A cliffhanger is a literary narrative or plot device.
Where the ending is sudden and abrupt, with the characters in the story left in an impossible situation, seemingly without any way out.
Michael McCormick’s recent situation, put him at the very edge of a precipice he imagined was the end of the line for his eponymously named gallery in the old JC Penney building on the corner where the Plaza meets the Paseo; one of the oldest galleries in Taos, open now for more than a quarter of a century.
Michael, who has been a Sponsor on taoStyle since the very beginning, has long supported and raised money for those in need, as well as for the Arts in Taos. I’ve covered MIchael’s background prior to his arrival, and his time in Taos, extensively here, so I won’t rehash in this post, but suffice it to say, when I saw Michael reach out to the community with a plea for assistance facing his own troubles, I felt obliged to help in any way that I could.
A few days after he launched a Go Fund Me campaign, I called him to let him know I had shared the page on all my social media. I was surprised by how upbeat he sounded but put it down to the community’s immediate and generous response; people were giving what they could to enable him to pay back rent owed to the landlord threatening to evict him.
“Are you sitting down?” He asked me,
“Why?” I responded. It’s my favorite word. “Are you okay?” I added.
“Oh yeah,” he replied, sounding quite cheerful for someone on the brink of disaster or at the edge of a cliff!
“I see people are responding to the fundraiser.” I noted.
“People have been amazing,” he said appreciatively.” So generous, I’m a bit overwhelmed. But there’s more, a guy came into the gallery over the weekend and bought all Bill Baker’s paintings.”
One of the reasons I’d called that morning was because during a lunch meeting the Friday prior, one of my companions had mentioned the large back room at Michael’s gallery had been cleared out. “I think Baker took all his paintings.” He said.
Well Baker did in fact take all his paintings, all the way to his new collector’s home in Ft Worth, Texas! I emailed Bill when I got off the phone with Michael. He let me know he was still on the road but would check in when he got back to Albuquerque where he lives.
Born in Bronxville, New York, Bill Baker arrived at the conclusion that he was an artist, while working as a carpenter in the city. After a year of taking art classes at Duchess County Community College in Poughkeepsie, Baker decided that travel and experience would be far more rewarding than continuing with a formal education in the Arts.
Now a multi-award winning artist who has lived in Albuquerque for the past three decades, he is world-renowned for his oil pastel depictions of the world’s vanishing tribes. He found inspiration early on in the Thrahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, whom he began spending time with in 1985, photographing and sketching them; documenting their culture and traditional ways.
Baker essentially lives with the people he paints, so that he can have direct experience of every aspect of their culture, which he sees as being now, on the edge of extinction. Since those early forays into remote regions, his travels have also included much of Asia, and in fact he’s soon headed to an out-of-the-way region in India with his teenage son for an annual festival, adding to the cornucopia of cultures he has witnessed and documented. His subjects include the Guatemalan Maya Quicha Indians, the hill tribes of East Asia, and several tribes in the endangered Amazon of South America.
When we talked, he was excited to share his latest inspiration, which found him working closer to home.
“This past summer I had visited Mesa Verde.” He told me, “And while walking the cliff dwellings, my imagination was sparked by the thought of the natives’ way of life one thousand years ago; especially how they would get to their dwellings by climbing the cliffs carrying such things as water, corn, small game etc.”
“It occurred to me to do a series of paintings of the cliff climbers bringing these goods to their dwellings.” He continued, “so now I have embarked on this venture,” he chuckled. “A six painting series called The Cliff Climbers of Mesa Verde “.
Being the perfectionist he is, with an eagle eye for details most miss, from the embroidery on a woman’s shawl to the way the light touches a dancer’s moccasin, Bill misses nothing, and as authenticity is critical to his work, I wondered how he was approaching these paintings, being that the cliff climbers no longer live in Mesa Verde!
“I contacted professional cliff climbers,” he told me, “ dressed them in native garb and accessories such as baskets, bows and arrows and various tools such as the stone axe, and I photographed these climbers in various areas of New Mexico that are similar to the surroundings of Mesa Verde.”
I asked how he was able to get some of the shots he had emailed me.
“ I have even gone to such lengths as to photograph these climbers with the use of harnesses down the side of a cliff.” He responded.
“The paintings depict the actual photographs that I shot, except for the faces which I chose from my Tarahumara photograph archives.”
He says he very carefully chose the most indigenous faces “ as I had imagined them to be.”
I thought it was magically synchronistic how he had chosen to make this series while his work in Taos hung in a precarious balance at Michael’s gallery.
“The guy told me he was “His” helper.” Michael said when I popped in to see him the next day. “I want to help you, is what he told me when he began pointing out the paintings he intended to buy. He began with thirteen and then left to have lunch after we put red dots on them all.” Michael recalled. “When he came back, he said he’d take all! Twenty-seven paintings!” Michael shook his head. “That’s Art History.” He said.
“Now I can pay for the trip to India” Had been Bill’s response to me asking how he felt about the sale. “I was wondering where I was going to find the money for it.” Bill was simply being practical, while Michael was still high on the surreal sequence of events.
I told him I’d talked to Bill. “He’s working on a new series of cliff climbers.” I laughed. “He sent an image entitled “Cliffhanger,” I think I’ll use that for the blog.”
“Apropos.” Michael didn’t miss a beat. His literary bent caught the metaphor in an instant.
Bill Baker has since filled several empty spots in the gallery’s back room. “It’s a big space,” he mused, “I’m going to have to get back to work.”
The work you see here is a series still in progress, but these images capture the spirits who roam this land, whose ancient footsteps echo through history in places like Mesa Verde, Bandelier and Chaco Canyon.The steep cliffs are powerful reminders of our current environmental planetary crisis, where we collectively stand at the very edge of a symbolic precipice,
For much more on Bill Baker and his extraordinary work, please visit the Michael McCormick Gallery’s site linked below.
Editors Note: An interesting aside. Two very large and quite spectacular Bill Baker paintings hang at the newly re-opened Stakeout. The owners acquired them for the building even before renovations began. They were part of the series purchased by the aforementioned collector from Ft. Worth.
All images thanks to Bill Baker