Interviewsand Articles

 

Conversation with Jane Baker: Working Assets

by R. Whittaker, Feb 19, 2009


 

 

San Francisco 12/08/08
My first acquaintance with Jane Baker came at a dinner party at a friend's house. I left with a strong impression that stayed with me, but a year was to pass before we met again. That happened thanks to Leigh Hyams who was in town for an exhibit of her own work at Meridian Gallery. A couple of days after Leigh's opening, the three of us got together for breakfast at Jane's house. It was one of those memorable occasions when conversation flows almost magically from one wonderful story into another. "You should visit her at her studio," Leigh suggested to me later that same day. 
     I was already excited about Baker and especially wanted to hear more about her practice of donating one hundred percent of the income from sales of her artwork to charities--that's 100%! (I think it's necessary to underline that.) So I asked her if she'd be willing to be interviewed.     
     
A couple of weeks later, I found myself at her studio surrounded by a wide range of work and plenty of evidence of the pleasure Jane takes in exploring different media and new methods of working. Besides her paintings and works on paper, there were chunks of wood with images burned into them, concrete tables and sculptural wall pieces as well as found objects worked into difficult to classify territory between functionality and non-objective art.
     "Look at this cutting board," she said. "Somebody made it by hand." Baker found it lying in the street and talked appreciatively about its wood frame and the handles that were part of it. She'd worked its surface, adding a subtle pattern of design and color. As I looked around her studio at all the different pieces of her work, I felt the presence of a fine sense of design and color at work in all of her pieces.
     As I looked at one after another, we chatted. Baker told me the history behind her Mission District studio, an interesting story in itself. It might have been during our breakfast conversation that Baker alluded to having had a career in the business world. And now I learned she had been the Chief Operating Officer, and then President, of Working Assets. Wow! But Jane, as I was discovering, is allergic to praise. She didn't want me to mistake any of her stories as tales of self-congratulation. It was just that a long-standing commitment to working for social transformation had always been a primary focus for her energies.
     But there was another essential part in her life-the hands-on, artmaking side. The two had not always been easy to integrate. Then four years ago, in a moment of great clarity, all that changed. Unexpected doors have opened since Baker began combining artmaking and charitable donation into one seamless project.

 
Richard Whittaker:  You've been making art for a long time, right?

Jane Baker:  Since 1988. That's not a super long time, just twenty years.

RW:  Just twenty years. It kind of puts it all in the right perspective. Say a little about that.

JB:  Why it's just twenty years? Well, I'm fifty-eight, so I realize how short twenty years is. I did do crafts. I had a loom. My grandmother taught me. I was the one who wanted to learn needlepoint.

RW:  You learned needlepoint as a kid?

JB:  Oh, I loved it. I did all sorts of crochet, knitting, hairpin lace. Oh, yeah! Beadwork. And later I did it on and off. I did it during my work life, probably because I would get depressed. So that was a way to not be so depressed.

RW:  Now that I've got you going doing beading and needlepoint-how old were you when you first remember doing that?

JB:  Well, my grandmother made stuff for the church bazaar. She was a very creative woman. I would say I started doing crafts with grandma maybe when I was six. My other two sisters didn't like craft.

RW:  But you looked forward to that.

JB:  Absolutely! I still have the stuff to make hairpin lace! I have my own knitting needles and the beaded loom. I had a full, big loom when I was in my twenties and did it on and off. I think that was partly the hippie influence, too, that I continued doing it.

RW:  Did you make any crocheted owls? [laughs]

JB:  No, but I did tons of shawls for friends! All my women friends had shawls. We were all into shawls in the late sixties. You know what I mean, the very feminine, long skirt showing and...

RW:  Yes. But I have to take issue with you when you say you've only been making art for twenty years. It doesn't sound like that to me. Why wouldn't the knitting and all that be the roots for what you're now doing?

JB:  I think it depends upon intention and how solid I am with the piece of work. Well you know, it's an interesting question. I've never thought about this. One way it is similar is that almost all my work I've done while thinking about someone else. That's true with a lot of the paintings, still.

RW:  Would you expand on that a little bit?

