Stroke of Genius

Stroke of Genius

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…


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.

 

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Baylor has deep roots in Wisconsin. As a student at Homestead High School, his interest in art developed. At the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, that interest turned into a major. Encouraged to pursue art education as a way to carve out a career, he made plans for graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University but quickly realized teaching wasn’t for him.

“My head told me I should be a teacher, but in my heart, I really just wanted to make art,” he says, which became clear during his first stint as a student teacher, where he was cautious about imposing his own ideas on the students. “I was thinking about art, and I had formulated some concrete ideas of what I thought art was, but teaching was about the students’ ideas, not mine.”

Baylor left Oshkosh just shy of a degree, married and had a child with his longtime girlfriend. He worked a few odd jobs and moved to California, where he got back into the art game, installing exhibits at museums. He also circulated his work, and in 1995, connected with Suzanne Zada of Gallery Z. Through her, he made his first big sale – $5,500 for Van Gogh’s Bedroom with Television. Shortly before that, he had sold Milwaukee Housing, a piece that reflected his interest in the domestic architecture of his hometown, for just $900.

Eventually, Milwaukee called him back.

His wife Jill’s job change brought the family to Chicago, where he started driving for Schneider National, a trucking company. There were grueling, cross-country routes at first, but Baylor could manage his time away from the rig, using it to think and sketch. The family moved to Milwaukee in 1998, and Baylor became an owner-operator for Mason and Dixon Lines and eventually found a way to limit his duties to a Milwaukee-Detroit route, which allowed him more time with his family and more time to paint. His work evolved.

Mrs. Rhodes Favorite Chair (1999) shows a continued interest in domestic spaces, depicting a simple, middle-class living room rendered in industrial-smooth, Fauvist blocks of color. The perspective is realistic, and the composition is geometric, the only visible curves being a few furniture filigrees and some bold polka-dots in the upholstery. It reflects Baylor’s early interest in sculpting, the painting seemingly assembled like a puzzle from existing pieces. But it also suggests a starting point that would evolve and grow more complex as technique and technology allowed.

One of Baylor’s defining ideas came from a philosophy class he took at UW-Oshkosh. Because there are infinite variations of colors, there are infinite ways to render a real object. So his idea is to mark a hard line dividing one shade from the other. Instead of a seamless blending of pigments that suggests shading, texture and volume, the artist marks a line and decides where one color becomes another.

It’s also called “hard-edge” painting – in which masking tape is used to create clean edges between smooth blocks of color – a technique that dates from abstract art of the early 20th century (all those Russian constructivists). It became more defined in the 1950s as a reaction to the free-flowing, painterly gestures of abstract expressionism and eventually came into its own during the 1960s.

“Reggie takes the hard-edge idea to a whole new level,” says Milwaukee Art Museum’s chief curator, Brady Roberts, who oversaw the museum’s purchase of Baylor’s On Duty, Not Driving (2010). Here, you can see a decade of Baylor’s evolution as a painter – his interest in 1970s nostalgia (Pac-Man amoebas and funk musician silhouettes), autobiography (a Peterbilt truck logo from his days on the road) and, most of all, his dizzying, blindingly colorful sense of composition. The simple, geometric blocks of those living rooms have morphed into swirling tangles of lines, juxtapositions of bold, flat color, and overlapping images of everyday life and eye-popping cultural iconography.

The innovation that allowed Baylor to bring such levels of complexity to his work is actually quite simple, as Baylor demonstrates one afternoon in his studio. He points to a sweeping curved pencil line on his swimming pool canvas and explains the process. “First, we’ll paint that black line in with a very thin brush,” he explains. “Probably give it three coats.” Next, he turns to a contraption beside the canvas, an architect’s T-square and a sheet of Plexiglas covered with a few strips of masking tape. He positions the straight-edge, swipes an X-Acto knife down the length of the tape, then slowly pulls off a strip that’s no wider than a fine-point magic marker line. He turns to the canvas and, after a methodical sweep of his hands, the tape covers the arch of the pencil line exactly. “So that will mark the edge of two colors,” he continues. “And after it dries, we’ll pull the tape off and touch up the black line if we need to.”

It’s all nearly microscopic when considered against the scale of a near-room-sized canvas, which explains why these large paintings take months to complete. And it explains how Baylor’s method has evolved to resemble the “studio” process used by artists from Old Masters to post-Warhol painters like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The artist plans, conceptualizes and imagines work that is executed by a team of craftspeople.

