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Art Professor Kendall Baker with art major Natalia Gonzalez.
Art Professor Kendall Baker with art major Natalia Gonzalez.

For Professor Kendall Baker, the new Mueller Art Gallery is an affirmation of the university’s mission. The centrally located space, named for Sister Gerardine Mueller, O.P., artist and professor emerita, “underscores the university’s commitment to arts and culture” and increases the type and quality of artwork Caldwell can now share with the community, he says. “Some people may not be aware that the word ‘aesthetic’ is one of the core parts of the school’s mission,” says Baker.

This past fall, shortly after the unveiling, the gallery hosted an art exhibition by recent alumni, featuring the work of many of Baker’s students. “It’s a tremendous pleasure to have been a part of their education and then, as gallery director, invite them back to celebrate their accomplishments as independent artists.” Baker is ebullient about the creation of the Mueller Gallery and about the opportunities it now has to bring in the works of well-known artists due to the increased security provided by a door. “Museums and galleries that would previously not have loaned us artworks will now do so,” he says.

The expansion, made possible by the New Jersey higher education state bond, includes an administrative suite and two new classrooms for the art therapy program, a dedicated printmaking and photography studio and studio spaces for seniors majoring in art. These changes will allow for accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which is beneficial for graduates competing for employment and “communicates to prospective students considering Caldwell that its already rigorous programs meet or exceed the national standards,” says Baker.

The Art Department is dedicating the first solo show to the work of colleague and art professor Judith Croce, who passed away unexpectedly last summer. “She was an amazing painter and had such a sensitive eye for color,” says Baker. Croce had initiated the push for an improved gallery as a cultural centerpiece for the school, which makes it appropriate and poignant that the first solo exhibition is dedicated to her artwork. Earlier in the semester, Baker worked with his colleagues, Croce’s friends and family members to create a “life celebration.” “It was an honor,” Baker said, “to be engaged in an occasion that recognized a colleague’s life in teaching and shaping the Art Department.”

Baker is an accomplished artist himself—a sculptor and photographer—who has had his work on display in galleries from New York to Berlin. A recent work, “Broken Line,” uses site-specific installation to invite the viewer on a journey. “Broken Line” is installed at I-Park in East Haddam, Connecticut, where Baker transformed several acres of woodland with plywood panels fastened to dozens of trees along a sloping path. The panels are shaped according to the angle and thickness of each tree and, when intuited, form a horizontal plane when the viewer “connects the dots.” “It’s a work that brings the viewer into an awareness of place and space while walking through it,” explains Baker.

Learning how environments condition visual experience is a theme Baker has reflected on quite a bit after having spent considerable time outside the United States. As a child, he lived in Italy and Czechoslovakia due to his father’s State Department career. The direct experience of what he could touch and engage with his hands laid the groundwork for his art. “I was always making things, but it wasn’t art until I was much older.”

His grandmothers had a formative influence on him; one was an amateur artist and the other was a published poet, author and United Nations women’s representative. He became interested in literature and art, which led him to take courses in those disciplines, including mythology, modernist writers and sculpture, as an undergrad at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After two years at Clark, Baker took time off to hitchhike, work odd jobs and visit museums while traveling in Europe. Following a year of working and traveling, he enrolled in art and art history classes in Florence, studied wood carving with an instrument-maker and learned mold-making and casting at a plaster fabrication facility that duplicated works such as Michelangelo’s “David” at full scale.

By the time he returned to Clark, he had enough courses to qualify for a bachelor in fine arts degree. After receiving the BFA, he began preparing a portfolio to apply for the master’s program in sculpture at Yale University. In his second year, Baker came upon a book in the Yale Library on Indian cave-temple architecture and it inspired him to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study this art form and Eastern ways of seeing. He enrolled at MS University of Baroda in India and spent the year visiting cave-temple sites and producing a series of large sculptures made of cast paper, clay and tapioca, from a recipe taught to him by a maker of toys and life-size deities. “The encounter with cultural and philosophical frameworks so different from my own was an extraordinary experience and one I urge my students to reach for.”

Back in the United States, as a young artist, he hadn’t planned on a career in teaching. He was supporting himself in New York City as a freelance interior construction specialist, so he could take three or four weeks off at a time to work on his art. By chance, a friend recommended him and he was hired by then-chair Croce.

In his 20-plus years at Caldwell, Baker has contributed greatly to the expansion of the department and has served on numerous campus committees. Next year he will take on the role of chair, a position he has held in the past.

Today, Caldwell’s Art Department has roughly 80 majors, making it one of the larger departments at Caldwell. It offers a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of fine arts, programs in graphic design and studio art, and double majors in art and education and art and psychology, a major that feeds the rapidly expanding graduate program in counseling/art therapy. Baker is working with his colleagues to expand the program to include new media courses in interactive multimedia platforms, 3-D modeling and animation to prepare students for new opportunities in the marketplace.

Sean Puzzo ’17, an alumnus of the graphic design program, collaborated with Baker to create the exhibition “Belize: Beyond the Blue Skies and Clear Waters: A Reflection on Short Term Service Trips.” “Professor Baker is a breath of knowledge,” says Puzzo. “His way of thinking pushes you outside of the box and outside of your comfort zone.”

Baker also finds it gratifying to teach those not majoring in art who take his classes, helping them see art’s relevance in their lives. He recently took his drawing class to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. “I’d say 80 percent of them had not been there before, and their eyes were wide with delight from the experience.”

He encourages his students to “see” beyond what they “think.” Despite his love of literature, he says reliance on verbal language often obscures direct experience. “Once they step back from verbal language to look at the ways in which visual experience is conditioned, students begin to recognize a very different world.”

There is a thread between his life as a sculptor, teacher and gallery director that stitches together the way “seeing” is understood. He suspects his perspective stems from feeling like a bit of an “outsider” while growing up in other countries. As an educator, that has given him insights into his students’ outsider view of art, “because art is a foreign country in many ways, even if a student is interested in it.”

Baker feels privileged to work with talented and committed faculty members in the Art Department who share the goal of expanding the understanding of art. And as for his work as gallery director, he adds, “To whatever extent visitors and students are able to make connections due to the ideas, new relationships and content presented in the exhibitions, I’m very grateful to be an agent for discovery.”