Inspiration can come with an accident: “I was painting in a canyon when, towards the end of the day, a big gust of wind came up and knocked the easel into the dirt. At first I was devastated,” says painter and photographer Stella Maria Baer. “But then I realized the landscape itself could be part of a painting.”
Six years later, all the pigments that Baer works with are ones that she has made herself. “I painted out of tubes for many years,” she says. “It’s very different to use your body to make a paint — to take something so ordinary and coarse and make it into something fine and workable.”
Baer’s paints come from the high desert around Santa Fe, where she lives with her family on a hill 7,000 feet above sea level. “There’s cacti outside, there’s yucca and prickly pear; there are snowy mountains in the distance, and piñon and juniper,” she describes. It’s pretty idyllic.
From the rocks and sand of New Mexico just outside her home, Baer’s paints are made by suspending the grit in binding agents like gum arabic or linseed oil so that they can be brushed onto paper or canvas. In Baer’s hands, the paint blooms into moons, breasts, and figures riding horses through umber landscapes or mauve clouds. The dreamlike images sometimes actually come from Baer’s dreams, NASA photos, or just the natural landscape. There’s a looseness to her work: She lets the pigment flood the surface and sees where it falls.
With 188,000 Instagram followers, some of whom send her bits of earth through the mail, Baer’s art has brought her into contact with people from all over. “Instagram’s a strange little world,” she says, “but mostly it’s a wonderful way to connect with people. I love the different color conversations that happen there.” There’s an Instagram quality to the artist’s work, with soft colors and minimalist shapes. Her life — seen in diaristic Instagram shots — also takes on the same palette as her work, an ethereal and timeless desert quality.
It’s not just people living on the planet, right now, that Baer’s work connects her with. Hashtag-like marks of ochre pigment on stone have been found by archaeologists in South Africa that are 73,000 years old. On the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, stencils made by spraying wet pigment over hands pressed against pale rock date back 40,000 years. Making art from the earth is an ancient practice — Baer has revived it once more.
Dirt, Rocks, & Sand
Baer is most drawn to the dirt and desert sand from her home state, though finding the colors she has imagined using can take years. Her recent favorite, a lavender-adobe, she found this summer on a hillside along a highway she’s been driving along her whole life.
The colors she gets from her raw materials almost never turn out how she’d expect them to. “It’s always a surprise, with little changes and shifts as the dirt and rock breaks down.” she explains. “Especially with the reds. As the iron-rich pigment gets finer the reds come out brighter.”
Sometimes the pigments turn out dense and rich. And sometimes, especially with the lighter colors, they’re very thin. “You then have to use a lot of pigment in order to get the same concentration,” Baer says.
After collecting her raw materials, Baer has to make sure they’re not too rough. “I use the sieve before I use the mortar and pestle to get out any large chunks of rock and also to get out any dried grasses and sticks,” Baer says.
Mortar & Pestle
The process of using a marble mortar and pestle to break down rocks into pigment can be meditative and satisfying, according to the artist. “There’s a very beautiful sound to the grinding. It starts off with a nails-on-a-chalkboard type sound that gets smoother and smoother. You can hear as well as see when the pigment’s ready.”
Paints are made from pigment in suspension with different kinds of medium. Baer uses gum arabic for making watercolors. If she’s creating an oil, she opts for walnut or linseed oil. “There’s somewhat of a science to it,” she explains, “but finding just the right amount of binder for each pigment involves a lot of trial and error.”
“Around 2009 I took a class with a Russian Orthodox icon painter,” Baer says. “I bought some iconography brushes from him and I still use those. My grandmother was a watercolor painter and I sometimes use her brushes too.”
Canvas, Paper, Wood, & Linen
Rather than storing all her pigments away, Baer typically makes her paint fresh and brushes it directly onto simple materials. “There’s something about the conversation between the earth pigments, and the cottons and canvases and linens that just feels like a natural pairing.”