It took 86 years, but Jackie Baer finally had a coming-out party, and some party it was. Last Sunday, Kara Taylor turned over half her studio in Chilmark to showcase Jackie Baer’s beaded manikins, and friends, family, and art lovers from all over the Island showed up, filling the studio and spilling out onto the lawn to see “The Wild World of Jacqueline Baer.”
Last year, Taylor was curating a show called “She” at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown, and Jackie’s daughter Gretchen submitted three of Jackie’s pieces that Taylor thought were nothing less than revolutionary. After the show, when Gretchen asked her if there was somewhere on the Island where Jackie might be able to have a show, Taylor immediately said, “I’ll do it!” Taylor firmly believes that we need people to believe in us to keep us going.
Make no mistake, giving up half her studio for a week in the summer is a big deal; the only other time Taylor had done that was for a show by Carly Simon two years ago.
Jackie, born and raised on the Island, has been an artist all her life; she’s been a photographer, a ceramicist, a watercolorist, and a jewelry maker, among other things, and in all this time she’s never had a solo show. But her beaded manikins have put her in a different league.
It began about a year ago, after Jackie’s husband Gene was recuperating from a broken hip and Gretchen came up from her home in Arizona to help out. One afternoon while rummaging around in Jackie’s attic, she came across three old manikins and showed them to Jackie, thinking she might want to paint them or decorate them, anything to get her mind off Gene’s medical problems.
Jackie, who had collected thousands of beads for other projects over the years, said, “Why don’t I bead them!”
Once Jackie started in, she said, “I kind of caught fire.” She found that not only was it a great outlet for her artistic talent, “It saved me from a lot of problems, dealing with Gene’s illness and all that goes with it.”
Gretchen describes Jackie’s work ethic: “Mom, when you first get a manikin to work on, you put it on the table and just stare at it for three days — what’s going on in your mind?”
“Color and design … and what materials I have on hand,” Jackie says. “I think about what I’m going to do and then when I start, it just sort of grows. Sometimes I surprise myself.”
When Jackie begins her work, she’s an artist obsessed; she sits down with her beads and her manikin and barely comes up for air.
“She sits down at the table around 7:30 in the morning,” Gretchen says, “and has lunch and dinner at the table, and doesn’t stop until it’s time to go to bed.”
Jackie and Kara share an obsessive trait. “I just hope that when I’m 86, I’ll have something I’m that obsessed about,” Taylor said.
Gene Baer died this past June; he and Jackie were married 65 years.
“What’s kind of amazing,” Gretchen said, “is that this whole cycle of work on the manikins has taken about a year — from the time Gene broke his hip and we discovered the manikins in the attic to the show at the Sculpin last summer, to her getting everything ready for the show at Kara’s this summer after Gene’s death — it’s all happened in about a year.”
Jackie originally created three manikins for the “She” show, and today she has around 19. “I think I’m improving,” Jackie said. “I’m learning as I go.” Jackie’s technique is to glue the beads to the manikin and then coat them with several coats of varnish. “It’s very tactile,” Gretchen says. But lately she’s using smaller and smaller beads, many not much bigger than grains of sand. Kara is in awe of her technique. “I just don’t see how she uses those small beads without getting glue all over the place.”
“Patience,” Gretchen says, “what patience.”
In some cases Jackie’s inspiration can be serendipitous. When Island Entertainment went out of business, Gretchen, an artist in her own right, traded a painting with owner Anne Evasick for the statue of David that stood in her store. It became Jackie’s “Island Entertainment David.”
The manikin for “Lady Marion” just happened to have come with two left hands. Jackie thought that the woman was conscious of this and it made her awkward, unable to know what to do with herself. That’s what guided Jackie’s design of “Lady Marion.”
In one case, the inspiration might have come from an unseen hand. While Jackie, Gretchen, and I were sitting around the table talking, Gretchen mentioned that over the years she decorated several cars with paint and various objects … so who knows, maybe Jackie’s inspiration bubbled up from her daughter’s decorated cars.
And in one case the inspiration is a very personal story that came out of Jackie’s past. Back around the turn of the century, Jackie’s grandmother had an affair with a black man while her sea captain husband was out to sea, and they had a child, Ralph. “It must have been awful to have this happen on a small Island; the family kept the child hidden, and I only met him once in the ’70s,” Jackie said. “I was always fascinated by Ralph; he was the inspiration for one of my manikins, ‘Ralph Lair.’”
Whatever the inspiration, Jackie’s show at Kara’s gallery was a big success.
Said Kate Taylor: “The work is joyous … I feel like I’ve been transported to the French Quarter of New Orleans.”
Anne Evesick, former owner of Island Entertainment: “I couldn’t have imagined a better home for David.”
Alison Rose Levy from Aquinnah: “Baer’s beaded mannequins are a combination of Greco-Roman and the body electric.”
Kara Taylor: “My studio has never looked better. I look at this room, and there’s so much personality and color. It’s nice when art can be fun and interactive, and these are fun, interactive, and SHINY. They have so much presence.”
Gretchen Baer: “I’m really proud of you, Mom … it’s so great, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.”
“The Wild World of Jacqueline Baer” will be at the Kara Taylor Gallery (just after the Grey Barn in Chilmark) until Sunday, Sept. 1.