Updated: May 7
Looking at a Michael Baum landscape can really take you places. He comments that this painting says "adventure" to him, and he is correct. In looking at this painting, once you take in the wonder of the setting sun's light on the face of these bluffs and the drama of that threatening storm cloud, a story begins. You find yourself making your way down that road into the valley. Except it no longer is a road, but an ancient footpath through the scrub brush. It is the path the first Native people used when they happened upon this magnificent place. You become part of a group of ancient wanderers and see the high ridge of red rock as they must have, another sign of the greatness of Manitou, the spirit that moves all things. The gray clouds rising from behind the bluffs spread out toward your tiny band of travelers. The beauty of the heavens holds danger. A flash of lightning in that ominous blue-gray vapor signals that it is time to set up camp, which is hurriedly done before a display of lightning bolts begins to dance off the tops of the cliffs. As the thunder rumbles, a prayer is given to ask those clouds for the gold of the Southwest: a few drops of rain.
Well, that is only one of the "adventures" you can have when looking at one of Baum's landscapes. My supposition as a native Nebraskan is that Baum, who was born in Oklahoma, has an innate love of vast landscapes just by dint of where he was born. His family moved off to Ohio when he was young. They vacationed in Michigan and Florida, traveling like many Americans with a trailer attached to the back of the car. He counts those childhood travels and camping trips as some of his fondest memories. In terms of his drawing and painting, in those childhood years it was mostly dinosaurs, which are again big and dramatic. Do we see a theme emerging?
"I've been exploring the West more than 40 years and barely scratched the surface" Michael Baum.
Of this scene called, Along the Colorado, near Moab, Utah, Baum writes, "Tendrils of cool air reach out from the shadows and mingle with the day's heat. There are petroglyphs on the cliff walls. People have loved this place for a long time." In capturing that feeling of heat and the need to refresh oneself, Baum has created in paint the varying depths of the water. On the right, a sandy strip of land fronts small patches of light water, some sand-colored, obviously all shallow enough to wade in. Slight, white ripples appear on the surface of the river to represent an evening breeze blowing downstream between the rock cliffs. On the left, in the shadows, the water is still and deep. That deep water is indicated by the long shadowy reflection of the cliff face that seems to plunge into those depths. Baum handles the varying greens of the vegetation masterfully, with deep green for the foliage in shadow, and yellow green for the shrubs on the sunlit riverbank. Close up is a bush with a hint of that yellow, subdued by the shadow of the cliffs. That touch of dull yellow ties in with its more brightly lit companions across the river, allowing the eye to unify the elements of the painting.
In Storm Over the Paint Mines (see below), Baum once again explores his favorite subjects, "soaring cliffs, stormy skies...and the vastness of the Southwestern landscape." The Paint Mines are in a special geological area east of Colorado Springs in which the rock formations are in layered colors. This rather rare condition also happens in Roussillon, France, where it is known locally as the "Colorado" of France. There they make pigments from those colorful rocks. Here in Baum's painting, the blue-violet of distant rains allows for a faint rainbow while the colors of the earth fall into shadow. The sun is low in the west, as seen by how its light hits only the tops of the hills. This painting looks a bit to the north and east, where its storm clouds, a combination of bluster and beauty, are probably headed to the prairies of Nebraska.
Baum sometimes plays coy when talking about his painting. "I don't like to get fanciful about my painting, " he told Rhonda Van Pelt of the Colorado Springs Examiner (online) in an interview (2010). "For me, it is just what I do. I paint...no airs about it." Rather like John Ford, the film maker who declared he just made "westerns," underplaying his artistic cinematography that showcased the beauty of the landscape of the Southwest, Baum's focus on certain painting challenges underplays his regard for the majesty of the settings he paints. However when you read his online journal of fascinating stories about the places he paints and his physical and perceptual adventures in those settings, it is clear that just as the fabulous landscape of the Southwest is one of the stars in Ford's movies, it also stars in Baum's paintings. The brief descriptions Baum writes to go along with the paintings displayed in his monthly newsletter indicate someone with poetry in his soul which, of course, reveals itself in his paintings.