JB:  So when I made a shawl for someone, it was an act of devotion. I'm thinking of a shawl I made when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. I would think, who is Chris? I really wanted to make it be this thing that would thrill Chris and she would know it was really for her, for love.
     It's easy to talk about when I crocheted a receiving blanket when my niece was getting ready to be born, or my nephew. You're only thinking about that being who is going have this.
     During the 1990s my father was getting Alzheimer's, my sister had breast cancer and we knew it was going to be terminal from the get-go, and one of my closest friends had AIDS. I even lived in a different part of the country. So the way I stayed connected to them was by painting. I was hoping the paintings might-not like they weren't going to die-but that I was helping them by painting about them and honoring them.
   
RW:  So that shows a kind of continuity. But there is something different, you said. "It all depends on the intention." So there's a continuity and there's some kind of difference. Am I hearing you right?

JB:  You're right. The continuity is the love, and this sense of being in connection with the person. The difference is probably becoming much more aware of visual language when I started working with Leigh.
     Gosh, I think I'm going to say this even though I'm not sure I like it: I think sometimes what I meant by intention is that I wanted it to have kind of a transcendent quality to it, that intention of being a really fine painter, making a really good painting that would blow anyone away is different than making a shawl for someone to show how much you love them. That shawl, I never had any intention that it would end up in a museum. But I think there were times, when I was first trying to be a painter, that I had a different kind of aspiration, a different kind of intention.
     I don't have that anymore! So it's really more about pleasing myself. And I still have the thinking about other people. It's a little different, like take that cutting board [points]-I'm no longer honoring someone personally in my life. I'm honoring the guy who made that cutting board. I'm kind of collaborating with him even though I don't know the guy. So I think that part is still there, but not this thing about "Am I going to end up in a museum?" That's all gone.

RW:  When you were doing needlepoint and all those crafts your grandmother taught you, is there anything else similar to how you work today, the joy of working with materials, for instance?

JB:  Absolutely. I used my brain so much for my careers. I don't know why I went along with that. I really wish I'd been using my hands all my life. When I was in college, my car broke down and instead of getting it fixed, I decided I would strip down the engine block and fix it myself. I loved being a mechanic. I've always loved working with my hands, but I'm lucky, probably, that I used my brain so that I made money to survive. But, sure-I really love working with materials, and I did then.

RW:  Now that you're no longer concerned about whether your artwork ends up in a museum, do you feel any closer to your earlier craft making, the pure pleasure, let's say, of that?

JB:  I don't know if that's true. I think... No, because I bet I wanted grandmother to really admire me. That's not purity. I loved doing it, but I don't think it was as clean. How I work with materials now is totally self-centered, meaning, it really is a joy thing. That I think has come with age. I'm going to make it the way I think it ought to be. If nobody ends up liking it, then tough beans. That's different from when I was a child needing more admiration.

RW:  Would you say more about it being self-centered and being about joy and that this comes with age?

JB:  I'm very lucky, first of all. I don't need to make money from the art. I'm just going to tell you the burdens I've put on artmaking and how they've gotten stripped away and stopped blocking my joy. For a long time, I wanted people to admire me, admire my work. Certainly, when I first started painting, I wanted my teachers to like my painting. So why I can be more like a kid doing finger painting or being in a sandbox-you know, that freedom-is because I have enough confidence in the work that if I like it, that's enough.
     Another burden I've put on my painting is a sense of guilt. I'd think to myself, if I spent the same amount of time working on low income housing for people, I would have given a much bigger thing to the world. So for many, many years, every time I was in my studio-and this is really the God's truth-I felt bad that I was in there. I knew I could do more for the world being out doing something with my politics, which has been a very, very important thing for me. Social transformation, social change is huge in my life.
     Now I no longer feel the guilt about being in the studio because my work, hopefully, will bring money-at the least-to some social transformation cause. That happened as soon as I married the making of the art with explicit social transformation. So those are the two major burdens that got stripped off.
     Now I can run any experiment I want. For instance, I wanted to see what concrete does with dry pigments in it. When I started working with concrete, I did not go out on the Internet and learn about it. That's so I could play more. I could run my own experiments. A lot of this stuff [gestures around room] are experiments! Once I solve one I don't want to do another one again. I solved the problem. I see myself as a white-haired old lady running experiments and getting the answers to questions that I care about. Isn't that lucky? That's really how I feel. It's great and I know that those questions won't end. I've never had a problem with questions.

