All photos by Stella Maria Baer unless otherwise credited
Ten years ago, New Mexico-native Stella Maria Baer was feeling “uprooted, planted in a sea of uncertainty”.
“For some reason I felt compelled to make a painting of a tree planted in the sea,” says the artist now living up in New Haven, Connecticut, with husband Seth and Fox, the sheepdog. She hadn’t painted before, but nevertheless drove to an art store and bought an easel, canvas and oil paints.
“It was a terrible painting and I’m not sure where it is now,” she says. “But that was the first time I painted something.” And it wouldn’t be the last.
A stint assisting contemporary artist Titus Kaphar (“The lessons I learned from Titus are endless, but the greatest one I think was the idea that work is something sacred”), a series of quirky animal paintings and back-to-back commissions later, she’s now focused her attention upwards – with the sky proving anything but a limit.
“During the years when I was painting animals, I was often ‘distracted’ by things that happened by accident… the colours bleeding into one another, the movement of paint in the water,” she says. Despite this, Stella forced herself to concentrate on the subject at hand.
“As time went on, I decided I needed to explore the things I had dismissed as distractions – the moments in my painting that felt out of control and more like play than anything else.”
Then a photograph of a lunar eclipse changed Stella’s course, catapulting her into a realm of meticulously detailed moons, planets and celestial bodies.
“In the sphere I found a balance of limitation and freedom, a way I could experiment with colour and bleeds within a space that felt both infinite and finite,” she says.
“Painting moons and planets was a way to bleed out my memory of the desert while still moving into another place. There was a mythology of the desert that overlapped with the cosmology of space.”
Back on the ground, her days begin early with a walk for Fox, followed by tea and yoga before hitting her light-filled, linseed oil-scented (and bone and skull-scattered) studio.
“I try to spend the morning and early afternoon painting, as that’s when I do my best work. Late afternoon I spend on the business side of things – shipping out prints and paintings, drawing up invoices [and] answering emails.” Things wind down with Seth playing guitar (serenading Fox) and cooking Stella’s favourites – of late that’s green-chilli stew and blue cornbread.
While it sounds like something of a dream, Stella likens her craft to “wrestling”.
“A couple years ago I had a painting professor named Robert Reed who used to say that every painting is a struggle between what you want it to be and what the painting wants to be…” she says.
“But every once in a while, something strange and unexpected happens, something beyond what I’ve planned or intended. In those moments, painting is like falling in love.”