Stella Maria Baer: Bridging Art and Motherhood with Natural Pigments

Stella Maria Baer: Bridging Art and Motherhood with Natural Pigments

Stella incorporates natural materials into her work including a variety of Natural Earth Paint products: Refined Walnut OilEarth & Mineral PigmentsEco-SolveNatural Varnish, and Eco Gesso (see video at end of post).

Thank you, Stella, for sharing your artistic journey with us!

Where did you grow up and how did this place influence you and your art?

I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, just 30 minutes north of the little ranch where I live now. When I was growing up I couldn’t see a lot of the things I now love most about this part of the world. I couldn’t wait to leave Santa Fe and wanted to live on one of the coasts or in another country. Only after spending 15 years living on the East Coast did I begin to see the beauty in the place where I grew up.

Much of my work in the past ten years has been a meditation on my memory of growing up in the southwest, and slowly feeling a pull within me to return. Since I moved back to Santa Fe in 2020 the cosmology of memory in my work has slowly been eclipsed by the topography of the present. My paintings still draw upon my memory of growing up in New Mexico but also my experience of living here now. For many years I made paintings inspired by the colors of New Mexico while living somewhere else, wondering if I’d ever find a way back. Now I make paintings of the land, animals, people, and sky I see daily, a mystic naturalist’s vision of southwestern landscape painting.

Painting “Wyeth and the Antelope” en plein air at Moon Horse Ranch.

What inspired you to start painting and photography?

My grandfather Morley Baer was a landscape and architectural photographer, and when my brother and I were little he used to take us on photography trips to Point Lobos in Big Sur. He worked with a large format 8 x 10” camera that he would haul out onto the side of a cliff to get the shot he wanted. Watching him take those photographs as a child still haunts me. I started experimenting with one of his cameras when I was in middle school.

My grandmother Frances Baer was a watercolor painter, but I didn’t start painting until after college. I had a vision of a tree planted in the sea and couldn’t stop thinking about how I needed to paint the vision. My first painting was an oil painting, and I wasn’t quite sure how to use oils, but I couldn’t get the tree planted in the sea out of my mind. That was almost 20 years ago, and in some ways, I still work that way, I carry visions in my mind until I turn them into paint.

Gila Rock Moon, made from rock collected beneath this cliffside.

What drew you to explore the mythology of the desert? How did you become inspired by the moon and the human body?

When I look at the photographs on Mars, I see rocks that remind me of the canyons north of Santa Fe where my mom took me and my little brother camping when we were little. Much of my work has been a meditation on feeling at home in a place that looks like another world.

I painted my first moon in 2014, almost by accident. I had just gotten back from a road trip across the southwest and was thinking about the landscape where I grew up. I read a news article about an upcoming lunar eclipse and decided to paint the moon. I didn’t give it much thought - I used watercolor pigment that had been left on my palette from a previous painting. In the sphere, I found a balance of limitation and freedom. As the bleeds in the water dried, they resembled photographs I’d seen of lunar surfaces. Over the next few years, I’ve painted hundreds of moons and planets. Over time I started experimenting more and more with making my own paint from dirt, sand, and rock. My paintings slowly moved from being echoes of the landscape to pieces of the land itself. They moved from being meditations on my memory of childhood to paintings of my own children in the land where I grew up. These evolutions have felt like coming full circle.

My oil paintings are a different vein in the same body of work, mystic visions of women and children riding animals through southwestern landscapes into future eras. I’ve worked in these two veins side by side since I started painting, one vein grounded in the land, one in the stars.

Did you receive any formal training or are you self-taught?

I started painting almost 20 years ago. After college, I worked at my mom’s family’s ranch in Wyoming as a dishwasher and wrangler, and when I wasn’t working with the horses I would paint. I eventually applied to graduate school to study Religion and Art. While I was in graduate school I took studio classes in drawing and painting, and little by little my studio practice eclipsed my academic work. In the drawing and painting classes, I started to learn a language I’d been trying to speak for a while but didn’t quite know how.

While in graduate school I got a job working for artist Titus Kaphar as a studio and research assistant. Titus cast a vision for me for what it meant to be a working artist. He gave me critiques on my paintings and answered questions I had about techniques, materials, and color. He taught me to look at my work as something sacred.

In the painting classes and in the critiques with Titus my painting moved from being something private to out in the open. At some point during those years I realized I wanted to be a painter. I started selling my work during my graduate thesis show and eventually stopped working as Titus’ studio assistant to work on my own paintings and photographs full-time.

Working on Appaloosa in the Painted Hills in 2019, my first oil painting made using paint made myself from earth and mineral pigments and Natural Earth Paint Walnut oil.

How has becoming a mother impacted your art and artistic journey?

Motherhood is a journey of being reborn as mothers. And returning, forever changed, to the things we love with children in our arms and by our side. Painting is similar in many ways. My paintings often start as seeds of vision in my mind, that only I can see, only I carry, and slowly grow until they are outside my body, with a being and life all their own.

For many years after becoming a mother, I tried to recover a self that existed before I became a mother. I think letting go eventually and letting myself be reborn ironically opened the door for all those things I was trying to get back to slowly return, but in different ways.

My oldest son Wyeth has been making pigments with me since he could walk and is now almost 7. He loves taking giant pieces of quartz and smashing the rocks into pigment. He’s gone through phases where he enjoys painting with them but right now he’s more interested in making the pigments themselves. My two younger children are four and two, Whitman and Winona, and they love making giant messes with paint, which always teaches me to let go, to lose myself more in the making. I love watching them lose themselves in painting, even though it can sometimes be quite a mess to clean up. The way they get lost in creating is so beautiful though.

