest curator of a show called “She,” which just closed at the Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown, and Gretchen sent her some pictures of Jackie’s manikin sculptures.
“I was already over-capacity,” said Taylor, “but I knew that I definitely had to include this work.” She went on to say that “she’s 85 years old, but she isn’t limited by the perspective of her generation, she’s redefined the manikins icon, she’s a revolutionary artist.”
Jackie was so pleased with the result of her work she began applying beads everywhere … on an old milk can … on a sculpture of a fish … she is currently working on applying them to an old tricycle.
I jokingly said to her, “You know, Jackie, if I sit still long enough, you’ll probably put beads all over me.” She looked at me and smiled as if to say, “Yeah, maybe.”