Sometimes—dare I say often?—the joy of research is finding something you weren’t looking for. This semester, intern Sara Roberts is creating archive files for Oklahoma State University faculty artists, and in the course of her research she has been going through the Art Department scrapbooks. Last week, she brought one into my office in order to share some of the fun she’s been having learning what the department was like thirty-something years ago.
This particular scrapbook covered the years 1979-82, and unsurprisingly, I was completely enthralled. We ended up reading almost every page together, and while I was intrigued to learn more about the exhibitions that the Gardiner Gallery had hosted in these years (Manuel Neri and Deborah Butterfield, among others—incidentally, both organized by BJ Smith), Sara and I were particularly amused by the hijinks of Joe Baker and his students. Baker was described in the various clippings as a visiting Assistant Professor who taught Principles of Studio and other fundamentals in the department. Neither Sara nor I had run across Baker’s name before—but we agreed that the scrapbook’s contents were excellent motivation to find out more!
The project that started our conversation, this photograph was simply captioned, “Cattle Crossing” when it was printed in a local newspaper (unfortunately the keepers of the scrapbook weren’t diligent about including citations, so I don’t know which paper it was in). The description below elaborates: “Cardboard barnyard animals held up campus traffic Friday on Knoblock Avenue and angry motorists opted for a different route. The animals were a Principles of Studio class art project. The instructor, visiting Assistant Professor Joe Baker, designed the project to challenge colleague Paul Cooper. Cooper’s class recently completed a cardboard skyscraper project.” (As always, you can click on the image to see a larger version.)
The endearing, guinea-pig-like cows, along with the audacity of Professor Baker, captured Sara’s and my imagination. I also enjoyed the theme of urban-rural rivalry invoked by Baker’s response to Cooper.
On the lookout for more outdoor art, another entertaining caption—“Will Cows Lick This?”—immediately caught our attention. Again! It was a project by Professor Baker’s students, which made the ongoing cow theme that much more entertaining. This time, the caption reads: “This ‘salt-lick’ cake is sitting on the lawn in front of Gardiner Hall on the OSU [campus] this week but not to celebrate any famous cow’s birthday. Students in Joe Baker’s fundamental art class are creating new forms of salt licks to see what attracts cows. Several other attempts at expressing this idea are also sitting in front of Gardiner.”
The NewsPress—strong supporter of the arts in Stillwater then as it is today—had featured Baker’s art in a report on the faculty exhibition two years earlier. The headline that time was, “Baker Keeps Hand in Art!” and the accompanying blurb elaborated as follows: “Visiting assistant art professor Joe Baker looks over three of his works, two oil on paper drawings and an oil painting, that are on display through Sunday at the Annual Oklahoma State University Faculty Art Exhibit at Gardiner Hall.”
It’s hard to see the paintings in the photograph—the combination of a black-and-white original, the halftone reproduction process, and the age of the newspaper clipping conspires to limit our reading of the works to the observation that they include both representational and abstract elements. A horse in the foreground of the largest piece appears to balance on—or hover over—an X that might be furniture or simply form. A crescent moon faintly visible in the upper register of the painting shares that space with a stepped form that acts as a boundary on the left-hand side.
When I sought more information about Baker online, I found out that he has had an illustrious career. Before he arrived in Stillwater, he had received both a BFA and MFA from the University of Tulsa, served in the Air Force, and worked for the Oklahoma Arts Council. His teaching experience is extensive, but more recently he has worked for the Heard Museum in Phoenix, pioneering their contemporary art program (Baker is Delaware, and has a personal as well as professional interest in contemporary Native American art), and as the director of community engagement at Arizona State University’s Herberger College of the Arts. His artwork is in several major collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Indianapolis Museum of Arts. Perhaps one day his work will be in our collection, too.