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Dawn And The Beachcomber

Whether It's Shells Found on His Coastal Rambles or Trinkets From Bali, Painter Jack Baker Sees Art Everywhere

November 19, 2000|SUSAN HEEGER

It's barely 6:30 in the morning, but Jack Baker--painter, gardener, collector of interesting stuff--wants to go to the beach. Not for the sun (it hasn't appeared yet), or the waves (surf's still small), but for the turbans--spotty, fist-size shells heaped around his garden, his painting studio and his house. Why? "I'm a bit vague on that yet," he admits, leading the way from his back door to a crook of coast 13 miles south of Santa Barbara. "This is one of the first places the Spanish landed, old Chumash Indian ground, famous surf spot," he explains, adding that the turbans have been a human food source throughout history.

History fascinates Baker--"the relentless flow of it, the dogged march of people through the ages and the treasures they leave behind." Nature leaves its treasures too: birds' nests, polished rocks, the spotted turbans. "There's one. Oh, my, look, there's another," he cackles, plucking the wave-washed shells from a snarl of kelp.

Already I'm regretting that I followed him out without a proper bag. And that Eric Nagelmann, the garden designer who first brought me here a month ago, didn't warn me about the dynamo that is Baker. I might have drunk more coffee or at least brought a bigger notebook. Because giant snail shells are only the beginning of a list of collectible objects that keeps growing during the day I spend with Baker, trailing him in and out of the old garage he converted to a beach house 30 years ago. By afternoon it includes things I've hardly noticed before but now feel I must have, too: soft, pitted bricks from the 1930s, Maine lobster buoys and hand-hooked rugs, fire buckets, boccie balls, massive wooden horsemen from the palace of an Indian maharajah, who traded them for some of Baker's paintings. Then there are the outdoor marvels: the 10-foot-tall callas with spattered leaves, shaving brush palms, tree fuchsias and the cobalt-blue cinerarias that sprout everywhere in Baker's garden and are really what I came to see.

Though Baker, 75, has been well-known since the '60s for his lavish, color-mad paintings of flowers, jungles, wild animals and, lately, surfers, he is also justly famous for his landscaping--a sort of Balinese-California fantasy that erupts for nearly an acre around his house.

Being a garden person, I'd wanted to visit his dreamy jungle for years, since I first learned of it from Nagelmann, himself an artist who started in high school helping Baker plant and tend his place.

"Jack loves experiments. He loves change. He's always trying things for the fun of it," Nagelmann told me during my earlier visit as as he led the way under Baker's dragon trees, draped improbably with roses. "He's not afraid of color and he's not worried about tomorrow." Which fits in nicely with a quote of Baker's I had heard before: "I like everything to be larger than life--especially life."

When I first came here with Nagelmann, I was surprised at how small and still Baker was among his mammoth palms, dripping vines and mazelike paths, configured in the Balinese style to foil demons. He apologized for the debris, in particular the shells and bricks he'd been gathering after winter storms. "In the '30s," he said, "there was a brick factory up the canyon, and when it rains, these still wash up on the beach." Knocking two together, he produced a subtle chime. "One day soon I'll work them into something."

I saw how other finds had been incorporated into the composition--ceramic Fu dogs, driftwood, Mexican wrought iron--emerging through the overgrowth like bits of a lost civilization. The house itself, which has at one time or another been painted every color of the rainbow, is now a tall white confection, like a colonial outpost in a palm forest.

I found myself edging toward its windows, peering in at a huge portrait of a bearded emperor that dominates the kitchen. From there it was a short hop to several vats of shells, a clan of perky shorebirds on a log and those enigmatic horsemen. Wooden animals lurked in corners--dogs, cats, wheeled elephants--some painted, some adorned with feathers, alongside model boats and canoe-shaped bowls of cowrie shells. Spying heedlessly, half forgetting myself, I came to the French doors of Baker's studio. Inside, more feathers, more shells. Vintage surfboards resting against walls. Waves rolling across canvas, depicting what Baker calls "the ritual and ballet of surfing." Men in wet suits with dogs. Exercising on the sand. Plunging in. Churning with the motion of the sea.

I saw it would be useless to try to separate any part of this from any other. Inspiration, medium, art. Collector and painter. Garden and house. Why try?

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