Beverly Baker pockets pens wherever she goes. An opportunist at heart, trips to grocery stores, libraries, banks and post offices are all chances to build upon her extensive collection. A mundane and readily available tool, the pen perfectly accommodates her constant and prolific art practice.
From an early age, Baker displayed a determined desire to make art, seizing upon every opportunity to meet this need. At her first job in a “sheltered workshop,” she was assigned to shred administrative documents. Baker would secretly take home tax forms, prison reports and various official papers which became some of her first drawing surfaces. In 2001, she was enrolled at Latitude Artists Community, an art studio for adults with developmental disabilities in Lexington, Kentucky. Co-founder Bruce Burris who has worked closely with Baker, recalled once finding the artist in a studio room with a paper shredder. Sitting next to the machine, she was drawing on documents marked “confidential” which she had pilfered from the pile.
In the studio, Beverly Baker’s art making practice is comprised of a series of persistent and prescribed rituals, performed in a specific order everyday. According to Mollie Rabiner, the Community Division Director at Latitude, “she gives reverence to each aspect of her process, from every breath she takes. [Her ritual is] continuous, it is in everything she does, absolutely everything.”
Every weekday morning, at 8:30 a.m., Baker arrives at Latitude. One of the first steps in her morning observance is the careful and methodical washing of her hands. When done, she advances to choosing her art supplies stored in grain belts. Baker fingers through the media, meditating on which item she would like to bring back to her desk. After a thorough inspection lasting up to half an hour, she selects a pen or a ball of yarn and heads to her chair.
While other Latitude artists find seats at shared tables, Baker occupies her own private desk. In an arc, she piles collections of visual references, all specifically ordered and spaced. Stacks of books and magazines, namely Vogue, National Geographic, and Cosmopolitan, form a fortress around her chair. Supplies litter the table and her art box overflows with ballpoint pens and colored pencils. In the center, she keeps a stack of her 15” x 22” drawings, the most recent piece sits on top. (At the end of each day, the staff clear all tables except Baker’s, leaving her art environment intact for the next morning).
At her desk, she performs the ceremony of removing her shoes and socks, one at a time. Once bare, she rubs each foot and slowly coos to it. Lunch takes up to two hours, it begins with a prolonged blessing of her meal with muffled sounds and words. She eats her food at the same desk, and scraps often become a component of her art, mustard stains adding hints of color to her primarily black and white palette.
Born in 1961 with Down syndrome, Baker is mostly non-verbal. She spends the majority of her day drawing in silence. When asked specific questions, she will likely respond in a stream of consciousness with words such as, “Kitty Cat,” “Poocat” (both terms of endearment for her beloved sister, Diane) “ABC,” “pudding,” “chocolate,” or will use the occasional sentence such as, “Meryl Streep is an angel” or “ladies that smell good.”
Language, however, is the foundation of Baker’s work. Her drawings almost invariably start with the writing of her name in ballpoint pen. In some cases, she methodically writes and rewrites her first initial in plunging rows or columns:
Her elongated characters are drawn with a swooping gesture; a “V” might tick across the entire page, an “e” may be swirled over and over in the corner of the composition. Within this initial sub-drawing, other letters and occasional numbers may also appear. Baker continuously layers these characters, often obscuring them completely.
Her reverence to these letters can be seen as a meditative study on the aesthetics of symbols. She seems devoted to the visual quality and form of the letters rather than their prescribed meaning. From time to time, she appropriates specific, aesthetically pleasing words found in her books and magazines. In one particular piece, she began a drawing with “ARTFORUM” scrawled in the center, which was later covered by other letters. Baker has been known to also incorporate imagery in her early sketches. Outlines of witches, Mickey Mouse, or birds sporadically appear.
Once the artist lays down the foundation of her sketch, she starts to bury her writings with pen strokes. In this next phase, she brings her pen to an area of the page, and then swoops it across to the other side. This process is repeated over and over, slowly and meticulously covering segments of her initial composition with densely saturated markings. Over time, whole swaths of the drawings are shadowed in abstracted shapes resembling waves, bark, or frayed swatches of fabric. In some examples, letters, numbers, and solitary lines peek out from beneath these shapes, while in other pieces, the page becomes completely imbued with shiny, sticky black, copper, and rusted hues. The markings are made with such intense persistence that grooves appear in the paper, texturizing the once flat surface. With the force of her hand, the paper regularly tears beneath her nib. Each labored drawing takes Baker close to a month to complete.
These waves of pen strokes do not always remain abstract or organic. According to Rabiner, Baker’s figures are occasionally influenced by the images found in the books and magazines she surrounds herself with. In one particular instance, a National Geographic magazine on Baker’s desk lay open to a photograph of a breaching humpback whale. Baker sat for hours behind the magazine, making her usual markings. At the end of the day Rabiner passed by the artist’s desk and realized these thousands of marks had formed the exact silhouette of the whale. The intentionality of her composition was palpable.
For a woman who struggles with traditional modes of communication, her devotion to the deconstruction and abstraction of language in her work is mesmerizing. Art critic Roberta Smith, in her New York Times review of the 2013 Outsider Art Fair “Feeling Right At Home on the Fringe,” describes Baker’s pen drawings as “tumultuous.” Perhaps these markings are born from a feeling of frustration at the inability to fully communicate her thoughts and feelings. It seems Baker’s work touches on the universal desire to transcend isolation through language, but simultaneously exposes its inherent limitations. When viewing her work, we are left grappling with the clamor of her garbled writings. At the same time, one can’t help but feel grateful to bear witness to her unique and unrelenting voice.
Baker’s pen drawings have been widely exhibited both in the United States and internationally. In 2013 and 2014, her work was included in New York City’s Outsider Art Fairs. In 2014, her drawings were exhibited in the group show Do the Write Thing at Christian Berst Art Brut gallery in New York City, as well as in group exhibitions in the gallery’s Paris location. The following year, she had a solo exhibition at the Drawing Now Paris Fair. Examples of her work will be featured in an upcoming book entitled Ballpointists by Trent Morse and published by Laurence King.