Cotswold Artists: Hilary J Baker

Hilary J Baker has a fascination with the being, and the traces we leave behind us. Candia McKormack visits her studio to learn about her latest collection of work.

Hilary J Baker has a fascination with the being, and the traces we leave behind us. Candia McKormack visits her studio to learn about her latest collection of work.

The art world needs its mavericks: there’s Damien Hirst with his preoccupation with death and filthy lucre; Richard Dadd’s complex studies of other worlds born of lunacy; Austin Osman Spare who depicted his disgust at society in his art and used chaos magic to achieve his goals; and Francis Bacon’s terrifyingly raw paintings are designed to challenge and disturb. Those that view the world a little differently to the rest of us and who dare to express what they see in their work are an important part of the creative world and have always been so.

Throughout time these maverick forces have used whatever means necessary to give a window into their souls; to try to capture a small part of their at times privileged but more often uncomfortably stark view of the real world. It takes courage to bare the soul, and it takes courage to dare to ask us to share their view.

An artist who works with hair, saliva, blood and other bodily residues would perhaps be expected to create in an unusual setting. Hilary J Baker has found her home in a converted slaughterhouse in Bewdley, Worcestershire. Fitting.

As I walk up the industrial exterior staircase to Hilary’s studio, I feel she has found her perfect place to create. Though now part of an arty collective attached to Bewdley Museum, Hilary’s place is a secret hideaway; she has to meet me on the street outside: “You would never have found this place on your own.” And, tucked away from the friendly bustle of the museum, caf� and other artists’ studios, and completely out of sight, you certainly wouldn’t know it was here.

The artist is younger, warmer, more friendly and approachable than I had  anticipated. When you’re going to meet someone who creates with body fluids, should you have preconceptions? Hard not to, really.

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The first thing that struck me as we settled down to chat in the loft-like studio is the brooding face watching over us: one of her muses captured in two oil paintings on the wall. Who is he?

“He was my life model, and I kept seeing two sides to him and painted two very different pictures,” explains Hilary. “He didn’t know it at the time, and neither did I, but he ended up in hospital being treated for schizophrenia.” So, intuitively, you saw something within him that others didn’t, I suggest. “I kept on seeing two sides: there was his kindly side and his more tormented one.”

As a child Hilary was always making things, creating, but never saw herself as being an artist. She first discovered her artistic side when she ran the children’s theatre at Cheltenham’s Playhouse and started painting the scenery. “I loved painting backdrops and working on a huge scale, but I never thought I would do it as a profession. I did, at one point, want to be an archeological illustrator, which is possibly where my current work comes from.”

After doing the foundation course in Cheltenham, Hilary discovered that she ‘quite liked’ creating art and so embarked on a Fine Art course at Sheffield, where she recognised that she wanted to do something more craft-based.

“I had to pay my own way through college and used to come back to Gloucestershire to paint the great and the good. I got myself a studio on the High Street in Cheltenham and took any commission that was offered to me.” Among these commissions were Lord Lieutenant Henry Elwes and General Sir John Hackett (for the National Portrait Gallery) though she characteristically plays this down. “The studio in Cheltenham was marvellous for me at the time, but then I made the move to Ruskin Mill in Nailsworth, which is possibly where my career took off.”

The next move took her to Spain where she painted the ‘great and the good’ there. Examples? “Well, there were ex-Nazis in Marbella…”

I wonder if she’s playing with me, but it becomes evident that she’s very serious.

“When you paint people rather than trees, they become a talking point; people show them off and discuss them in a much more interested way. And so I got a lot more media attention. I was picked up by an international portrait agent and it created a network of connections.”

After travelling extensively and building on her name as a portrait artist, Hilary decided to move to Worcestershire 13 years ago to find her own creativity. “The higher you go in the portrait world, the more third-party commissions you receive, which means that someone else controls the sort of picture they want you to make,” she explains. “An institution would commission me to paint someone and portray them in a certain way which wouldn’t necessarily be the way I would see them.”

So, if ever anyone was a victim of their own success that would seem to be the case with Hilary, and escape would seem the right thing to do.

“At this time I also met and married a photographer – a Croatian – and we had a son.” In Croatia, I suggest? “No,” she laughs, “that would be so much more romantic. It was actually Birmingham!”

At this time she also began rediscovering her Gloucestershire roots, and started teaching in various schools in the area. “Working with children keeps you fresh-eyed,” she says. “They’ve been my most valuable input I would say. I put on an exhibition of work I’d done with them which took me to the Museum in the Park in Stroud three years ago. I really like the gallery, and I like the people there, so I thought when I’m ready to put on a show, this is where I’d like it to be.”

I ask how long has she been working on this particular body of work. “Around four years I’d say. Various pieces have been discarded and re-found along the way, but I know that the exhibition will contain etchings, paintings, ceramics and various other bits and pieces. I think the work will choose itself closer to the date.”

Four years is quite a long period of time, I suggest, to be working on one collection. So, is there a unifying theme to the work? “I started at the very beginning to look afresh at things. I made myself look at shapes, colour, form, abstract work… I did reject the person, the head, the figure for a long time, trying to find something else, but it wcouldn’t happen, so obviously that’s the way it’s meant to be.”

And has the media she uses changed as the work has developed? “In some ways, yes,” she says. “For instance, I never thought I’d make paper with my vacuum cleaner contents; it’s not something you decide to do.” She shows me rather beautiful, delicately-coloured sheets with unmistakable strands of hair, dead flies and other debris meshed into the fabric. “And these are my sound jars,” she says, showing me a collection of small pottery cups with spiralling lines scratched into the surface. “… collecting the resonance of someone’s voice. There’s a legend that early jars with scratches on were precursors of phonographs.”

As I’m walking around the studio I begin to clearly see the unifying theme to her work. In Hilary’s desire to get away from the painted ‘head’, she has found other ways to capture a person’s psyche; be it her own or other subjects. A striking large-scale painting on an easel is based on the life-size image of the artist lying on the floor beneath. “It’s an imprint of my body,” she explains. “I lay on a board with photographic emulsion painted onto its surface out in the sun.” Like a photocopier, I suggest? “Yes,” she laughs, “Sadly, you’re right. I should have just done that and it would have been easier!”

It’s time to talk about the taboo subject of creating Hilary’s art with body substances, so she leads me to some aluminium etching plates she has previously been experimenting with. Etched delicately into the surface of the metal are fluid swirls and straight lines of varying depths, each plate bearing very different patterns. “First I put a total resist on the plate, then ate into this by spitting onto it, bleeding or weeing onto it which dissipates the resist. These plates can then be inked up and used to build up a texture to create the image. It’s a completely non-toxic way of plate-making, using a copper sulphate saline solution that can be washed down the sink.”

Hilary has now ‘come out of hibernation’ concerning portraiture as she has been approached by the National Portrait Gallery to create a new piece for their collection. She leads me to her latest work in progress: a portrait of the comedian Jasper Carrot produced using this technique. The gallery won’t commit to displaying it until they have seen the work, but I think it’s an exciting and thought-provoking way to create a likeness, and one that Jasper Carrot has quite obviously embraced. Exactly to what extent, Hilary isn’t saying, and I’m certainly not probing… to spare Jasper’s blushes, of course.

FOAM – a solo exhibition by Hilary J Baker: November 7-28. Museum in the Park, Stratford Park, Stroud, GL5 4AF, tel: 01453 763394,

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