Teresa Baker is a Los Angeles based artist and this year her work is being hosted by De Boer Gallery, also of Los Angeles at the NADA art fair in Miami. Baker is an enrolled member of the Mandan/Hidatsa tribe and spent her formative years in the American Midwest until she left for college in New York City. As a descendent of German Farmers and the Mandan/Hidatsa people, of what is now the northern portion of the American Northwest, vast unbroken vistas and a deep connection to land has permeated her core. Her father worked for the National Parks Service which provided a unique experience to live on protected land but also land that was activated with tourists by day. Baker’s father also modeled what it looked like to fight for representation of Native people on the land now owned by the National Park Service; this respect for land and nature was only further solidified by her mother’s roots in farming. After leaving the geography of North Dakota and Oklahoma for New York City and then LA, her appreciation for unbroken landscapes compounded and manifested as an interest in her own artwork. Teresa Baker’s work is warm, formal, and funny, all at the same time. It also commands respect while inviting you in for a closer look. Astroturf, natural materials, and raw cut and sewn edges are currently on the front burner in Baker’s studio. This year her work was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art and she also welcomed a baby boy into the world. Baker currently lives and works in Los Angeles with her husband and son, who also joined her in Miami this year. We sat down at NADA on opening day to discuss her work and influences.
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Teresa Baker
HAVE YOU BEEN TO MIAMI FOR ART WEEK PRIOR TO THIS SHOWING WITH DE BOER AT NADA?
No I have not, this is my first time, I’m really enjoying it, It’s fun, and has an easier, celebratory energy than I anticipated. I have my husband and our 15-month-old son with me which has been nice. I love traveling with them, and having my family with me.
NADA Art Fair, 2022
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND DO YOU FEEL THAT THE GEOGRAPHY OR CULTURE OF YOUR FORMATIVE YEARS HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?
I grew up in North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, until I was 18. Then I went off to college in New York City. Both Geography and culture have influenced my work. I am Mandan & Hidatsa from the Three Affiliated Tribes in what is now known as Western North Dakota. I reference the land where I am from and what that land holds. What I’ve realized as I continue to make art and continue to work with abstraction, using formal concerns, through various materials, is that I want the object to create its own language, to be its own singular thing. But what I’m always referencing is place – I’m really trying to capture the place that I am from. It is also where culture lives- it is so intertwined. It is respect for and understanding of that land. Most importantly, It’s also a relationship with land that is spiritual.
My mother’s German. She’s German-American and grew up on a farm in North Dakota. Her parents were German immigrants from Russia and through the lives they built, have a lot of ties to working with the land. We grew up in National Parks because my father worked for the National Park Service and as a result, for my siblings and I, those were our backyards. Something I have been reflecting on recently is how strange it was to be living in these places meant for the public, for tourism. One place where we lived, Little Bighorn Battlefield, at night those gates closed, and there were three park houses, one of which we lived in, so at night those gates closed and the tourists left, and we just had this place to ourselves.
After I left for undergrad to NYC, and have continued to live in cities in my adulthood- I understand the impact of that time and those experiences all the more. Especially the role my father played in his career to bring the Native side of the story back to National Parks. His story’s amazing – we got to see and witness that as children, my siblings and I, and we have a great respect for that. I think it was a really subversive act that he was doing by going into these places, government run, and trying to bring them back, to make sure that the local tribes were involved back into their homelands, and to make sure that the correct history is being told. I think that’s why I feel like I reference these formative or childhood years a lot. Because I am still making work about it, and work about those places.
YOUR WORK IS OFTEN LARGE, ALMOST HUMAN SCALE – DOES IT RELATE AT ALL TO THE BODY OR FIGURE IN THE WAY IT IS VIEWED OR MADE?
I think I deliberately am responding to my body size to be honest. It’s kind of all within my arm span. I haven’t totally figured this out yet in a way, but there’s something about a large scale, and the size that I work with that feels friendly, I almost want them to hug you. Like they’re going to comfort or protect me. I don’t want to say figurative because I do not think my work is figurative, but there’s an anthropomorphic aspect of that scale.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE WAYS YOU USE COLOR TO DEFINE SHAPES OR SPACE?
I have an intuitive, process based practice. I love playing with color, and it starts by reacting to the ground astroturf color and going from there. It depends on what I want from the piece, or it depends on how it starts. Sometimes I want it to sort of pop, or feel energetic, or sometimes it’s listening to what the work wants to be. It’s this relationship with the material and color, seeing what I can push and what I can pull back- playing with how color adds a feeling or pushing how multiple colors interact with each other.
In regards to the shape, I just want to add that the irregularity for me serves as a way that the eye doesn’t get stuck, It can move on and off the piece. Whereas I have always kind of struggled with the square and rectangle because I don’t like that boundary it’s giving me. I feel frustrated by that boundary. I don’t think the piece can live, it just doesn’t work for me. When we’re talking about land, there’s plenty of amazing landscape painters or landscape artists who work within that boundary, but for my work, I want that kind of idea of a little bit of a boundary-less piece. I also don’t like it to be really clean. I like those irregular cut lines from using the scissors with the astroturf. That’s where I get to come in as the maker. I like that unsteady hand, it feels like that’s kind of where the life is. Part of that inspiration is from looking at handmade quilts from my family – it is the uneven stitch lines, or the hand ties. I love it because that’s human, that’s the life of the person that made that.
HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT YOUR OWN PERSONAL VISUAL VOCABULARY OPERATING ALONGSIDE THE HISTORY OF MAKING ART?
I think it’s hard to ignore western art history and my knowledge of it. I did end up majoring in art for undergrad, and then going to grad school for art, so I do have a lot of references. It’s there, and that’s not bad, I will say, though, I feel like it was in the front of my mind more so just beginning in my practice, than it is now. Now, I have more of a relationship with my materials, where I can just go. I’ve really processed and delved and gone through so many iterations of searching for materials and understanding how these formal elements can work together to create what I want to create. But now I’m in this place and I just kind of go, and maybe if I see that reference later on, that is still okay.
YOUR WORK HAS RECENTLY BEEN ACQUIRED BY THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, HOW DOES IT FEEL KNOWING YOUR WORK IS NOW CEMENTED IN INSTITUTIONAL HISTORY?
I mean, lots of things, right? It feels incredible. To know that my work gets this protection. Very honestly, it’s a little emotional for me. I cried when they took my work away. I can’t escape that I’ve grown, at least since college, in the art world, living in New York. I’ve been going to these institutions and have not seen a lot of Native artists, or Native abstract artists in those places. It feels really incredible and special.
ANY OTHER ARTISTS YOU THINK WE SHOULD BE WATCHING RIGHT NOW?
Oh my goodness, I have an endless list of artists I am excited by, but, I’ll tell you about some amazing artists that I had a really great visit with last night. So, they’re at the top of my mind at this moment; Jordan Ann Craig, Ishi Glinsky, and Saif Azzuz – they’re all artists who I already have relationships with, and have watched their work- I am really excited about what they’re doing. So it was really great to see them at Art Basel yesterday, and to see their work at Art Basel.
All images courtesy of De Boer gallery
For more information on Teresa’s work: