Window on graphic interpretations

Jo St Baker has been inspired by the views through the ‘‘windows’’ on the roof of her apartment...
Jo St Baker has been inspired by the views through the ‘‘windows’’ on the roof of her apartment building. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
This time last year, Jo St Baker was putting the final touches on her first New Zealand exhibition since returning to the country only to have it cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. About to open her next exhibition, St Baker tells Rebecca Fox about the influence of having space.

A pair of old, chunky-framed tortoiseshell sunglasses are to blame for the intense colours in Jo St Baker’s latest works.

"Everything looks amazing. I’m constantly going, ‘wow look at that’."

She picks them up off the table in front of her as she explains the golden tint they imbue on whatever landscape or cityscape she is looking at.

"The sky’s generally a really intense blue, the colours of the water, the gold, the highlights on the hilltops, the personality of Otago really comes through. The light here is different from anywhere else I’ve painted. It’s a light I love, it really sparks me."

Cityscape, by Jo St Baker
Cityscape, by Jo St Baker

That has translated into the colours chosen for her new series of work "Scape" to be shown at The Artists Room this month.

Nearly 12 months ago, St Baker was getting ready to open an exhibition of works inspired by time she spent on Quarantine Island during a short-stay residency.

That exhibition was cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. But it was not all doom and gloom. Many of the Quarantine Island works sold online and St Baker, like many, all of the sudden had time without the "white noise and chaos" of everyday life.

"You could just stop and look. It was so quiet. It really helped me engage with where I am."

That was on a rooftop in central Dunedin. When St Baker and her husband returned from Australia a few years ago they found their home in a central city building with access to the roof.

It was views from there as well as some A2-sized paper drawings from her time in Quarantine Island she had created poster-size works that have inspired her latest work.

"I haven’t really done much work on paper before. I just loved it. Loved how the paint reacts with the paper, you can layer it. It was yummy."

A suggestion she continue painting on that poster-sized paper instead of canvas, inspired her to give it a go.

"It was a like a light went on."

The larger format on fine art slightly textured paper allowed her to be looser, to go big, but still keep her trademark details, as she depicts her favourite views of Sandfly Bay, St Clair or the view from her roof across the city.

"I’ve always enjoyed the architecture here in Otago. This has given me a chance to integrate the old and new and the landscape through one window. Up on the rooftop that is the view I get.

"How I feel about the city comes across in the colours, the details."

She loves where her work is going and how the acrylic paint sits "beautifully" on the paper.

"It’s beautiful to see how the paint moves from the blob to the brush strokes. My big canvas reflective works, you could step right into. Some of these landscapes you feel like you could do that, too. When I’m painting them they take me to that place."

On the practical side she loves how easy it is to manoeuvre the works around. She tapes the paper to a board and is easily able to move the work across her studio, handily just downstairs from her apartment.

"They’re a labour of love. Some are slightly abstract others are animated, it animates the landscape is how I feel about it."

Changing aspects of her practice is not unusual for St Baker who moved to Brisbane, Australia about 10 years ago after her husband got a job opportunity.

While there she took the opportunity to open a creative outlet for like-minded artists in a empty space. It was an incubator for painters, photographers, sculptors to be creative and show their work.

They decided to move back after changes at her husband’s job.

St Baker has always painted things from her life. She used to live in St Clair so the Esplanade features in many of her works.

Over the years since she graduated from Dunedin School of Art in printmaking her work has become more detailed, she says.

Her work is also not as photorealistic as it used to be.

"The emotion is still there, the feeling is there, rather than it being so literal."

St Baker’s work starts out with a photograph.

How that translates into a work just comes to St Baker. She turns her hands to most things including printmaking and sculpture.

She also does fine etched drawings in wood, some on an almost human scale that are reflective of the tattoos and markings people wear.

With lineal carving using lines and dots she creates stripped back images.

"The outcome is very sculptural."

St Baker also likes painting groups of things whether surf skis or mangroves.

"Each grouping is like a portrait with characteristics and personalities. In a collection of things there is this unification that can be quite beautiful."

She puts that down to her background in graphic design and illustration.

"I look at things in a more graphic way, I think."

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