Charity Baker is a New York artist who has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the New York Studio School where she is currently a faculty member and working artist in residence. Here, she reflects on her one-month North Wales residency with Caernarfon gallery Life: Full Colour in July where she’s predominantly been plein air painting in locations such as Anglesey, Beaumaris, and St Bride’s.
Upon arriving in Wales, I was immediately struck by the difference in the atmosphere. The natural environment here offers a clarity and purity that is distinct from the urban landscape of New York. The weather is beautifully temperamental too. I noticed that the locals rarely use umbrellas but instead accept the ever-changing conditions with grace. It is as if the Welsh landscape and its people are in perfect harmony, acknowledging the rain as an integral part of life.
The changeable weather added an element of unpredictability to my paintings, with the mountains, waters, and skies transforming continuously throughout the day into darks, lights and a variety of middle greys. This dance of shapes and changing perception of form and space has been a source of inspiration and a challenge.
What came to mind immediately was an American painter from the northeast, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and his famous poetic seascapes of intense contrasts and volume, and I attempted to channel his inventive, robustly modern aesthetic in response. You will find this in many of the plein air and larger studio paintings I made particularly of the Menai Strait. One late sunny afternoon I went down to the Strait and made several consecutive sketches of the sun setting and was pleased to see how very unique each separate drawing was from each other within 30 minute intervals.
The beauty of the Welsh landscape has been a revelation to me, presenting new colours and lights that I had never encountered before. The green of the strait and the surrounding seas, mixed with the colours of the mountains and the clouds have created new combinations that have been fun to explore in colour. At first, I responded in a very lively, honest way by working on site both in group trips with the other artists and by myself. As time went on these nuances deepened and had a more profound effect on my painting. I began making larger work in my studio pulling inspiration from my imagination based on the experiences I was having and from the plein air work combined.
There was a lot of new information to take in. Specifically in Wales there are many beautiful layers of time and space, from the change and movement in the atmosphere to the sounds of the birds circling overhead, to the deep history. I believe my experiences here are going to unfold slowly and I’ll have fun figuring this out when I get home and put my work onto a larger format.
One aspect that has added richness to my experience has been the opportunity to work alongside other talented artists, including Louise Morgan, Jocelyn Roberts, and Jill Jones. Together, we embarked on plein air excursions, painting and learning from each other. We talked about coming from different countries but speaking the same language of art. We had fun comparing information about paint and materials, but also had profound conversations about how we see the world, experience life, what we think is important to paint, and why we paint.
We developed a camaraderie, and it was helpful to have these talented artists to talk to about my current experience. Talking about the bigger picture helped me to remember that it’s a metaphor – all the marks and colours are a symbol for what we see. Jill had a funny interaction with a passer-by one day, he asked her why she didn’t paint everything she was looking at and she said to him “then it would be a photograph otherwise”, which made me laugh. It is so nourishing to work amongst other artists, and this is what I admire so much about Sara at Life: Full Colour’s initiative with the Y Segontiwm Atelier. It is desperately needed in these times of virtual reality.
Comparing the Welsh arts scene to that of the United States, I’ve observed a difference in focus and perspective. Purely based on my experience, art in New York tends to be more conceptual and individualistic. There’s more political opinion injected into the work with artists commenting on the impending topics of the day. We are painting the life we see and feel, using both representation and abstraction, and using technology to redefine how we are looking.
There’s also a variety of different art scenes in New York and you gravitate to the one that makes sense to you, so we’re influenced by the company we keep and our surrounds.
Unlike the Welsh artists I met, most artists I know in New York paint in smaller dedicated art studios, sometimes without a lot of natural light because real estate is so expensive. I often work at night because there is so much privacy and I can get into a zone without being distracted, whereas the Welsh artists that I met most of them did not want to work in anything other than daylight, and they had really lovely workspaces in their homes. They have a profound connection to the natural world; there is a focus on landscape and still life. They also have commentary on the contemporary world around them, but I believe this access to the natural world lends to a slightly different aesthetic.
Despite the artistic and cultural richness of Wales, it seems that the Welsh arts scene receives less global recognition than its American counterpart. Gwen John, an artist I adore, is the only Welsh artist I was aware of before I arrived. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I assumed that people would like to work initially from direct observation of nature like me.
It’s been wonderful to spend time here and to develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the Welsh art scene. My experiences here have been transformative, and I carry the memories of shared artistic journeys and deep conversations with fellow artists back with me to New York.
Charity Baker is the recipient of several awards, including the Mercedes Matter/ Ambassador Middendorf Prize, the Hohenberg Travel Grant which she used to study art in Spain and Italy, and a summer residency at Chautauqua, New York. Charity was invited to take part in an international artist exchange programme, established by Caernarfon gallery Life: Full Colour in partnership with the New York Studio School.
You can find out more about Life: Full Colour and the partnership programme by visiting the gallery’s website.