RW:  You came to something that resolved this conflict between doing art for your own pleasure and working more directly for social transformation. You hit upon a solution. I wonder if you would tell us about that and how you got there and what you're doing with that now.

JB:  It was lucky. I don't know why those ideas came into my head. It happened three or four years ago, so it's recent.

RW:  So tell me about that.

JB: I'd worked on a couple of art auctions. What we learned is that if something is priced at three hundred dollars, it will go out the door easily. That's one piece. Then I started thinking, I waste so much time trying to figure out how to price my work. That drives all artists crazy! Even older artists, seasoned artists. It's a horrible thing to deal with! You want it to move, but you don't want to undersell yourself. And people are saying, "You should ask for more." It's a terrible conflict.
     So I thought, well what if I just said everything is three hundred bucks! That felt really freeing. That's why I called it "JetBlue." At one point I think they were saying wherever you fly, it's one price.
     Then I thought, well, Gosh, if I'm going to do that, why don't I just sell everything and have the buyer donate to a nonprofit. At that point, I was selling three or four paintings a year, at the most. So sales were not helping put food on the table. And then I thought, why don't I direct some money to Vanguard? It's a foundation I've been involved with for twenty-five years. 
     Also, I'd just had one of those really lucky periods where I had painted, in a period of thirty-one days, twenty-nine generally very good, and huge, paintings. I wondered, how am I going to show these? This is a big schlep of paintings! I thought about gallery spaces and I didn't want to go that route. Then I thought, you know what! I'll get someone to photograph all these! And I'll just send out a show to my friends online.
     I got really good feedback. People said, "I loved that work! What happened? What changed you?" I just said, "Let's sell it. Let's get it out of here! It's a pain to store."
    So, to recap: I had all these paintings. People seemed to like them. I had this idea that $300 would get one out the door. I wanted more money going to Vanguard, which is my heart center. So I sat down with a good friend, David Kerr, a wonderful man and a web site designer. I also realized I wanted people to give to what they care about, too. So we built in an incentive. You pay $300 and the money goes to Vanguard, [now it goes to Heifer]. Or pay $350 and the money goes to the non-profit of your choice. David put the web site together. It's beautiful. That's all him.
    We sent out the idea and friends really liked it. I, for once, was able to push the marketing because it was no longer about me! It was about getting money for social change. You know, that sounds like it's just a mind twist-and it's a perfect mind twist for me! I no longer feel neurotic about being in the studio, or guilty. I feel like every time I'm in here, potentially, I'm getting more money to good causes. And I'm having fun. I say to people, more aggressively than I ever have before, please go to my web site and think about your year-end donations.
     So I was aggressive, and people got into it! Friends started bringing other people by and all of a sudden thirty paintings were sold in the first year! Not three or four. Of course, it felt good and lightened my life. And there's another thing I now realize that's so beneficial. It's the amount of thought and pleasure people get in figuring out the non-profit they want their money to go to.     
     A woman whose sibling is mentally ill gave a piece to the National Mental Alliance. There's the woman who was working on the board of a group helping to prevent cervical cancer in Nicaragua. This is something she really cares about! My favorite one is this conservative looking guy came into the studio. I think he's going to want to pick something out for the National Rifle Association. And he buys one of the edgiest paintings I've ever painted! He gives it to a homeless shelter. This guy was so much cooler than anything I attributed to him!
     And the people who get paintings are so proud, and they talk to me about the idea, the concept. Just from that alone I think they must be getting some sort of joy out of this.
    And the other thing I want to say about how it lightened my burden is that I've never seen a check. People say, Who do I make the check out to? To you? To Vanguard? I say, to Vanguard. I do not want to be a cop! And I really believe that the money gets there.
     It's one of the reasons I want the web site to stay a small operation-so that people feel the trust and what's going on. I don't have to worry about it and become a cop. I don't want any more administration. And I realized that my trusting people has meant something for them, and for me, in the long run. That's something I didn't know in the beginning.

RW: That's interesting that the trust itself has importance.

JB: Well, if you came to me and wanted to buy a painting. I'd say, great! Take it home and try it out. If you don't like it, bring it back. I don't need to see your check. There's just one thing I need to know. I need to know the contact information for the organization to which you're going to donate. That's all I need from you because we'll put the organization that you care about up on our web site so that people can click to it. So if your mother had Alzheimer's, we're going to make sure other people are going to get to see that organization that helped your mother out.
     So you're giving me the ability to help the world know about a group that helped your mother out and I'm saying, I honor you. I honor that you think this is an important group in the world.