The journey from Reginald Baylor to Baylor Studios started with the hiring of a studio assistant. Baylor was still driving a truck to make a living and knew he could be more productive if he had help with parts of the process. “At some point, I realized that I now had a method,” Baylor says, “and I could translate that into instructions for someone else to execute.” His wife mentioned Heidi Witz, a woman from their church with a background in visual art. Baylor met and gave her a test: “Here’s the tape. Put it on that curved line.” She passed.

Hiring Witz was the first step in the evolution that would transform Baylor’s art practice. He continued to work at home, moving canvases between his house and Witz’s as they went through stages of sketching, taping and painting. Eventually, the duo was producing enough to warrant a studio space, so they made the move to the Third Ward, becoming one of the few artists who created work in an area where galleries and shops cater to public browsing and visits.

“Being in the Third Ward helped us decide where we wanted to go with this,” Baylor says. “We got great exposure through Gallery Night and the rest of the scene here. We got used to the idea of being an open studio. And it prepared us for the Pfister.”

In 2009, Marcus Hotels and Resorts announced they would create an artist in residence program at the Pfister Hotel, selecting someone each year to work and exhibit in a small studio space off the hotel lobby. Baylor was the inaugural artist, and it further defined his journey to a unique place in the Milwaukee art world. “To this day, it’s what we hear about,” he says. “‘Oh, I saw you at the Pfister. You were at the Pfister.’ Pfister, Pfister, Pfister. It turned everything around.”

And it helped launch the open-studio concept. “When I was driving a truck,” Baylor says, “I’d travel the country and have the chance to visit factories and see things made: bed springs, erasers, gas caps, yarn. People have no idea what it takes to make bed springs. I’ve never looked at a mattress in the same way since.”

In the same vein, Baylor saw the open studio as a way to change the way people look at paintings. “It adds value to the work,” he explains, using analogies from baseball games to Starbucks coffee shops to emphasize the value of seeing the process, not just the final piece. “People mostly see visual art as a finished product, but what if they experienced the factory that made it? That’s why our space has big glass fronts, an open studio where people can stop in any time.”

The Pfister confirmed the idea. If done right, the open studio could offer rewards to all involved.

“It also makes artists responsible for articulating what they are doing. Working at the Pfister, I found a divide – my language and the audience’s language weren’t the same. It becomes intimidating because the conversation – to the audience – sounds like gibberish. For someone in a new experience, that doesn’t help. We can’t go back and forth all day unless we learn each other’s language.”

Now in a larger Third Ward studio, the business is a far cry from the days of working at his home studio in Wauwatosa. Since that $900 sale, prices have exploded. Zada, of Gallery Z, sold a canvas in June for $22,000, and others have sold for as high as $50,000. In September, the studio was working on four separate commissions, all valued at $10,000 and up. More importantly, the paintings are selling rather than languishing in storage or the studio. Of the 100-plus canvases Baylor has created over his career, only six remain unsold. Those are impressive, even envy-producing numbers for this economic time, especially in a midsized Midwestern city not known for a ravenous art market.

A few days after Gallery Night, Witz is sitting at her desk, and two computer artists are working at a long table with digital images that will become illustrations for a collection of children’s Bible stories. The big swimming pool canvas is still front and center in the studio, though the pencil lines have been refined further and are getting ready for “the tape,” which will be handled not by Baylor or Witz, but by another gallery assistant. At another small workspace, there’s a blown-up engagement photograph and a half-complete pencil sketch of the couple. It will become a sort of paint-by-numbers template to be filled in by wedding guests, creating a kind of original Baylor collaboration.

As Witz answers emails – she’s now a managing partner in the enterprise – Baylor stands in the middle of the room, occasionally stepping forward to check one of the digital images. It’s all in a day’s work for the duo. They keep regular hours, carpooling in together from Wauwatosa each morning. They set aside time each day to brainstorm about projects, both present and future. And they work hard. “I grew up on a farm,” Witz says pointedly. “Reggie used to drive a truck. We like to work.”

 

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Baylor and Witz are consummate networkers, as a stroll through the Third Ward one afternoon demonstrates. On our way from the Marshall Building studio to The Wicked Hop – their preferred choice for lunch or an after-work drink – they exchange greetings with several people, and still more while we sit at an outside 
table. Baylor’s familiarity isn’t surprising. He cuts a striking and instantly recognizable figure – tall and lanky, his hair touched by gray around the temples, his browline eyeglasses giving him the look of a ’60s intellectual leading a devoted following toward some Next Big Thing.

