Nature in Flux: A Studio Visit with Joan Baldwin

Joan Baldwin in her Waltham Mills Studio.
Joan Baldwin at her Waltham Mills Studio.
I recently climbed the wide staircases of Waltham Mills to visit Joan Baldwin‘s second-floor corner studio. The former mill has tall ceilings and lots of light streaming in from big windows. Viewed on a sunny midday, the oil paintings were radiant. Evidence of past series, such as huge, vivid foliage scenes and surreal depictions of chairs leaned near corners and against walls, offering an appealing, low-key way to take in her work.

A sunny corner of Joan’s studio, including an earlier painting of upholstered furniture.
Baldwin’s Members’ Gallery show opening at Kingston Gallery on June 3, 2015 will feature framed works, but her previous Kingston exhibition transformed the Center Gallery with an installation where, like her current pieces, painted vistas set the scene. For the installation she cocooned dolls in sheer fabric, so hints of their round eyes and bald heads shone through, and hung them, with painted white sticks, from the ceiling. A curiosity about divergences between human life transitions and those of insects and other animals persists through her years of art-making.

Joan has been focusing on a mid-size series of what she calls terrariums, as they contain nature in three dimensions, and in some cases, the sculptural collage elements press right up to the interior of the Plexiglas. The diorama-like format incorporates her speciality, details of nature, rendered with spot-on accuracy, as the background. Next, she collages nests and cocoons onto the foliage and tangled networks of brush using items that by context aren’t immediately recognizable, such as beads and lightweight, lacy fibers. The collage elements complete the habitats where the lives of insects and birds emerge.

Hair Flies
Joan Baldwin, Hair Flies, oil on board, collage, 27 x 33 inches, 2014.
The terrariums seem to usher in new life, and so we could also refer to them as incubators. Areas with the cocoons and nests are at times frothy and slimy, and yet still beautiful. The materials that compose what in reality would be foam or young new wings are decorative in their original purposes of barrettes and other hair accessories. In past works, Baldwin has also collaged with hair from wigs. She says some people are at first repelled by the visual complexity that studs the foliage. Like much thought-provoking visual art, the works ask more questions than they can answer. Some questions may get under our skin, such as “Does it depict birth or death?” and “Is it forming or falling apart?” Rather than distancing or idealizing the life of small creatures, these works hone in on it.

Foggy Morning, 2010
Foggy Morning, 2014
Baldwin’s imagery is from photos she has taken of the wildlife on Pleasant Bay in Cape Cod, where she has a home. She explores, takes photographs, and then returns to the photos to paint from a combination of memory and her own vision. More than anything else, the photographs inspire her incubators. Rather than seeking photographic accuracy, she applies her own instinct of how to make clear, compelling scenes from spots that in lived experience may have been overlooked. Particularly adept at conjuring eye-catching foliage in oil, she balances bright and dark area–often enhancing the lightness–to depict the weedy, leafy paths by the salt water marshes. The effect is airy and lush, making the Cape Cod settings seem tropical.

Previously in her career, Baldwin illustrated furniture. She lived in North Carolina, near the immense furniture markets of High Point, where her editorial illustration work made a good living. Over time, Baldwin was not satisfied with direct furniture painting, and her couches and ottomans became more surreal. The furniture she painted was tiny for a time, scaled for dolls or ornamentation. In other canvases, a couch may stretch out, morphing into a hand, or stand in a wooded scene, nearly transparent, taking on the appearance the forest itself, foretelling her future artistic direction that is based in surreal meditations on natural processes.

-Shana Dumont Garr