In Thanksgiving, In Memoriam

I had to reset the password on my old Yahoo account to access it. Once I was in, I did a quick search and found his name: Loren Baker. There it was, my last message from him. In the note, he thanks me for a postcard from Philadelphia and remarks, “It reminds me of our trip to Paris and Italy. One of the best trips I have ever had with students.”

This email is dated 2006. I want to cry. How is it possible that I haven’t actually spoken to him in seven years? I think of Loren Baker often, and fondly. On Tuesday I learned that he passed away over the weekend. He was only 64. Professor Loren Baker, MFA was a model of faith, authenticity, love, and generosity. I knew him as a faculty member and as chair of the Art Department at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY. More recently he taught at Biola University in California.

In eight semesters of class, work study, and trips, I learned to appreciate how Mr. Baker lived in the world and gleaned the following life lessons:

Read the Arts section of the New York Times. This simple expectation of his students opened up a whole new dimension for me. It situated my struggle to create in a larger context of creators.

Be real. Mr. Baker frequently misplaced items, such as his keys and his glasses. The result could be exasperating or amusing, depending on the situation: exasperating when it was your time sheet, amusing when you could see the glasses perched on top of his head. It was most certainly endearing. Students would team up–even pausing mid-way through putting brush to canvas–to help search for the missing item. Many an evening we would find him back in the studio after he had left for the day because he would get to his house and realize he had, maybe, perhaps, left his house keys in his office. This stands out to me because I too often mistake polished and pulled together for competent and capable when in fact, this kind of humanness makes one more approachable, and ultimately more loved for it.

Be true. In a time when abstraction was popular in the art world, Loren Baker practiced a figurative style illuminating biblical narratives. When other artists were using bold, raw gestures to express heroic themes, he made meticulously crafted assemblages about the interior life. When it was popular to reject Christianity in favor of relativism and artistic freedom, he embraced the Cross anew. He found God in all things and wasn’t afraid to share these moments with his students. In a reflection for an online devotional, Mr. Baker remarked, “Christ is constantly stepping into our lives, bringing us hope, healing and restoration.”

Sanctify everyday space. Mr. Baker often started a studio or art history class with a reading from the Psalms. He particularly loved Psalm 90:17: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And confirm for us the work of our hands; Yes, confirm the work of our hands.” With this practice, a bleary-eyed 8 a.m. studio class was elevated to something akin to worship. Instead of incense we had charcoal dust. Instead of Eucharistic wine we shared hot chocolate made from the very, very hot water that ran in the studio sink–the same sink where we also washed out brushes.

Negotiate and take some risks. Convinced by those New York Times articles that we were missing out on great works in great places, my friend Stephanie and I approached Mr. Baker about taking students to art shows and museums outside our tiny college town. Citing missteps by students in previous years and the inevitable administrative tangle of liability issues, he initially denied our requests. Pleading ensued. Eventually he complied, with the following conditions: Stephanie and I were to handle the student recruitment, funding, and some travel details. He would secure the college’s permission and additional chaperones. Working within these terms, we were able to travel to Toronto, Buffalo, New York City, and finally to Italy and France.

Know your people and stand by them. By senior year I was actively exploring Catholicism and other faith traditions. I spent the fall and spring semesters steeped in iconography. I struggled with a growing awareness of the lack of female voice in Scripture and in the lived practice of faith around me. I asked Mr. Baker a lot of questions about the theology of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in relation to the art of Western Civilization. He suggested I use color and shape to ask these questions. The pieces that marked my exploration became part of my submission to the senior art show. My Madonna and Child, with Mary’s facial features obscured by torn pages of text, while tame by most standards, drew fire from the donor whose funds had built the gallery. When confronted by the donor, Mr. Baker graciously assured her that the offending piece was created not in defiance of Scripture, but in relationship to it. He knew me well enough to be able to speak to this. By listening patiently and being generous with his time, I think he knew most of his students this well.

Experience beauty firsthand. It was in our trip to Italy and France where four years of art history finally made sense. The hours of studying flash cards and slides (pre-digital media) to memorize details such as artist, art, date, medium, museum, and city suddenly had new meaning when you were standing in that city, in that museum staring at that piece of art. Awestruck, I learned that “Giotto: Ognissanti Madonna, 1306-1310, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence” was a magnificent work, a nearly ten foot high altarpiece, so unlike the tiny, flat image reprinted in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

During our stop in Rome, in the summer of 2000, I encountered not only the breathtaking beauty of the Vatican treasures, but also the kind face of Pope John Paul II. Looking back now, I don’t know how our little band of art students from a Protestant Christian college even managed to be housed in Rome during the Jubilee Year. It was one of the most auspicious years in three millennia of Church history. The Jubilee was like ten World Youth Days rolled into one. Maybe bigger.

Yet, because of Loren Baker, because of his firm belief in our capacity to know God by experiencing beauty, I had landed in Rome and found myself standing five feet from the Holy Father as he distributed the Eucharist among the crowd. Some people wait a lifetime for that encounter. Others travel thousands and thousands of miles on pilgrimage. I had come for the art and stayed for Mass. Five years later I was in RCIA when Pope John Paul II fell ill. Seven days before he died I was confirmed and welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.

In Thanksgiving, for Loren Baker. For a life well lived. Requiescat in pace.