Leslie Baker’s ‘Saved Views’ at the West Tisbury library

“Mustard Field,” oil, 18 x 24 in. —Leslie Baker

“Saved Views: Past and Present” is the title Leslie Baker chose for her exhibition of landscape paintings at the West Tisbury library. They represent 30-plus years she has lived and painted on the Island. See the paintings and meet the artist at a reception at the library this Saturday, August 11, from 3 to 4:30 pm.

There is not another artist on the Island who paints like Leslie Baker. Her paintings glow from an inner light of glazed layers of transparent colors. They are the unexpected colors of her imagination and design, not the usual “local color,” the art term for what is in front of one’s eyes. Skies can be mauve or yellow or, yes, sometimes blue. Sunlight rakes across a treeline or turns a meadow to fire. Shadows can soften to lavender-green. What is on the surface is also what lies below.

You may know Baker’s abstract paintings and monotypes. An artist doesn’t do only one thing, and each informs the other. Being a colorist, there is a consistency to her palette. An orange and gray-green field may be painted on a lilac-pink ground, but so may an abstract composition. She leaves edges showing; what went before is part of the story.

She has always done small plein air landscapes. Her current painting companions are Anne Besse-Shepherd, John Dawson, and Marston Clough. Find a spot, set up the easel, lay out the palette, and begin. They can be golden days. The plein air sketches then become something else in the studio, transformed by memory and reflection. Colors intensify, or change completely. Sizes vary, from large-scale paintings, even diptychs or triptychs, expanding as necessary to support whatever vision they are called upon to accommodate. Whether they become scenic landscapes or abstract color-field paintings, Baker says they are “grounded by a sense of place.”

Baker’s latest paintings have become more completely finished in the field. There may be some refinement back in her studio, but they are more immediate in composition and execution. One of the interesting aspects of this show is seeing the juxtaposition of work from different periods. The brushwork of these latest paintings is more obviously laid down, and so remains, no longer the polished layers and surfaces of the studio paintings. The artist’s hand is more clearly evident, though somehow the effect still retains a sense of the cerebral that I have always associated with her work.

Two of these newer paintings are hanging beside one another in the library show. “Mustard Field” and “Pinewoods and Field” are more thickly brushed, showing a more immediate application of paint. There are still glimpses of the lavender underpainting around the edges, beneath where juicy greens and golds form the fields and trees. It is an unusual choice for an underpainting color, especially for a landscape, especially for a landscape done onsite, but it is an effective choice that gives a warm glow to the overall aspect.

They are hung just past “Wave of Orange,” a view of Parsonage Pond when it was still a pond. The contrast between the earlier and newer paintings couldn’t be more obvious. “Wave of Orange” is large and filled with hot sunlight that intensifies every color it touches. Orange, yellow, chartreuse green foliage, all ramped up in intensity, the composition swooping down a slope into a rivulet of blue water, then continuing up the other side.

“Music Street Field” is another smaller painting, a composition of orange and dark red. “Honey” is orange and lavender-blue, complementary colors, a high view looking down a tree-covered hillside. “On Lilac Pond,” is an aptly titled view of James Pond, all values of a rich lavender-blue-gray, a silent, end-of-the-day painting.

“Pink Comes to Rest” is large, a stripe of water colored a rich magenta-pink, set in a landscape of magenta, purple, and blue. It’s dusk, and the last light hits the water, making it glow in its rich setting.

The paintings described above are all oils. The show also includes three watercolors. One is titled “Passing State Road.” It has a story. This is it, as the artist told it to me: “You know those days at the end of December when you’re driving back from Cronig’s, and the light illuminates just the tops of the trees. There is that stripe of pale robin’s egg blue, an assurance that spring will come. It’s so immediate, only a moment, then it disappears. I came home and painted it from memory. The sky and dark tree line were done wet into wet, a few quick passes of color. Then I painted that sweep of olive green for the ground.” I was awestruck seeing that painting. It is clear that Baker is capable in handling whatever medium she chooses. 

For a little background, she is a renowned author and illustrator of children’s books. She lived in Philadelphia and exhibited at the Rosenfeld Gallery before moving here year-round in 1997. On the Island, she has been represented by Shaw-Cramer Gallery and A Gallery. She is a Copley Master artist in the Copley Society in Boston.

Many of Baker’s favorite places to paint are conservation properties, a recognition and appreciation for efforts to preserve the Island. Her beautiful gardens on her property are another tribute to her commitment to live respectfully on the Earth.