Andy Baird Interview
Tell us a little about your family?
I was born in Denver, Colorado, August 12, 1946. There is a thing about being a long-time Colorado family, so I like to point out that I am a fifth-generation Colorado native. The first Baird came here in 1867. Colorado has always been my home, and I cannot think of any other place as home.
My father was an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation and helped design major dams; my mother was a homemaker who took charge of raising six children. I have two brothers and three sisters, all of whom live in Colorado, except one sister, who lives in California.
My wife, Cindy, is a technical writer. We have two children, both very talented. Lydia, who is twenty, will be a Senior this fall studying dance at Julliard in New York; Sam, who is eighteen, will be a sophomore at the Manhattan School of Music studying jazz trombone.
When did you first decide to be an artist?
I knew I would be an artist from the age of seven, in second grade. I used to watch my aunt – my father’s sister – paint. She painted horses. That year I won a school-wide contest. Our parochial school had taken us into Denver to hear a concert, and afterwards held a contest to paint our impressions of the event. As I recall, my painting had part of the orchestra in the center with musical notes all around.
Where did you study art?
Out of high school, I went to the Rocky Mountain School of Art & Design in Denver for three and a half years. It was a commercial art school, and while it helped me discover a love for oil painting and figure painting, I decided that I did not want to do commercial art. I thought I should get an Art Education degree, so I went to the University of Northern Colorado in Greely and got my BA in 1972 and an MA in 1976.
At the University, things got a bit mixed up. I had a roommate who helped me register by pulling cards for my courses. He wound up pulling graduate-level painting courses for me along with a few required courses. My graduate professors let me stay because I was so advanced in my skills. But by my Sophomore year I had taken all my electives, so I had to catch up on my required courses. One of the requirements was ceramics.
I was not happy with that because I thought that I would have to do hobby painting of pre-fired pieces, but I soon learned that ceramics involved using a wheel and kilns, so I became interested – so interested that my painting fell by the wayside. I loved working on the wheel.
Where did your interest in ceramics take you?
I began to show my work while I was still in school. Before I graduated and became a teacher, I was getting recognition for my work. My project for my MS degree was on Indian pottery. I figured out how to do the metallic black hand-polished finish that Maria Martinez was known for. It had been a closely held secret, but I figured it out and used it in a unique way. My method was to make a pot, disassemble it, and reassemble it to give it an ancient look. By the time I became a high school teacher, I had two or three major ceramics galleries and was selling high end pottery. By the mid nineteen-eighties, my work was carried by ten great galleries across the country and was getting five hundred dollars per pot, which was a nice supplement to my salary. The first hand-polished, broken, and reassembled pot that I sold in Santa Fe was purchased by Robert Redford, and that got me national attention.
What brought you back to painting?
In the mid 1990s, the rage for blown glass took away much of the pottery market, so I went back to painting. I began doing wildlife painting and water colors, but I felt that I had arrived at the style late in its popularity, and saw that it was beginning to fade. I like to get the pulse of what the nation is thinking. Every time I go to a city, I visit galleries and find out what is selling. Wildlife was the earlier market, but then it fell dead. Contemporary art is now in the lead.
How did you come to develop your unique style?
About 2002, I was teaching a particular student who was so advanced that I had to come up with new assignments to challenge him. The student could do excellent contour drawings, so I gave him the project to draw with scribbles – to make a face come out of the paper just with scribbling. Drawing without an outline. He succeeded so well that I used it as a standard assignment in advanced drawing classes. I had my classes work with this technique with chalk pastels. The process inspired me to experiment with the technique myself. I saw that I might be able to use liquid paint using a Jackson Pollack-like method.
How did you work it all out?