RW:  I think that's an important transaction. In today's economy, when something changes hands, how often is trust at the center of the transaction? I just think that's a rare thing in today's world.

JB:  It is here, but I don't know if it is in a small village.

RW:  Maybe not. That's true. But I'm speaking about being here in San Francisco.

JB: Yes. And the other thing I was going to say that feeds my confidence in doing this with trust, is-and I don't know art history that well-but it is only in the last few hundred years that art has been a commodity. Before that, most artists were doing it out of their love for, frankly, for God or their church. Most of the art that has been made has not been made for money. So I'm standing with a group that has been around for a lot longer! I've aligned myself with those with more history. So it's not a weak, touchy-feely place. I think I'm with the people-I don't want to sound arrogant, but what I've started feeling is that, yes, they really knew what was right! And it lasted a long time before this particular period we are all in.

RW:  I think you're putting your finger on something. It reminds of things I've read by A.K. Coomaraswamy about art in traditional societies.

JB:  I have to say, and this is not to take away from anything I've said, but I am speaking from a privileged position. So I would not want anything I say to put down individuals who still need to make money from their art. I feel comfortable putting down the present art system. But I would not want individuals to think I'm doing better, more transformative work. Something else is wrong that not more people can do this. That's a huge subject. I have no idea of an answer.

RW:  I appreciate your saying that, but I think what you've come to could be inspiring for others. In any case, most artists in this country are not making money with their art. So you've hit upon something and found that it's an enlivening thing.

JB:  That's a really good point. It's true that very few artists are surviving on their art. People have called me or written asking can I do what you're doing? I tell them yes; take every idea! So I'm assuming some others are starting to do this. That makes me feel great! 

RW:  And your art is getting out there into the world where it can do something.

JB:  I want to go back to the affordability thing. I'm hoping that three hundred or three hundred and fifty dollars is affordable. With a tax deduction it might get down to two-fifty or so. It should be in addition to their usual contributions. I want people to have to step-up a little when they make this donation.
     An idea that has come up recently, is that if someone is on permanent disability, and they can give eight hours of their time to some organization, eight hours that's beyond their normal volunteer work, to me that qualifies for an artwork. I think we all know, if we've ever delivered food to people on permanent disability or had anyone in our lives in that situation, if anyone needs art, it's them. I used to deliver food for Project Open Hand for years. People stuck at home can use a phone to do volunteer work. So I thought that through and it's on the web site, too, now.
     David and I reviewed the web site after its first three years of operation and, by the way, 21 groups have been chosen, which is more thrilling to me than anything. Twenty-one groups! People found that many worthy organizations to give to.
     We talked about whether I would raise the prices and I said, no. Lots of people said, why not make it a thousand? You'd get so much more money to the groups! But fewer people could participate. You'd lose accessibility. That's the other part of this web site. That comes from my social and political training, too. Yes, we might get a lot more money, but who would be able to take part in that? Many fewer people would be able to do that. 
 
RW:  I really appreciate your decision because there's always this knee-jerk thing, you could get more money! You're turning things right side up. I just think that's admirable.

JB:  It doesn't have to be admirable. Really. How to say it? It's just the right thing to do. I'm not giving up a support check. I'm not trying to be critical of you, but this doesn't have to be an admiration society. It's really the right thing to do.

RW:  Okay. We won't celebrate you. [laughs]

JB:  You know what? It's smart. I think what I like more these days, instead of being a do-gooder, is being smart. Is it wise?

RW:  That's a great way to look at it.

JB:  I hadn't even thought about this, but if more people can afford the art and more people can take that step of making the gift and having the organization that they think is important on a web site, that changes them a little bit.
    I'm borrowing an idea from the Northern California Loan Fund, which I am involved with. They wanted the initial investment to be small so more people could participate and not only feel good about that, but be educated and changed. It's kind of the same thing. The more people that get to do this, the more change. I mean, I'm sounding like a soapbox person, but really, more people being changed is much more important than more money getting moved someplace. It's the number of people, not the number of dollars. That I do think is the truth.
   
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coat editor of Parabola magazine.

 

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