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A painstaking artist finds that painting takes away pain

May 15th, 2018 3:04 PM

Artist Robert Baker III sits behind a wall full of his artwork last Friday, in the Art Gallery at the Oak Park Public Library on Lake Street. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

It is a début of sorts though he has been an artist most of his adult life. After seven weeks or so of being unconsciousness and nearly a year in the hospital, and several more years of near reclusiveness, dealing with pain, Robert Baker III is ready to be seen through his art. His exhibit, 100 Skulls and the Abstract Grid, is showing in the Oak Park Public Library Art Gallery this month.

"In a sense, I am coming out as a disabled artist," Baker, 45, said. "My community is the right place to do it, to say I'm still here."

Art has been part of Baker's life since childhood. His mother took him to the Art Institute when he was young. As an adult, he became a self-taught decorative painter and muralist, starting his own business in Oak Park in 2005. Five years later, he said, everything was coming together. He had an established business with clients in Oak Park, River Forest and Chicago, and 18-month-old and 6-year-old daughters with his wife Kelly Donahugh, also an artist.

But a trip to Colorado to visit family changed their lives forever. Driving back from a fun family outing — dinner and a sleigh ride — turned tragic when the car in which Baker was riding hit black ice. The accident resulted in an incomplete spinal cord injury at the neck and traumatic brain injury. This limits his mobility — Baker uses a wheelchair — and affects the use of his arms and hands.

In recovery, Baker was determined to get back to art.

"As soon as I was well enough, I made it into an art area [at the hospital]," he said. "I was trying to do things with clay and painting clay a little bit. It was something I did on the weekends when I didn't have therapy."

The first paintings Baker created, when he returned home and regained more movement, were small acrylics. According to his artist statement, Baker writes, "At that time a 3 x 3 inch canvas was all I could handle. Simply holding a brush took great effort, assistance, and an immense amount of determination. The small canvases set the stage for the series of skulls I painted in honor of my own."

From there, he began his abstract grids. On much larger canvases, lines are drawn with assistance by a caretaker. Then Baker gets to work in his home studio in River Forest, where he paints daily. He has adapted how he holds his paintbrush, no longer able to grasp it as before.

"It's about limitations," Baker said. "It's like this has become my space with all these little rooms within my painting, like I'm nesting. I'm trying to make what I have beautiful, but it's linear, its recurring, and that comes from my desire to stand, the desire to be upright."

Painting has also provided solace. Before the accident, Baker's palette was dominated by earth tones. Now his canvases are vivid blues, greens, orange, with accents of red, purples, whites. He finds color fascinating and uses his love of color mixing to shift how he feels.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to paint the same way," he said. "When I'm painting, it's quite positive. I had enough gloom in my life. I needed it bright; I needed it happier."

And painting has alleviated the artist's physical pain too.

"There's moments that I'm in a lot of pain, several actually. You can't relate to anybody, you can't talk to anybody," Baker said. "That point in the day is when I roll into my studio and I can focus on painting and it can take me out of myself."

It can take up to two months to paint a larger canvas. It's painstaking. In some areas, the paint is applied with a flat brush, tapping some of it on, somewhat inspired by tebori, Japanese tattooing done by hand with a set of small needles. 

The group of paintings on exhibit at the Library Gallery took six years to complete.

Meet Robert Baker III at an opening reception, Thursday, May 17, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., in the Main Library Art Gallery. The exhibit continues through May 30. For more: oppl.org. 834 Lake St., Oak Park.