Visiting artists Gretchen and Jackie Baer

A late summer visit brings two 90-somethings together for the first time.


I was driving into Vineyard Haven on a Sunday to offer Sound Healing at Camp Jabberwocky in late August, and realized I had not visited artist Jackie Baer, and her daughter, artist Gretchen Baer, all summer. I got in touch after returning home, and asked if I could bring writer Cynthia Riggs along for a visit. Monday morning, Cynthia and I drove to the Baer family home for Cynthia’s first-ever visit. We started in Gretchen’s studio, where she was working on a large commission of Bisbee, Ariz. (her home when not on-Island), along with some paintings she made during her first visit to Sicily in the spring, plus other paintings she’d made over the summer. Later we got to see a photo of the Baer family inside the “old, old, falling-down garage” that was repurposed as an art studio. In the 1980s, Jackie had the building renovated to use as her photography studio when she was the official high school photographer for the Island, and all the high school students came to that studio to have their portraits taken. Jackie processed and printed her work in the darkroom in their basement.

Next, we made our way to the main house to visit Jackie Baer. It was the first time that Cynthia Riggs and Jackie Baer could remember meeting in person. The Baer family can trace its Island roots to the 1600s, and Cynthia’s family’s roots date to the early 1700s. One of the Baers’ early relatives “was the first doctor on the Island.” Gretchen’s brother, Chris Baer, writes the “This Was Then” column for The MV Times, where he’s written about this forebear. Gretchen wondered whether Cynthia was related to their family; they both share ancestors named Cleveland or Cleaveland, but could not come up with a name that rang a bell on either side. Gretchen added their name “goes back to the West family.” Cynthia noted her family descends from the Coffins. Gretchen mentioned her relative George Cleveland (see, but Cynthia was not aware of a connection from her family.

The largest artwork in the living room is under Plexiglas, and can be viewed standing. Gretchen explains that her grandfather, Stan Lair, worked on carving his mechanical carousel scene for a decade, “put it aside for awhile, and then he worked like mad on it, finished it, and then died a week later.” As far as Jackie and Gretchen know, it was never formally exhibited for the public. Also he had a big radio tower in the backyard, and his desk was set up just like Jackie’s childhood watercolor of his desk.

As we moved from Jackie’s studio to the living room, to a hall, to her office, and to the dining room, Cynthia exclaimed, “The energy in this house is amazing. I love your work.” Then we gathered around the dining room table to enjoy a midmorning snack. I happened to have friends coming to visit from my days at Cosmo (Cosmopolitan Magazine), and of course Cynthia had a few articles published there in the 1970s, including, “I Fell in Love with a Blind Sailor.” Gretchen laughed and remarked how strange an idea it seemed, until she too had a good friend who was a blind sailor.

Jackie’s days mostly begin at 7 am in her studio, and “she won’t stop til 7 pm, even working through her lunch,” says her daughter Gretchen. Here are two 90-plus-year-olds who despite life’s challenges, get up daily, stay curious, and find their art and others sustain them. Gretchen says, “I tell my mother, If you feel confused or anxious, just make art, and everything makes sense again. However you’re feeling, if you can express it, you can work through it.” Cynthia responded, “If you’re a writer and you’re mad at somebody, you can just torture them. I was mad at Dick Reston, the editor of the Vineyard Gazette at the time, so I wrote a book called ‘The Paperwhite Narcissus,’ about a narcissistic newspaper editor.” At this point, everyone is laughing.

Neither Gretchen nor Jackie had ever read any of Cynthia’s Martha’s Vineyard mysteries, but promptly decided to take some out from the Vineyard Haven library. Gretchen reported they checked out two of Cynthia’s books, explaining though her mother loves to read, she had not picked up a book yet this summer. Later that afternoon, I got a text that Jackie could not put down “Poison Ivy.” And Cynthia continued to feel inspired for days.