As a young man studying for his B.F.A. at Wright State University in Ohio, he certainly was exposed to the works of many other artists. His very favorite is Edward Hopper. "I like that kind of quiet and solitude," Baum says. "He'd pick a moment and just present a scene." Among Baum's own works there are paintings of gasoline stations and roadside cafes, perhaps from his childhood memories of traveling in Florida, done in a Hopperesque style. In A Nod to Mr. Hopper (see below), he pays direct homage to this American master, especially in his careful rendering of that 1930s-style building.
This painting's juxtaposition of that '30s building, complete with city lamplight, and the open countryside of farm buildings and distant mountain ridges seems not unlike Hopper's Rooms by the Sea (1951). In that painting Hopper has hotel rooms with doors that open straight out into deep ocean water with no steps, beach, or other transition between them. Baum does much the same thing here. The sharp contrast between urban and rural is too stark for this just to be a painting of the last building in town. Baum says of this painting,
"A streetlight illuminates its [the building's] bulk in a dim glow, casting it into its own silent world. It's a world isolated from the rest of the painting, a world that Hopper would recognize." The main idea presented here is of solitary isolation that can happen in the city just as it does in the distant countryside.
Baum talks of the changes that he has gone through during his career as an artist. Realism seems always to have been his foundation, but certain events in his personal life made him break with it for a while. In the 1990s he moved into a more whimsical style. It was fun and a relief he says from his sorrow at the death of his father and from a job he did not particularly like.
El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a Southwestern tradition dating from the region's time as part of Mexico. Celebrated on November 2nd each year, it is a time when people mock human folly with skeletons dressed up as we dress and doing our daily activities. Here Baum presents a fanciful and personal interpretation of the theme, keeping to decorative elements in alignment with the culture of the region. He paints two skeletons driving an old truck, their graves well marked by white crosses. The "calaveras" or skulls as these images are known represent the artist and his wife. A painted photo of the couple in their youth sits in a window not far from a candle in the wind. That painted photo can be dated by comparing the small version of the tree in the painted picture to the enormous tree that shades the graves. Time has passed, but the beautiful blue-violet mountains remain.
"I pursued the landscape in art through a variety of styles and media, now working exclusively in oils." Michael Baum
Of the painting, One Bright Day, Baum says, "I love to paint light and distance." The artist says that the day was one of 100 degree heat, so hot that nothing moved. In his opinion "even time stood still." He creates a wonderful stillness in this painting. We have no signs of ripples across the water to give us the direction of the wind. There is no water. There are no trees to sway. The little tufts of vegetation are low to the earth, holding on for dear life to whatever moisture their roots may have found deep down below the surface. The boulders and the nearby ridges have a whitish highlight on them, a glare from the unrelenting sun. No birds dart about, let alone chirp or sing. Any reptiles are well hidden below those boulders, which themselves once cracked off from the ridges and tumbled down below, a warning of what extremes of heat and cold can do to stone.
However well the mood was captured, for the artist the focus was on the light and the distance and how to capture them. While the rocks, earth, and vegetation up close are quite clearly defined, the distant mountains, the Vermillion Cliffs, are not so distinct. Though not a mirage, they seem to dwell behind a veil of heat induced haze, their particular characteristics not sharply in focus. The sun lights up the many variations within the cliffs but not distinctly. The blue-violet colors of the cliffs become closer to the blue of the sky as the eye moves up the cliff face to the top. Even the clouds that drift in the sky are rather hazy and certainly nothing like the well-formed storm clouds that Baum is so famous for creating. One looks at this painting and recognizes what we experience when the heat of the day affects the way we see what is before us. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the painting itself, and you certainly sense the still silence of the setting.