Working with mauve dirt and rock at a ranch near the Gila Wilderness in 2021.

Do you have any tips on balancing motherhood and an art career?

The most important thing is being with someone who believes in you. My husband Seth and I split work and time with the children 50/50, and that’s how I am able to paint. We need both our incomes to pay for our life so there’s never been another way. But I’m thankful to do both, to spend half my days caring for children and half my days in the studio working. It’s difficult to make a living only working half days during the week, and sometimes I have to work at night or on the weekend. I try to take off as much time as I can to be present with the children and enjoy their little beings, they are growing so much more quickly than I ever imagined possible.

Oil painting in progress in the studio. Made with earth and mineral pigments and Natural Earth Paint Walnut oil.

Our culture isn’t set up to support mothers or their work, and I think that’s important to remember. We are told we can have it all but in reality, there is so little support. I think it’s important to build a village of folks you can trust, who offer you support instead of judgment, and who believe in you as a mother and as an artist. It’s definitely not easy. I think as I get more into my 40s I value my husband and close friends more and more because I realize how fragile it all is, and how few deep friendships are really possible as a working mother. That may sound grim but I think it’s important to acknowledge how difficult it is, and how important it is to tend to the relationships that offer reciprocal support, respect, and understanding.

What is your process when you start a new piece of art? Do you have a routine or rituals you go through each time?

For my work in oil, I write down the visions I have for paintings, and sometimes it takes years for me to act on the vision. My work in watercolor is often more experimental, in the moment, a movement back and forth between what the pigment wants to do and what I long to do. I’ve been working more in oil this year, unearthing old visions in journals, and finally bringing them into being. It is terrifying every time but also deeply satisfying.

Mineral moons and southwest surrealist landscapes in the studio.

What is one thing you must have in your studio at all times?

Good light. I’ve worked in many dark studios in New England, under buzzing fluorescent lights in graduate school, and my studio in Colorado was brighter but still quite dark. I feel so lucky to have a studio in my home now. It is smaller than my past studios but looks out over the goat and horse pastures and there is nothing quite like the light in New Mexico. The light is its own presence in New Mexico.

How long have you been using natural earth pigments and supplies in your art? How did you first start using natural supplies?

I first started experimenting with earth and mineral pigments in 2009 in a Russian Orthodox Iconography class at Yale Divinity School. The teacher was a monk and I bought my first earth and mineral pigments from him. I still have them actually, and have been working them into my oil paintings this year.

In 2014 I was working on an oil painting en plein air in a canyon in Abiquiu when the wind came up and knocked down my easel, the painting face-first into the dirt. At first, I felt like it was ruined but a friend asked me if perhaps the land wanted to be a part of the painting. At the time I was mixing paints I’d bought in a tube to match the colors of the landscape, but this question led me down a path of experimentation with making my own earth and mineral pigments from the dirt, rock, and sand of the land where I grew up, the land whose colors haunted my work.

Over the past nine years, I’ve slowly transitioned my studio practice to all earth and mineral pigments. In 2018 I started using your walnut oil to make my oil paint and I’ve used it in every oil painting since then. I also use your pigments for some of the harder-to-find colors, like the blues.

Pigments made from rocks at one of my Earth Pigment Paint Making Workshops at Moon Horse Ranch.

Did a shift in materials change anything in your art-making experience or final results?

When I was in a painting class in graduate school I remember asking if there were any non-toxic alternatives and being told there weren’t if I wanted the paintings to be archival. How satisfying it is to know now that isn’t true, that we can make archival paintings that will last for generations using earth, mineral, and plant-based materials, we don’t need to use petroleum-based products.

Tracing the origins of paint back to the source has been a deep shift in my work and life. We are in a time when so many of us are longing to trace the things in our lives back to their source, whether it is our food, our clothing, or the art we create and place in our homes. It feels so satisfying to me to have wrestled with these questions and now be able to teach others to work the earth and mineral pigments into their own studio practices through workshops at our little ranch.

“Wyeth and the Antelope” in the studio. Made from earth and mineral pigments and Natural Earth Paint Walnut oil.

Is there one piece of art that you’ve created that was a profound experience or marked a turning point in your life?

I’m always amazed at how paintings speak to people in ways I could never predict or explain. Whether it’s an animal that speaks to someone in a particular way known only to them, or a moon that was above a person when the course of their life changed, or a color they’re drawn to, it always surprises me how when I make work that draws from my own visions and longings, those paintings speak to others.

Gathering earth and mineral pigments along the edge of a highway to a campsite where my mother used to take us camping when we were little. Photo by artist Aleishall Girard Maxon

Where can our audience see more of your work and support you?

This September I am teaching a workshop on how to make Earth and Mineral pigments from dirt, rock, and sand at our little ranch south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our vision for our ranch is to offer a place where folks can draw closer to the land, one another, and themselves. It’s been wonderful to see so many people recover lost creativity and connect more deeply with the earth through learning this practice.

I post photos of my studio work and life on our little ranch on Instagram at @stellmariabaer. I have a number of prints of my paintings and photographs available on my website, and I’m happy to send anyone a catalog of my paintings upon request.

This September I’m in a show of Earth Pigment artists at Folklore Studio Gallery in California called Earthly Bodies. Several of my paintings and pigments are also currently on display at New Mexico State University Museum, for those in the southwest area.

Click the link to watch a short recap of Stella's workshop featuring Natural Earth Paint products!