Kelsey Baker is an Edmonton-based artist, junior high teacher, mother of two kids (and three dogs), and a tea lover.
I enjoyed our conversation because of all the sensible insights she had into art as well as her outlook on what art actually is to her — the way the world makes the most sense.
If you haven’t had a chance to see her shadow box creations (one of them is the featured image), you’re missing out. She does some clever things using LED lighting.
Regardless, enjoy our conversation.
[Featured Artwork by Kelsey Baker. Untitled. Assorted media on shadow box with LED.]
The following responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.
01. Rock, paper, or scissors?
Paper, because it can smother the hard stuff and if it gets cut it can be reformed.
02. What are three interesting facts about you?
A. I never give up on a work I have started. I keep working on it until I either love it or I have destroyed it and learned everything I can from it. So much can be learned from pushing a work that isn’t meeting your expectations. There is a freedom in it. Some of my best work has come from just experimenting on a project that did not go as planned.
B. The University of Alberta wouldn’t let me into their Fine Arts program. I was an Education student majoring in Art and due to that there was an attitude that I shouldn’t get the same attention as the Art students. After my first year, I tried to apply to the BFA program, no go. It was frustrating as I didn’t have as many opportunities as my peers to engage in the deeper discussion regarding conceptual ideation and was limited in the courses I could enroll in.
C. I used to work in construction. I helped design and build the basement space in Yanni’s on Whyte. I travelled to Morocco with Polly Magoos and helped pick all the custom elements. I had so much fun through the whole process. Learning how to use every tool in the book was awesome. It is rewarding to succeed in challenging stereotypes. I think one my favourite moments of my entire life was working demolition with another little, tiny girl like me. I’m only 5’2″. The inspection engineer team came in to do their thing and they asked, “Where’s your demo crew?” And my boss quickly said, “Ohh, don’t say that to small girls.” And we tore down the structure in a matter of 10 minutes and he said, “See, that’s why you get little girls to do demolition.” *laughs*
03. Is art your career or a hobby? Something else?
It’s kind of my everything. My paycheck comes from full-time teaching. I teach art and social studies at the middle school level. Afterschool is devoted to my kids and everything involved with their awesome selves. Then, art and the work that goes into it comes in those rare moments when I can actually get some things done.
But it is my everything. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a job. It’s the way the world makes the most sense to me and the place I probably feel the most peaceful.
04. Are you more productive at night or in the morning?
I am a before-dawn, early riser; much to the dismay of my whole family. So, four o’clock in the morning is typically when my brain decides it’s time I should wake up. My most productive time, I would say, is between 4:30a.m. and when my family gets up at 7 a.m. It’s just unfortunate because they’re all sleeping and I’m trying to be really quiet because my studio is outside their room.
05. What is the main medium you use in your art?
It’s kind of everything right now. Anything that I can get my hands on. Lately it’s been wood, silk, flowers, butterflies, oil paints, acrylic, resin, beadwork — it’s kind of been all over the map but, for the most, it’s acrylic and oil.
06. Where did your passion for art start?
I’ve drawn since I was a kid. I think my grandfather bought me my first easel when I was four. I spread crazy, terrible artwork all over his office once I had that. But my grandma was a big patron of the arts. She sent me to all sorts of art camps and sent me to one where I had the opportunity to work with Jane Ash Poitras. That really opened up my mind to art being an actual thing that I could do as a living rather than something I would just play around with in my room.
And then I had this really amazing high school teacher who changed my highschool expeience entirely. Artists are often a little different and because they’re so sensitive, they don’t often have that big group of people that they fit in with. We’re often the round peg in the square hole. Mr. Campbell really helped me to find a home and a place and gave me confidence. I think that is where I really fell in love both with teaching and with art. He was mad that I started teaching as he had taught me more than that.
07. What is your go-to band or artist?
I don’t really have a single go-to. I’m often too distracted by ideas to create playlists so I will often just throw a random playlist on Spotify. I really like Shakey Graves, Tracy Chapman, and oldies like Fleetwood Mac. Stuff I can sing to.
08. What song or artist do you like but rarely admit to liking?
Dolly Parton. She’s got some old-school classics that just put a smile on your face and simplify things.
09. What’s your favorite color?
Color. Period. It’s symbolic, it’s psychological, it’s powerful. I don’t have a single favourite color, they are all awesome. I love learning the history behind where pigments come from, how they’re made and how they are incredibly specific from a chemical standpoint. I love the diversity of color and how the properties shift between synthetic and natural pigments. I don’t think I could identify a single favourite, it always shifts with what’s happening in my life.
10. What is one common misconception about being an artist?
There’s so many misconceptions about being an artist. Can I talk about two?
The first one is that it’s easy. I think a lot of people think that being an artist is simple. Sit down and use a brush, it works out well, and viola. The reality is it’s so convoluted from prepping and priming and framing and building concept sketches and underpainting. As art is how I process the world, I often do a ton of research before I even think about pencil to paper for a new series. When I am working on “meaningful” compositions I’ll spend weeks researching so I can really understand what I am trying to say, what anchors it, and how to visually create it. And, also attached to that is, “Why is it so expensive?” That one kind of drives me nuts.