I went on a deliberate search for paints that would work with this style. My high school let me use an empty classroom in the summer as a painting studio. I began by spreading canvases on the floor and walking on them as I dribbled paint. There was a problem stretching the canvas after the paint dried, so I began to stretch the canvas before painting, which meant that I had to walk around the painting instead of on it. I used a stir stick to stream the paint onto the canvas. I experimented with various liquid acrylic latex paints until I found the particular brands that stream well. I scrubbed each canvas with water to remove the sizing and tighten the canvas, then lightly gessoed it while it was still wet. I first applied a base color to the canvas, usually a rust color or a dark green, to provide a background wash effect of complementary colors. This color showed through any tiny spaces there might have been between the streamed lines in the completed painting.
The technique was not one to be controlled precisely enough for small subjects, so I worked on very large canvases. I paint just above the canvas as it lies on the floor. I have trained myself to be able to visualize the image from a distance, so I can see how the painting is progressing. Sometimes, when the painting is nearly finished, I will hang the canvas up and step back to study it further.
It took me a couple of years to develop control over the streaming and to produce enough good work to do a show. The finished work was around seventy-two or three inches by sixty-three inches. My first showing was at an art market show in Denver, and it was a success, so I felt that in terms of the art market, I was doing the right thing at the right time.
Do you relate your work to any other artists?
The technique was connected to Jackson Pollack. At first, only seeing Pollack’s paintings in book reproduction, I did not care for them. But after seeing the original work in museums, I went from being a reluctant fan to an absolute fan of Pollack’s work. I loved the fact that it was so deep and so layered. The technique was to keep adding paint until there is depth to the painting.
There is also a connection to Chuck Close, who used pixel-like sections to compose portraits, as well as the earlier Georges-Pierre Seurat, who used dots of paint to compose scenes. Optical blending enables the perception of the image. I might call my work ‘Seurat meets Jackson Pollack meets Chuck Close’.
In its subject matter, your painting seems to be in the American Pop tradition.
That’s the whole thing – putting our culture right back out there. From the beginning, I thought of the work as an offshoot of Pop Art. I deliberately worked with a glamour look – almost the commercial look found in fashion magazines. I observed how commercialism worked in the store check-out lines. I saw that everyone liked the women portraits better than the men, and I discussed it a lot with of people – friends, clients, artists – and watched people in the check-out lines at stores, and came to the conclusion that women were focused on the fashion magazine look. My first ten paintings in that look were half men and half women. I wanted my paintings to work exactly like a branch of Pop Art, similar to Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans. I agree with the overall Pop Art philosophy – putting art back in daily life, off the pedestal. Art consumers are drawn to images that surround them on a daily basis.
Where do you get your Pop images?
I am very selective about the images I choose to get that “look”. Some of my source images are inspired by ads. I look for photos with the right light and shade and an intriguing image. From them, I make sketches in pencil and charcoal studies. When I have students with promising faces, I will pay for their senior class photos in exchange for permission to choose a few shots from the Denver photographer who takes the photos. (I got to choose five out of the three hundred shots from my daughter Lydia’s senior photo shoot, which inspired me to do the same with other students.) I name my paintings after the actual students, if the names are good ones; otherwise, I choose names from a book of baby’s names. Some of the photos become favorites and I use them several times with varying compositions. Although these photos are my sources, it is up to me to create the look of popular culture that you see in my paintings.
These days, I will work on ten paintings at a time. Some will be put away unfinished until I can discover what I need to do to finish them. The others each go through a process of completion. The beauty of the process is that the face starts to come out and get a personality of its own.
When you paint, do you have music playing in the studio?
Absolutely. I will listen to music and sometimes books on tape or radio talk shows. I feel influenced by the mood of what I listens to, particularly in the choice of colors. With certain paintings, I can tell what I was listening to as I painted them.
Any comments on your new show with Angela King Gallery?
Many of the images in the show had a big impact on my teenage years – the Statue of Liberty, the Campbell’s Soup can. I met Andy Warhol at a show he had in Denver. Warhol wrote a dedication to me in a copy of his book (Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again), “To Andy from Andy”, and drew a little Campbell’s Soup can in the middle. Meeting him made such an impression on me -- that's why I'm so glad to be able to exhibit the Pop art character of my work in this show at Angela King Gallery.