Studio Visit: The Constructed Worlds of Nancy Baker

In Nancy Baker’s paper constructions, disparate materials coalesce into elegant configurations of interlocking forms. Vibrant shapes and patterns expand and multiply in layers, often expanding into large-scale installations.

Nancy opened her Brooklyn studio to give us a peak into her materials and methods. We discuss how her childhood growing up in the make-believe world of Coney Island informed her aesthetic and how her frustration with a lack of rational and scientific thought, within current political discourse, manifests in her work.

Nancy Baker’s work in studio

AB: Can you describe one of your recent works or projects that is a current favorite, or that you are particularly interested in right now? 

NB: I just finished this piece, Blue Boy. My goal is to create a piece that is unsettling and incongruous as the parts don’t really belong together. Sometimes, I create classical-style paintings, mixing in strange objects that have no place in these settings. I have always painted strange things, and although there is no metaphorical intent, I really want these paintings to be difficult to decipher.

Nancy Baker, Blue Boy
Nancy Baker, Blue Boy in process

AB: What are some of the experiences that have been most influential on your path as an artist? 

NB: I grew up in Coney Island, a beachside boardwalk and amusement park in Brooklyn, where reality doesn’t actually exist. This gave me a giant leap into parts unknown, and I loved every minute of my Coney Island childhood. It gave me a clear perspective on untruth and fabrication of corresponding sublimation. In my unconscious thoughts, I wandered far away from clear representation.

I was fortunate to grow up in a world of make believe. I remember the Magic Carpet, a ride which would not be possible today. The first part of this ride was walking through a fun house with odd turns, changes of elevation, and finally a ride on the Magic Carpet, which basically threw you out of the Fun House. Steeplechase was another strange and eccentric experience. There was nothing real, nothing based on reality, everything was fantasy and unconscious thought. 

Magic Carpet Ride, Coney Island
Magic Carpet Ride, Coney Island

AB: How did growing up in Coney Island impact your work, your general ideas about art and your aesthetic? 

NB: Coney island really precipitated a different reality for me. It was filled with Spook Houses and some very strange and magical rides, like the Cyclone, Thunderbolt and Bobsled. These rides, except for the Cyclone, don’t exist any longer. Coney Island was always in a state of decline, but after Fred Trump bulldozed Steeplechase, the amusement park and surroundings began to more seriously deteriorate. But somehow, the decline seemed vibrant and instructive: nothing teaches better than ruin and decay. 

Steeplechase Park, Coney Island

AB: In your paper constructions, colorful, vibrant geometric forms and lines become networks of interlocking or orbiting shapes. How do you begin the initial stages of these works? 

NB: When I work on paper constructions, I really have no idea where they will lead. It’s a very important part of my practice — unknown and slightly bewildering. Painting is a gigantic process, in which I inject a piece of myself and try not to make the work look too premeditated. Paper pieces are really an excuse to let things fly, without any constraints or thinking too much about it. 

Nancy Baker, Disorderly, Orderly

AB: The details of these works are composed of many different elements: pieces of watercolor paintings, printed words that reference political issues and literature, strings of numbers, images of Casper the Friendly Ghost, and CMYK color gradients, to name a few. What draws you to the materials that you collect to use in your constructions? 

NB: There was a time when I used registration marks from packaging, especially Amy’s Dinners. I also use Pi frequently and the Golden Section in Hexadecimal form. Lots of numbers and letters — it confuses everyone. But during Trump’s reign, science moved to an elevated place for me. I found solace and equilibrium in numbers. I used Spooky the Ghost as a metaphor in Premonitory Terrains, a large scale installation of empty boxes and black domes. It represented a lack of intelligent discourse. 

Registration marks from Amy’s Dinners

AB: Can you describe how you bring these different materials together? What drives your choices? 

NB: I frequently have a political motivation, sometimes superseded by an imagination rampaging without the necessary impulses. Comingling these thoughts and processes with a deeper understanding of motivations sometimes give my work weight. We really know that the unconscious is a huge motivator in bringing inexplicable fears, truths and all that into our work. I usually have an idea of what I would like to project, but I can’t really control the outcome 

Nancy Baker, Altered Amendments, 2019, Paint and mixed media on hand cut paper, 144 x 86″
This was a large scale installation created at Pen and Brush, for Alice Gray Stites’s exhibition, Furied, Fairies, and Visionaries. It was based on the US Constitution, shredded and reassembled.

AB: You and I talked about indulging in obsessiveness, then editing and refining as important elements of our mutual processes. Can you tell us a bit more about your working methods and how these play out in your process? 

NB: Obsessiveness is something I can’t control. Sometimes, I will take pieces apart because they don’t work or just are really bad and make me unhappy. When things are going well, it’s almost as if a hand guided me and I am not thinking too much of the outcome. The ego must be kept under control!!! 

AB: How does the inclusion of political or literary content affect your approach to a specific piece? 

NB: I’ve used many of books in my work, Nabokov’s Lolita more than once; using his term of “In the end, it’s all Rust and Stardust.” 

Nancy Baker, Premomitory Terrains, 2021, Painted, printed, laser cut and hand cut paper, 72 x 60″, at Artists Equity, March 2021
Premomitory Terrains detail

AB: Your large-scale installations become even more complex, configured from multiple components layered, expanding and protruding from the wall. How do you develop and compose these works? 

NB: I make them in sections and piece them together with paper clips which look like bolts. I had a museum designer make mounts for me that allows me to stack pieces going from the front of a piece back to the wall. This works very well. The distance of these mounts makes these installations effective.

AB: Your works convey a sense of spontaneity and joy, though I know they are very labored and meticulous to make. What is the experience of making these works like for you? Is there a particular part of the process that you most enjoy? 

NB: I enjoy the END! I have assistants that help me in the installation. During an exhibition I am happy. Making these pieces takes so much time, space and energy.

Nancy Baker, Infinite Sky and Infinite Ocean, based on a Rumi poem, Sharjah Museum of Art, UAE, photography by Obaid AlBudoor, 18 ft x 10

Find more of Nancy Baker’s work on her website and on her instagram