But I think the biggest misconception is that artists are crazy people. Nothing could be further from the truth. An artist’s brain runs a little differently. They see the world from very unique standpoints. They’re kind, intuitive, expressive, fierce problem solvers, supportive, and passionate. They’re incredibly sensitive and connected to a million different ways of thinking which I think makes artists special people, not crazy people. The world needs more of us.
11. What household chore do you actually enjoy?
Lots of them, actually.
Cleaning and organizing, putting things just so. It works well for calming my brain and creates an opportunity to work with patterns. I find it really cathartic and peaceful. Especially with some loud house music, then I dance as I go. I can find ridiculous, tiny things in my house but I often can’t remember what I did the day before. Organizing anchors things.
And then, of course, gardening. How can you not love watching things grow as they change and shift into vibrant riots of color? I do unfortunately live in the wrong province for that though.
12. What inspires your art?
Life. Definitely life, and the different things I think that we all go through and the changes we make throughout those processes.
When I first started off with art it was, “I’m going to paint pretty pictures that maybe people will want to buy.” In that, it was everything from landscape to animals to anything that had bold colors and patterns.
In 2020, I was awarded a skills and development grant from the Edmonton Arts Council. For the first time, I wasn’t financially bound to sell in order to create so I was able to deeply play with my ideas. Art supplies are so expensive and you burn through them when you are learning new skills. With my grant I was able to buy tools and materials I had only dreamt of. Through that process I shifted. I think it is inspired by trauma and resilience. I use symbolism often to help communicate these ideas. I have taught for 17 years. Through that process I have seen so much growth and resilience that is inspiring. I enjoy creating artwork that makes people pause, step out of their world, and think about things a little differently.
13. What app do you use most often?
Probably Instagram. I don’t post a ton but I love the fact that it’s a world wide gallery of artists big and small. You can visit studios and galleries from all over the world. You can learn new approaches from tutorials and tour their shows. Let’s face it, Edmonton is not the art centre of the world and doesn’t get that many amazing exhibits a year. Instagram lets you travel all over the world and see these artists doing phenomenal things. It’s like professional development, kids today don’t even understand how much culture they have at their fingertips.
14. Creating the art is one thing, but finding clients is another. Have you cracked the business side of art?
No. Technology and me are not best friends, and I find the whole social media marketing thing just takes so much time. There are a million things that I’d rather spend my time doing. I teach junior high, it’s exciting, rewarding and energy consuming. I have two amazing kids, 13 and 9, and three dogs. Well, two small horses and a cranky old potato chip. Getting into the business marketing thing is hard. I have a small home-based studio, I offer drop in lessons, and do paint nights for small groups. I am hoping maybe I can gear this up a bit more now that we are shifting back to life as we know it.
I show up to art shows and I try to do the local art fairs. For me though, it’s not really about the sales. It’s about putting my work out there and having the opportunity to talk about it. Art is such a large part of my identity, I find it cathartic to put my ideas out into the world. I would rather have a face-to-face connection and talk with people. That is incredibly energizing. Analyzing algorithms and monitoring engagement is exhausting.
15. What is your favorite drink?
Tea. It comes in all sorts of varieties and is created by mixing some really weird things that you wouldn’t think would go together. It’s bright and vibrant and can shift completely with your mood.
*sips some of her tea*
Remedy On Whyte is my favourite place to go.
16. What’s something you’ve been meaning to try but just haven’t got around to?
That’s tough. I’m always thinking about a million different things. I really want to try hand-looping rugs. There’s some crazy, cool sculptural stuff that just blows my mind. That’s definitely high on my bucket list.
And spraypaint. I admire that skill so much. When I try to do it, it looks like horrible street tag. It would be nice to learn from some masters on that. I think that would be a lot of fun. I get stuck with the little marks of my brushes sometimes. Big walls don’t allow for little marks.
17. What are you hilariously bad at?
Remembering dates. My brain is often going full tilt in a million different directions. All these different ideas and projects percolating with to-do lists and everything else makes it chaotic at times. So, when people are talking to me, if I don’t really slow down and pay particular attention and write things down, create sticky notes, it often just goes in one ear and right out the other. But ask me where the tent pegs are that we used three years ago and I’ll find them in a second. Brains are magical.
18. What do you hope people get out of your art?
A pause. I think life is really busy and I like the fact that having interesting work on your wall really pulls you away from the everyday.
With my grant work, I created these crazy, immersive shadow box light things — I don’t even know what to call them — that were really fun. There were so many different things that were poked into it that you could spend 45 minutes looking at how everything interacts. They are stuffed with floral and preserved butterflies. You can actually customise the lighting in them so it completely changes the composition and the mood.
But I love that when I show these people just sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and they’re completely enthralled in that moment. I think art should be that. I’m hopeful I can create something that makes people think and pull them out of where they’re at, maybe even give them a different way of looking at things.
A very interesting post. I love Kelsey’s work and her comments show her intelligence. I’d like to say she’s a chip off the old block since she’s my daughter but her art skills have certainly surpassed mine. She has a lot of amazing projects yet to come which will be so exciting to see unfold. I’m very proud of her and her work ethic that she puts into what she loves.
Seeing Kelsey pursue this latest project has been so rewarding. Thanks for giving us a deeper insight into her thinking and process. We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years, and I still learned new things about her!