Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
It’s a balmy July evening in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, and even though it’s just after 5 p.m., the streets are filling with visitors from other lands. Tonight is Gallery Night, and the Ward’s usual population of advertising, media and design professionals, high-end shoppers and restaurant hounds will soon be displaced with a metro-area mix of revel-minded visitors in search of the Gallery Night experience – perusing, schmoozing and friendly chatter in the rarefied environments that art galleries offer to those willing to step through their sometimes intimidating thresholds.
Leaning against an industrial railing just outside his Marshall Building studio, Reginald Baylor is ready. He’s already put in a full day and is still in the casual, khaki-toned clothes he often wears to the studio. But it’s transition time, so he’s cradling a glass of Jack Daniel’s in one hand and a cigarette in the other, talking with his wife, who is sporting a smart skirt and killer ruby-toned pumps. “It has begun,” he says with mock majesty while watching the sidewalk start to buzz with activity.
For the next few hours, Baylor will share small talk with dozens of people – friends, acquaintances and strangers alike – who will stop in to wander around his studio. They might be drawn in by the huge white canvas hanging in the middle of the room, with only an extensive spider web of pencil lines suggesting the shimmering California backyard swimming pool that will soon be painted there. Or one of his finished paintings – a dazzling, candy-colored still life of plates of donuts – will catch their eye, and they’ll move in for a closer look at the swirl of lines that separate the stained-glass-like shards of color.
Stick around a bit longer, and it’s clear more is going on here than one man’s long fascination with sinuous shapes and eye-popping hues. What Gallery Night attendees might notice is that Reginald Baylor Studio is one of the few stops on their tour operated by a single artist – it’s not a gallery or a space run by a group. And while they might spend time lingering around the blank canvas and the table full of jewel-colored acrylic paint jars, they’ll also notice a corner space backed by an 8-foot-high wall of file cases, office supplies and notebooks, fronted by a wide table-desk, an Apple computer and a leather office chair.
On this festive night, visitors also spy a table in front of the studio selling four T-shirts emblazoned with signature Baylor iconography – a pinup-ish woman rendered in a tangle of swirling lines and a lute-strumming minstrel who is a refugee from either a Renaissance fair or a George Clinton concert. Prominently placed inside the studio is the latest edition of Baylor’s Coloring Book for All Ages, which the artist will gladly sign upon purchase.
Reginald Baylor Studio is a business, a business that makes things. And for all the accolades Baylor has received in the last few years – including a place on a wall among world-class artists in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s contemporary gallery – his approach to the business side of the creative enterprise may be one of the most remarkable things about one of Milwaukee’s best-known artists.
Baylor has taken a giant leap beyond the old-fashioned idea of an artist toiling away in a cold-water flat, hoping an enlightened gallery owner will recognize his genius and launch a superstar career. His “studio” is enmeshed in a network of independent contractors and artists who handle different aspects of creating and marketing the work. He is not represented by any galleries; he sells his work through his own organization, plus one private dealer. And he’s nurturing a new impulse: He wants to take the business models and organizational savvy that helped establish his place in Milwaukee’s art community and use that to help other artists do the same thing.
Enter Plaid Tuba, the part of Baylor’s organization that aims to present these innovations to other artists, helping them contract, market and develop their work. While his eye is still tending to the intricacies of his paintings, his mind is thinking big, developing Plaid Tuba and imagining how to transform the way creative work is supported in Milwaukee.
And perhaps that’s the most remarkable – yet obvious – thing of all: Reginald Baylor is here.
“If you asked me five years ago if I could have a full-time career as a contemporary artist in Milwaukee, and have a buying market, I think everyone would say – I would say – ‘That’s not going to happen. That doesn’t happen here.’”
But it did happen.
Baylor doesn’t have a “day job.” He doesn’t supplement his income by teaching at area schools. He is a full-time artist, and he became one by thinking differently about the practice of making art.