We speak with painter and photographer Stella Maria Baer. In her practice, she explores themes such as the mythology of the desert, the cosmology of space and the topography of the human body. Stella is endlessly inspired by the landscapes of the desert, specifically, the deserts of New Mexico where she spent her childhood and where she has now returned to make a home with her young family.
All photos courtesy of Stella. See more of her work here
SHOP THE LOOK
Tell us about your love for painting; when did it begin?
My grandmother was a painter, and my grandfather was a photographer, but I didn’t start making paintings myself until after college. I started painting fifteen years ago. For many years my paintings and drawings were a secret meditative practice that I showed to almost no one. In graduate school, I got a job working for an artist as a studio and research assistant. Working for a painter who was showing his work all over the world cast a vision for me of what it meant to be a working artist. He gave me critiques on my paintings and answered questions I had about techniques, materials, and colour. In graduate school, I took studio classes in painting and drawing, and in one class, the professor assigned one hundred paintings a week. In those classes and the critiques my painting moved from being something private to out in the open. At some point during those years, I realised I wanted to be a painter. My graduate thesis in 2011 was a show of paintings, and during that show, I sold my first painting. My work slowly began to receive some press, and little by little, I moved from working as a studio assistant and being a nanny to the children of two writers to working on my own painting and photography practice full-time. My studio work eventually eclipsed all other work and became a way I could make a living. It was never easy or simple and still isn’t, it is always a life of uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve found in painting a way to say something I don’t have the words to say.
How does your passion connect you to the natural landscapes around you?
In 2014 I began making a series of abstract desert landscape photographs and paintings of moons and planets, inspired by the land where I grew up in New Mexico. At the time, I was living in New England and wrestling with an almost gravitational pull I felt to return to New Mexico. I couldn’t stop thinking about the colours of the canyons where my mama used to take us camping when we were little. A lot of my work over the past seven years has been wrestling with that longing and what it means to return home, and to feel at home in a place that looks like another world. At first, I was mixing paint to match the colour of the landscapes, but eventually, I began experimenting with making my own paint from the earth itself, from dirt and rock. Little by little I replaced paint from tubes with paint made from earth and mineral pigments. My work is a meditation on the colours and forms of the land; our history, memory, mythology, and cosmology.
Can you tell us about your Earth Pigment Workshops? What inspired you to create them?
As I moved my own studio work from using watercolour and oil paint in tubes to paint made by hand from earth and mineral pigments, I received so many questions about the process and requests for teaching I decided to offer workshops on what I’ve learned about making paint from dirt, sand, and rock. I’ve found it to be a deeply grounding and meditative process, reconnecting me with the earth and the land where I grew up. In our age of screens, I find it restorative to be outside with other people, put our hands in the dirt, and transform the ground beneath our feet into paint. In my workshops, we talk about how to gather natural materials ethically and responsibly, using leave no trace methods of collecting, and the importance of always seeking permission from the caretakers of the land. We talk about the many ways we must honour the Indigenous peoples whose land we are on. We support local Land Back efforts to return land to their original peoples and believe in the repatriation of lands to Indigenous peoples.
Your photography shows a strong sense and a real connection to where you live. Can you please explain that?
My photography practice takes on many forms; at times, it is a meditation on colours and shapes I’m drawn to in the land around me. Some of my photographs, like the nudes in the desert from 2018, are a way of describing the relationship between how we see women and how we treat the land. Most recently, my photography has been a study in how the colours of the hills and dirt around us change at different times of the day. For me, it’s a practice of finding the cosmos in natural forms and moments of calm while caring for three small children.
Tell us about your neighbourhood in Santa Fe, New Mexico; where are some of your favourite places to go?
This past July, we moved to a little ranch south of Santa Fe, between the Ortiz and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I live there with my husband Seth, our two little boys, Wyeth and Whitman and our baby daughter Winona. The ranch is only ten acres but surrounded by around 70 acres of juniper-speckled hills and horse and goat ranches. We love wandering in the fields and arroyos around us with the children, playing in the mud and dirt, picking prickly pears to make juice. When it’s warm we spend as much time as we can camping in canyons north of us, where my mama took me and my brother camping when we were little, or swimming in the Rio Grande, or going hiking in the Jemez Mountains. We love living in a place where we can spend so much time outside in the high mountain desert, 7,000 feet above the sea.
How would you describe the style of your home?
Our home is called a northern New Mexico ranch house, which means it has a pitched roof over adobe walls. The plaster outside is the colour of the dirt around us, a sandy pink at sunrise, light tan during the day, and a light mauve at sunset. Perhaps I’d call the style of our space “cowboy western”? But often overrun with children’s laundry, blocks, and sticky remnants of past snacks. After many years of dreaming and searching we moved to this little ranch this past June. I gave birth to our daughter Winona on the bathroom floor a few weeks later. Winona will be four months old in November, so we haven’t even unpacked fully yet. We have many dreams for how we want to change the house, and things we want to do with the land, but for now, we’re just learning how to sleep and form rhythms as a family of five.
Over the years we’ve slowly collected weavings, baskets, sheepskins, furniture, and wooden spoons that were traded with makers and artisans, given to us by family or friends, made by New Mexico ranchers, or that we’ve made ourselves. We save up for ceramics made by friends and strangers and give each other pots or bowls to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We’re drawn to natural materials and organic shapes that are made from the natural world around us, and Wyeth and Whitman love to bring wood and rocks home in their little hands.
We love the Pampa pieces you have chosen for your home; what drew you to Pampa?
I love the soft nubbly textures of the wools of Pampa pieces, the way they feel in my hands and across my arms, and your commitment to partnering with local Indigenous artists and honouring our earth.
Are there any exciting projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on making paint from dirt and rock collected at our little ranch and along the road. I’m also working on two commissioned earth and mineral pigment paintings, one to celebrate a collector’s 40th birthday, another made from the dirt of two American deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, for a cabin near Joshua Tree. I always find commissions to be the most difficult – it’s such an honour to be a part of the lives and homes of those who collect my work. But I always wrestle the most with these paintings. Thankfully both collectors have communicated deep trust to me, and I’m honoured that my work speaks to them. After these two paintings are finished, I’m hoping to return to the surrealist desert landscape oil painting series I’ve been working on for the past four years and continue making paint from the dirt and rock at our little ranch. And hopefully, find a horse to live in our barn.