Sitting down to lunch, Baylor speaks of Plaid Tuba with the cool confidence of someone who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. With the career significance of his Pfister residency in mind, the first step was to spread the gospel of the open studio to the broader community, enabling artists to realize its benefits and inviting businesses to see how a resident artist might help them. Which is what’s happening a few blocks from the Marshall Building, where six artists are in residence at the Marine Terminal Building courtesy of a cooperative effort between Plaid Tuba and the Mandel Group. Looking up from the street, you can see through the broad expanse of corner windows to the near day-glo canvases of Melissa Dorn Richards, who has used part of the space as her studio and exhibition area since February 2011.

The space is owned by Mandel, but instead of paying rent, Dorn Richards pays a commission to Plaid Tuba on each painting she sells. “Aside from my degree from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, this has been the most significant thing to directly impact my career,” she says during a painting break. She works as an administrator next door at MIAD but used to paint in an attic studio at home. Her only contact with patrons came at occasional gallery shows. But now, when prospective buyers express an interest in her work, she has a place to meet them. “They get to see where I work and how I work, and the paintings become a lot more interesting.”

Tracy Bredow, Mandel’s marketing director, enthusiastically calls the venture with Plaid Tuba “a truly evolving relationship,” one that started when Mandel invited Baylor to show his work during a condominium opening party. From there, talks of using the vacant Marine Terminal space started. And since, Plaid Tuba has collaborated with Mandel on other events and artist residencies, and has been hired to develop “names, identities and logos” for Mandel developments.

But the Plaid Tuba studio is only the most visible part of Baylor’s expanded vision. Influenced by organizations that attempt to build relationships between businesses and creatives (such as the Creative Coalition and the recently organized Creative Alliance Milwaukee), Baylor and Witz want to promote the “creative economy” beyond models built on nonprofits and charitable donations. Plaid Tuba is a for-profit business and intends to stay that way.

They want to offer a slate of services similar to what enabled the Baylor Studio to become a self-sufficient business – “Provide legal services, branding, marketing – everything an artist needs other than making art,” Baylor says. Dorn Richards has already seen some of that at work. And Baylor further envisions an online marketplace featuring Plaid Tuba artists and craftspeople, a sort of curated Etsy, the online marketplace for crafters and handmade goods.

For businesses, Plaid Tuba hopes to be a link to artists and a place to develop creative ideas. Melissa Goins, president of Maures Development Group, first worked with Plaid Tuba on street-level window displays for her buildings, and she continued to work with them on everything from custom light fixtures to address signs. “I’m in real estate, but I’m bored with all the traditional design stuff,” Goins says. “I have all these ideas in my brain, and I need to have them interpreted and brought into reality. What I like about Reggie’s group is that I can challenge them to get things done. I come to them with ideas, and they have the network or pool of people who can make it happen.” Plaid Tuba has also served as an interior design consultant for a property management firm, using art and furnishings produced by its roster of artists, and designed adult education courses for Bethesda Lutheran Communities.

These are small-scale but significant examples of the kind of collaboration that drives Baylor. With characteristic ambition, he’s thinking much bigger. When the conversation turns to Plaid Tuba’s future, Baylor and Witz shift mindsets and vocabularies, speaking of  “creatives,” “assets” and “toolboxes,” of “monetizing resources” and “developing content.” Baylor invokes corporations that held creativity at a premium: the “imagineers” of Disney and the “artist-engineers” of Apple. “Steve Jobs called his employees artists,” Baylor says, “and asked them to ignore everything that ever existed before them. Just like Picasso did with cubism.”

And he’s just getting warmed up. “Major movements happen because individuals and groups ignore everything and create something new,” he continues. “Dada, cubism, pop art. These are all movements that changed the world without market research. That’s us. If you want creativity, you come to us. We’re not going to listen to market research.”

So is Reginald Baylor an artist or a businessman, a creative or a practitioner of creativity? He doesn’t hesitate: “I can’t express how the business of Baylor Studio actually made my artwork better. For me, the love of doing art led to a love of doing the business of making art – because it was the thing that allowed me to do more work.”

And even as he continues to work on his huge, intricate canvases, the real work of Reginald Baylor may turn out to be much bigger. As vast as the city itself.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.