Southern Comforts

Joe Baker discusses the newly renovated Palos Verdes Art Center and its first exhibition titled California: Then and Now

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    Fabienne Marsh

Six days after he arrived from New Orleans, where he was director of Longue Vue House and Gardens, Joe Baker and I are looking for light switches to illuminate the new gallery featuring California: Then and Now—the first exhibition in the newly renovated Palos Verdes Art Center. Preparations were underway for the gala, which would honor Bob Yassin, the staff and those responsible for the $5 million renovation. Joe Baker’s enthusiasm is infectious when discussing the many ideas he is passionate about. He often tops off his explorations by staring you in the eye and exclaiming with a mischievous, conspiratorial insistence, “Wouldn’t it be fun!?” Which is exactly what he said after insisting that we move from the gallery into PVAC’s new kitchen …

Why do you want me to see the kitchen?

It’s beautiful and “certified” and full of potential. The idea is to create experiences in nontraditional locations. Imagine pop-up restaurants featuring great chefs—one night a vegan chef, followed by other special evenings for foodies. We can activate this space around the art of food and become the next hot spot. Wouldn’t it be fun!?

Do you cook?

I like to make comfort food. Simple, basic, down-home cooking. Hoppin’ John is a favorite. It’s a dish with black-eyed peas, stewed peppers, onions, tomatoes and turkey over rice. I serve it with cornbread.

How did the gala go?  

What a turnout! Everyone loved the new plaza area and the exhibition. The atmosphere was hopeful, ebullient and jazzy! The community is inspiring, and it was a high point to see Bob Yassin have the gallery named in his honor—a fitting tribute to him, the staff and volunteers—after so many years of hard work and service.

What did Rep. Waxman say?

I didn’t have an opportunity to engage, but he seemed thrilled with the evening.

As director of Longue Vue in New Orleans, you stirred things up by allowing colorists Doug and Gene Meyer to update heiress Edith Stern’s historic house with an installation in shades of mint, fuschia and orange. God help the stately historic homes tour in Palos Verdes.

The Meyer brothers’ “intervention” was very much in keeping with the Edith Stern style—she wore designs by couturiers such as Pierre Balmain and Lucien Lelong. Gene Meyer fashions were perfectly complementary to Edith’s tastes. Stern collected contemporary art, and the collection includes work by Kandinsky, Jean Arp, Beverly Hepworth, Jesus Sota, Yaacov Agam, Vasarely, Naum Gabo and others. She often tricked her dinner guests by mixing porcelain birds purchased at Woolworth’s with English creamware. The Meyer brothers’ exhibit was a hip splash for a historic house—one that Edith Stern would have fully embraced.

“What a turnout! Everyone loved the new
plaza area and the exhibition. The atmosphere was
hopeful, ebullient and jazzy!”

You co-curated the upcoming exhibit, The River Between Us, which asks artists to explore the entwined social histories of Native American, French, Spanish and American traditions in St. Louis and New Orleans. How does history inform your work as a director?

History is paramount to our understanding of who we are—as an individual, an organization, a culture and a country. By knowing our history, we can create our future.


How does your personal history inform your work as an artist?

My mother was a Native American who came from Delaware ancestry. Cardinals are a reference to home for me. I’ve always been watchful and aware of the cardinals’ presence in the landscape, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing that exquisite streak of red that moves across a green environment. I use cardinals in my visual imagery for painting and drawing. The bilateral symmetry and the color change from dark to light is common in traditional Delaware work.

“Chief Thunderfoot and his Fat Bride” is your portrait of two golden retrievers, one in an Indian headdress. You were once labeled a “pop art painter of the punk West.”

I’m not sure the reference is relevant, but the image is from a series early in my career. I was interested in exploring the narrative associated with the myths of the West—particularly the Cowboy–Indian theme. Remember the fashion of Southwest décor in the ‘80s? It even made it to Sotho! Oh, and we had three golden retrievers at the time.

"All my senses are open and immersed in nature.
I live suspended between sky, earth and sea.”

You are known for your bead work. Are you working on something now?  

I am currently working on a bandolier bag, which will be exhibited in an upcoming exhibition at the Autry National Center, curated by Lois Sherr Dubin.

How do you find the time?

It takes about a year to make. I find it meditative and soothing. That’s how I maintain balance.

What do you envision for the new Palos Verdes Art Center?

I want to accommodate master artists and change out this magnificent plaza with everything from art classes to dinners with guest chefs. I want the PVAC to become a center for social consciousness that explores the future of our city, state and region. National and international issues are relevant here. Artists can help us understand our world.

Is Palos Verdes a huge adjustment for you?  

I’m discovering “place,” and that’s an adventure! I’ve left one “water world” for another. The Gulf Coast is imbued with soft light—reflective, lazy. The Pacific is powerful and muscular, with an endless view. I am living in Portuguese Bend, so this area feels very non-LA-esque. All my senses are open and immersed in nature. I live suspended between sky, earth and sea. Around this hill, we’re surrounded by intense energy and beautiful chaos. What better generator for art?

You’ve moved around a bit: Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana …

My travels have informed my understanding of the world—allowing me to see through the eyes of others. I once learned a new way of seeing art from a physics professor who was a colleague at Colorado College, where I was visiting associate professor of art. When a door opens, I walk through.