Talking with West Chester artist John Baker

By Jeff Schaller

I was in High Street Café — no, the VUDU Lounge, but wait, the menu said High Street Café — to interview the most interesting man in the world. Well, maybe not to the world, but to West Chester University.

It was a Monday around lunchtime and they allow BYOB. It was me and a bottle of Big House “The Lineup” waiting for the man of the hour, a man who wears many hats — John Baker.

At West Chester University, he is the chair of the Art Department; this month at Serpentine Gallery he is an artist, and to me, he is a victim. John found some time in his busy schedule for me.

If you haven’t believed the hype so far, Baker is one of the nicest, most generous gentlemen I have ever met. You would swear he was southern, but there ain’t no accent. He has a quiet and reserved temperament, yet quietly knows everyone and seems to be helping out on some board or committee.

If you find him at work in his office, he usually has a few students waiting outside in the hall, contemplating their life choices or at least class choices. Out of his office, he is polishing his exotic cowboy boot collection or waxing one of his bowls. Keeping a strict schedule helps him manage his time. It is on Fridays that he is in his studio focusing on his bowls. “Vessels” is the more appropriate term.

WCDish: How did you get started making art?

John Baker: I actually started, I guess you could say, somewhat by accident. I never really had a strong interest in the arts through high school. I was more of a jock, you could say. But my first year in college I was a bio–chem major, and the friends I became acquainted with were all art majors. We’re talking about a time period where things were fairly open and casual. So at the art studio, I ended up making a visit more and more often. I saw someone throwing on the wheel, thought that was interesting. A friend of mine was a print maker, so I would basically hang out and see what she was doing. So just through osmosis I became very interested in the arts.

WCD: Did you receive any formal art training?

JB: Yes, I graduated with a bachelors in studio art and a MFA in fine arts, so I had a fairly extensive career in higher education. I started as an undergrad as a bio–chem major and left that institution. Went on to be a potter and found I really had to go back to school. At that point in time I had enough credits that I only needed a year and a half at West Chester University. I came to finish up my bachelor’s degree at West Chester. I completed my degree in 1974 and was asked at this point in time if I would be willing to stay and teach part time. At the time, I had been accepted to East Carolina State University for my MFA. So I thought I’d stay at West Chester teach a year, maybe two, and pay off some of my student loans, and again this was back in 74. My loan is paid off!

WCD: Describe your work in general.

JB: I consider myself a vessel maker. My work really encompasses influences from my environment, mostly my travels. I try to travel on a regular basis. That is where a lot of my influences come from — the Southwest — and they have really grown to more of the third world opportunities.

WCD: What do you find exciting about a bowl?

JB: Actually the bowl, if you look back in history, has a very ceremonial context, where the bowl and the vessel were always affiliated with ritual, whether it is ceremonial or everyday appearances. To me, the bowl is a container, which enables me to create the imagery or the sculptural objects in the interior.

WCD: You are exhibiting at Serpentine Gallery in West Chester. Do you have a theme to the work in the show?

JB: The show is called “Influences,” where three of us from West Chester, three faculty members — Gus Sermas, Bell Holland and myself — all selected three past alum who are full-time artists in the field. Looking at the exhibition, I’m wondering who actually influenced who. I think it’s going to be a great show.

WCD: How do you decide when an artwork is “done”?

JB: In most of the cases, I am doing three or four pieces at one time. So I’m not just working on one individual piece. So they will all culminate as finished pieces usually within a week or two. I may be working on a piece for four months or five months — sometimes it is hard to identify when it is complete. The beauty of the materials I work in, much like canvas, is I can go back and rework the surface. So often I may set aside one of the forms for two years and then rework it. So as far as when a piece is done, it’s probably done when it goes to an exhibition or a show.

WCD: You are also the dean of the Art Department at West Chester University. What is your toughest job?

JB: First, I should say that I am actually the chair of the Art Department. I work for the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. I work for my students, really. Probably my toughest job is coordinating, right now, our future as a department. We are in the process of national accreditation, and we are moving to a new building. So there is a lot of change on the horizon.

WCD: What is the easiest job?

JB: Well maybe not easiest, but most pleasurable, is awarding scholarship money to the students.

WCD: How long have you been there?

JB: I started in 1974, so I guess I passed the 35-year mark.

WCD: Are you living the dream?

JB: I really am living the dream. I think to be able to have the type of job I have, have the support of my family and my wife, be able to work in the studio and know that when I go to the university I am doing a job I love.

WCD: Friday is your studio day. Do you have any habits or morning routines you do before going to the easel?

JB: Usually Friday morning I get up around 7 o’clock or so. I just have my coffee. I start my day with half a pot of coffee and yogurt. From there I’ll go up to the studio and actually assess where I am with what exhibition, what show, or what commission is upcoming.

WCD: What tip do you have for an art student going out into the world of art?

JB: For any student going out into the art world, who really is serious about the fine arts, they have to understand the commitment to the profession. Things don’t come easy, but they do have to be committed, be patient, and sacrifice a little.

WCD: What is your favorite food?

JB: My wife’s meals. Anything she cooks. I guess you could say one of my favorite foods is what we are eating right now. Eating Cajun. I love spicy foods.

WCD: What are you eating right now?

JB: It is a walnut encrusted chicken breast with a little bit of Cajun sauce. Outstanding, I highly recommend it.

WCD: Rumor has it you like dark spirits and you have a barrel of Makers Mark with your name on it. True?

JB: That is true. You can dispel that rumor, it actually is true. I do enjoy a spirit now and then. Maker’s Mark is one, but I do have to emphasize to those who may be reading that Crown Royal is my top preference.

WCD: On campus you are usually seen wearing cowboy boots. What is the appeal of cowboy boots?

JB: I’ve been wearing boots for over 35 years. I just find them very comfortable. I like collecting boots, especially exotic ones I do not own. And they just have a really good fit to my foot.

WCD: What’s the most exotic?

JB: Let’s see … probably my eel skin, I do have elephant. I am somewhat reserved in telling you all of the exotic ones since some may be endangered. I do have crocodile, python. Oh the list goes on. It’s quite a zoo.

WCD: Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

JB: A lot of my influences go back to my college career, so people like Jack Troy, Mitch Lyons and Victor Spinsky. They all had a prominent role in my vision, in my aesthetic today.

WCD: Your proudest moment?

JB: My proudest moment has to be with my children for sure, and my grandchildren, just seeing them grow and mature. Kids have been in my life most of my life.

I paused often so John could finish his sandwich, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Either he wanted to share it with his wife or I asked too many questions, but he took a portion of it home. I, on the other hand, had no problem finishing my Johnny Cash Burger. I was intrigued by the name and the thought of a ring of fire left in my mouth. It was a blackened filet burger topped with Folsom Blue Cheese.

With the bottle of wine gone and his schedule filled, we returned to the school for the speed round of questions. Check out my blog at for the video. If you are in town, visit Serpentine Gallery on Gay Street to see John’s beautifully detailed vessels. They have a look of history, but their color says here and now. Go now, because the show is only up until the end of the month.