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About the cover

 

D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Come Inside

Louis Baum finds special symbolism in doorways,
in his paintings and in his life.

By Donna Clayton Lawder



Standing in the bright and airy JW Art Gallery in Hurley where some of his paintings are hanging, recounting his long career as an artist, tall, silver-haired Louis F. Baum, Sr., puts his hands on his hips and breaks into a broad smile.

Louis Baum in the JW Art Gallery with
"Light's Shadows I and II." (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

"When I was in the military, I started doing pastel portraits of movie stars. My buddies loved that, because I had all my drawings hung up all around the room like this," he says, a wide, sweeping gesture of his arm including the top of the walls around him. "So when the inspectors came to review our area, they'd come in and the pictures would catch their eyes and they'd go, 'Okay, uh-huh, alright. . .,' looking up at all the portraits. They never even looked at our stuff, our bunks or anything, and then they'd say, 'Okay, you pass,' and they'd be out the door."

Baum throws his head back and gives out a big laugh. "The guys really loved me for that!"

The artist, who now lives in Bayard, says he's self-taught — a bad boy at age seven who got sent to his room, discovered a box of colored pencils and just started drawing.

"I found that I loved capturing the beauty of things around me, especially animals. I kept it up," he says simply.

After his three-year stint in the Army, Baum started working with oil paints, focusing on more serious work than popular-appeal portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Again the natural world called to him and he began painting some of the beauty he saw all around him in Sacramento and Folsom, Calif.

One such painting captures a scene at the American River just outside Sacramento, where Baum says he used to spend a lot of time fishing for salmon. The oil painting is stunningly photographic in its detail and clarity. Tree branches poke into the scene from each side of the painting, framing the central image of a swirling eddy in the shallow, clear waters. Mist rises in the background, shrouding a line of trees on the horizon. A great white heron skirts along, just above the water.

"It's pretty shallow. You can pretty much walk across that river," Baum says. "There was this beautiful fog in the early morning, and I wanted to capture that feeling it gave me. I went down there a number of mornings and took a bunch of photos to get that."

He captures another natural icon in photographic clarity in his paintings of hawks. At A.I.R. Coffee, the Bayard coffee roaster, Internet cafe and gallery he co-owns, an impressive oil painting, "Full Flight" — detailed on the cover of this month's Desert Exposure — greets visitors with a lifelike image of the great bird.

"There were two beautiful hawks that flew over our property in Folsom," he says. "I spent a lot of time enjoying their flight and taking lots of pictures of them. They were just breathtaking to watch."

The setting for the majestic bird is a wide, panoramic view of a blue sky with a few clouds, tree branches poking into the frame. The hawk soars above them, tail feathers flared and head dipping between its enormous wings. It appears to be coming in for a landing, or perhaps for the kill.

Baum has painted many panoramic views, in fact, though not all of them on canvas. He ticks off on his fingers some of the many murals he's done across California: sweeping dance scenes on walls at the Ballroom Dance Center in Sacramento; several series of murals featuring landscapes, the wonder of Yosemite, hacienda courtyards and race cars at the Towe Auto Museum; a wetlands scene at the Folsom Convalescent Hospital; and a special commission at a private residence in Granite Bay. He did a 25-by-12-foot mural of St. Francis of Assisi at the Francis House in Sacramento — "a very special project," he says.



Whether painting a special mural on a huge expanse of wall or canvases in his studio, Baum says the act of painting itself brings him into a peaceful, meditative state.

"That's a big part of why I do it, for that experience alone," he says. "It's my time to go within. I also love the surprise of painting. There's a mystery there. Honestly, I don't know what it's going to turn out to be. I'm always surprised at the end."

He points out a painting hanging on the wall at the JW Art Gallery, a work that surprised him in a whole different way. Called "The Welcoming," the painting depicts a worn stone stairway and arched door in an old monastery in Southern California. Plaster peels from the wall and doorway, golden sunlight beyond and streaming in. The picture used to hang in a non-profit healing center Baum owned.

"One day this woman looked at the picture and she exclaimed, 'Jesus is in there!' I looked at the picture and could hardly believe it. I didn't paint him in, but there he is," Baum says, pointing out where plaster has peeled from the doorway, suggesting a round shoulder and some long brown hair.

"I love the way the stairs are worn," he adds, running a finger over the picture. "And California in the fall turns golden like that." He points to the landscape beyond the painted doorway.

The clear, warm light in this part of New Mexico, he says, is a big part of what drew him to the area. That and an article he'd read that said Silver City is the second-friendliest city in the country.

"We had to come find out if it held up!" he says, laughing. "And it does!" He and his wife Elizabeth fell in love with the area, "especially the people," he says, and moved here on Valentine's Day, 2006.



Doorways, Baum says, are a spiritual, personal theme for him, and they figure prominently in his work. "Via Dolorosa," for example, features a stone street in Jerusalem, viewed through a series of arched stone doorways.

"It translates as 'the street of suffering' or 'the street of pain.' It's where Jesus carried the cross through Jerusalem," Baum says. That legend of divine love found a connection to spousal love in his own life, he says: "That painting sat on an easel for 12 years. I just couldn't finish it. Then my wife says, 'Finish that for me for Valentine's Day,' so I did."

"Light's Shadows I" and "Light's Shadows II" show the same dramatic stucco doorway and stone steps, but with changing scenery. In one, the doorway's rich, red-brown walls and front are framed by a shockingly blue sky and bathed in summer light. The hills beyond the doorway are gold with lively green bushes. In the other, the sky is dark and filled with stars. The red-brown walls have gone to deep sienna, and the hills beyond show a covering of snow between the dark bushes.

"I loved catching that same view in two totally different circumstances, giving it two different treatments," Baum says.

In "Empty Shadows," the doorways catch a mood beyond the scenery. It's the behind-the-scenes emptiness of a place abandoned. One doorway, the bare wood dry and nearly paintless, gives the view through another door of the empty building, a farmhouse outside Yuma, Ariz., left to decay when families left the arid place.

"They came because of the land grants for agriculture," Baum explains, "but they couldn't grow anything on account of it being so dry. They just left it all behind, and there it is, just sitting in the sun."

Little details — knotholes in the wood, stray nail holes, a nail sticking out — all add to the building's character. The area is so dry, Baum says, that the buildings are not decaying much; they are almost reminiscent of mummies, skeletal reminders of the lives that used to be lived inside. "It's sad and beautiful at the same time," he says wistfully.

A doorway in another painting, "Red Rock Between," isn't so much a door as a window — specifically, a "window rock," a delicate, wind-worn piece of red-brown stone. This is "Delicate Arch," the picturesque, famous symbol of Utah, located in Arches National Park. Canyons stretch out into the distance beyond the stone doorway, and a full moon hangs in the blue sky turning to twilight, framed in the archway.

"I just love the way the moon is hanging there," Baum says. "It's a window rock, but it's another kind of doorway."

He muses on doorways in his work being echoes of the doorways in his life. "A doorway is a symbol. It's all about finding that doorway inside," he says. "That doorway is what shows us who we are, and that's the thing that takes us along our journey."



Louis Baum's work can be seen at JW Art Gallery, 99 Cortez Ave. in the Old Hurley Store, Hurley; at A.I.R. Coffee, 308 Central Ave., Bayard; and at the Teleperformance gallery on Hwy. 180, as part of the ongoing San Vicente Artists' exhibits.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.



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