Santa Fe, NM

In 2009 I came across Debra Baxter’s show, So Proud of You. I was taken by her table full of sculptures that looked like objects, totems, and tools for an alchemical process that could sort through the complexities of our human emotions and transform them into something beautiful. Since then, we met, although only virtually (such is one of the conditions and blessings of our modern world). We have stayed in touch and kept track of each others work over the years. And this Fall Debra’s work was part of a table top show I put together with artists who make work with rocks and minerals.

It was a pleasure to finally put a voice to her name as we talked over the phone about dealing with personal challenges while maintaining a studio practice, her fascination with minerals that stems from childhood, and her dedication to beauty.

Your practice seems to have an element of experimentation or play. I’m thinking of the 100 days of sculpture project. Can you talk about how these quicker sculptures relate to your studio practice as a whole?

That project came out of a crisis in my personal life, my husband and I were living in a city where we weren’t happy. I didn’t have a studio and I came up with this idea for doing a sculpture every day for 100 days. I pitched it to Publication Studio in Portland to do a book on it, and then I realized I had to do it. The thing that was really interesting was how cathartic that was to make that a priority every day - to somehow put together a piece. And how desperate you get when you don’t have a lot of stuff and you have to go for walks and look for stuff on the ground. It makes your brain very sharp trying to constantly find objects that could be apart of the sculpture.

What did you take away from that 100 days that you still use?

I think when you are in a zone where you have to create something every day it sharpens your focus in a very particular way. It’s probably like a meditation practice or a yoga practice. The way it sharpened me is the way I looked at every single object on the ground, at the dollar store… and saw the potential. The other part I learned is that I need to make art in order to be happy and functional, even if it’s not good. It’s a survival mechanism that I have always used when things are hard. At the end of that project I got depressed and had a melt down. It was hard with out it, I had such purpose and focus for 100 days.

Do you have a meditation practice?

I try to meditate consistently even if its not formal. A lot of it is sitting for a moment and trying to get a message from the universe. I once heard that praying is you talking, and meditation is you listening. I can’t hear my intuition unless I am quiet. There are so many distractions and addictions, all the noise that keeps you from hearing yourself. I have this fantasy that I am the kind of person who gets up and does yoga and meditation for an hour, but I’m not that person. I use meditation when I need it. I do it more when I am having a hard time than when I am happy.

I think most people are all like that.

Ya, I don’t want to be too hard on myself.

When you have that moment of listening do you do that in the studio?

I don't do formal meditation in my studio. I do however sit for long periods look at the sculptures I am working on. This is a big part of my practice that is similar to the way I meditate where I am waiting for insight into what to do next. The idea for the next action can't happen unless I take that time for uninterrupted looking.    

Any studio rituals that you do when you go into work?

Even the act of cleaning my studio or sweeping is important. The other day I was putting stuff away and then I started playing with objects and something just worked. The moment when you figure out something is going to work and you can envision the end product is the magic that keeps you going. Even though getting it there can sometimes be rough. It depends on what you are doing. Like carving a rock, as romantic as we sometimes make it, is really hard. It’s very laborious and physical. Right now I am working with glass and it is a very scientific process. But I’m not usually the kind of person who goes into working on something with too set of an idea in mind. I am open to letting the materials tell me what to do.

I feel like there is an element of play in your work, but the contrast is that your materials are so demanding.

Even though I am interested in very traditional materials within the history of sculpture I don’t want to be boring and stuck in that history. I want to mix them in a way that no one has, but that’s where I can run into trouble.

What draws you to using minerals in your work?

Part of it comes from loving rocks my whole life, another part of it is that I happened to marry a geologist. (Laughs) I think I was intuitively drawn to these things because they are beautiful and they come from the earth. But, I think I also have a sensitivity to certain stones. I love reading and understating the potential properties of their histories. There is another part… The original Superman came out when I was really young, and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is all made of crystals. I have this association with super powers and crystals. It’s kind of ridiculous but also kind of fun.

One of the first pieces I made was this piece of alabaster that I carved to look like a paper bag that you would use if you were hyperventilating, and it looks like it has crystals coming out of it. For me it was about taking your anxiety and turning it into power. A lot of my work is about taking your vulnerabilities and turning them into a way to empower yourself.

As artists I think we all have these big questions that we are trying to answer in the studio. What do you think those questions are for you?

Sometimes I don’t know the answers to those questions until way later. Some of it is about formal questions and the way materials work together. Right now I am starting to work on a piece that I think goes much deeper than I’m going to be able to understand for a while. I think one of the questions this new piece brings up for me is thinking about the amount of love I have and trying to figure out what to do with it.

Sometimes it does take a while to figure out what we are trying to get at or what is happening when we make work.

I have finally surrendered to the fact that I like beautiful things. I went to grad school at Bard, and that is not cool in the New York art world. I was always fighting myself. And now I am just like, Whatever I like beautiful things. Once you shake off a little bit of grad school it’s a time of coming into your own voice and truly not giving a shit if people like it. It feels good to be at that place. As long as I keep making stuff, even if it’s awful, then I win.
11 / 29 / 18

Thank you Debra!

Photos by Kim Richardson and Richard Nicol, curtesy of Debra Baxter