Stella Maria Baer is a favorite artist of mine and a brand new mother to sweet baby Wyeth. I’ve been a huge fan of her moon and planet paintings and the style of her work from her instagram (her own personal style as well), and was excited when I found out we had a couple close friends in common! She happily agreed to let me pick her brain on how motherhood has changed her work, how painting has given her the space to be a better mom and helped her reconnect with her own childhood, and the strange world of instagram fame…
Tell us a bit about your background. Have you always been interested in nature inspired art?
I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My mother was a weaver and my father owned an art gallery. My grandmother was a sculptor and my grandfather was a photographer. Making things was always part of the language and the landscape. But I never thought of it as something I wanted to do until after college. I started painting eleven years ago. For many years my paintings and drawings were a secret practice that I showed to almost no one. While in graduate school I got a job working for artist Titus Kaphar as a studio and research assistant. Titus cast a vision for me for what it meant to be a working artist. He gave me critiques on my paintings and answered questions I had about techniques, materials, and color. Titus taught me to look at my work as something sacred. In graduate school I took studio classes in painting and drawing, and in one class the professor assigned a hundred paintings a week. In those classes and in the critiques with Titus my painting moved from being something private to out in the open. At some point during those years I realized I wanted to be a painter. I started selling my work during my graduate thesis show and eventually stopped working as Titus’ studio assistant to work on my own painting and photography full time.
You obviously take a lot of inspiration from the gorgeous colors of the Southwest. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
When I was in high school I wanted to move away from New Mexico and never come back. I went to college and graduate school in the northeast and never thought I’d live in the west again. But a couple years ago I took a road trip through New Mexico and for the first time I fell in love with where I was from. A couple months later I drove through the Mojave desert and the Four Corners region, places we’d gone to on road trips growing up, but that I had forgotten. Taking photographs of these landscapes helped me see what I had been blind to when I was growing up. When I got back to the northeast I was haunted by the colors and lines. My work since then has been a way of coming to terms with the pull I feel back to the southwest. I’ve found in painting moons and planets I can explore what haunts me in the desert while still moving into another space.
When I look at the photographs the rover takes on Mars, I see a place that feels like home. The flesh colored rocks remind me of the canyons in Abiquiu where my mom took me and my brother camping when we were little. Painting moons and planets is a way of drawing out that sense of being home in a place that feels like another world. There is a mythology of the desert that overlaps with the cosmology of space.
What is your creative process like for creating a new piece?
Sometimes my paintings are accidents – my first moon painting I made by mistake. But usually I think about a painting for months or even years before making it. Before my baby was born I tried to write a couple times a week about the things I want to make to cultivate a sense of vision. Now days it happens more like once a month. Once I start making a piece things will happen that I don’t expect and can’t predict but usually my paintings start with a vision.
Your photography is beauty as well, is that something you’re classically trained in or are you self taught?
My grandfather was a landscape and architectural photographer, and used to take me and my brother on photography trips to Point Lobos in Big Sur. He worked with a large format 8 x 10” camera that he would haul out into the landscape. I think watching him take those photographs as a child left a deep impression on me. But I have a lot less training in photography than I do painting. Photography is something I experiment with and over time has become a medium I work in.
Has becoming a mother to sweet Wyeth changed your work? Do you feel like it’s added a different lens at all?
It’s strange, I didn’t think so but the more I look at the work I’ve made since Wyeth was born the more I do see shifts, from lunar bodies to human ones, from far off planets to the landscapes I grew up in, moons to the flesh of hands and boobs.
Tell us a bit about your home/work balance, as many new moms struggle with this. Any tips or advice for other creative mamas out there?
I struggle a lot with knowing how much to work and how much time to spend with Wyeth. He’s growing so fast and I want to enjoy every moment of him being a baby. But my desire to paint and photograph hasn’t decreased any since he was born – if anything it’s only grown stronger. On hard days I spend my studio time confused about what I’m doing because I’m so tired and distracted after being up at night with him. But on good days my time in the studio gives me the space to be present with my baby and vice versa. Each provides a refuge for the other and brings something to my life the other cannot.
A composer wrote recently saying that she thinks about pieces she’s going to write while playing with her baby, and then after he goes to sleep she writes them out. I’ve been trying to cultivate that sort of mindfulness. In many ways being pregnant is like painting, starting off as something small and invisible, like a reoccurring dream, then growing slowly within me and eventually ending up outside myself, with a life of its own.
I think it’s important for my son to see me doing what I love. And for him to grow up knowing that women can be artists.
We’re loving your style as well, any staples you’d recommend for new moms or brands you’re really digging right now?
The months before and after Wyeth was born I wore Storq leggings every day and night. I love Elizabeth Suzann’s linen Linn tees, how they’re almost like Jean Arp sculptures you can wear, so soft and great for nursing. I’ve been living in Jesse Kamm’s pants.
You’ve got a great audience on instagram (over 170k). Do you feel like that’s your primary marketing source now for your work? Has that changed how you work at all?
I’m never exactly sure how people find my work – they rarely tell me but when they do it seems like it’s either on social media, in press, or seeing pieces in the galleries I work with. I do think people all over the world own my work because they’ve found it on the internet. Sometimes instagram feels like another medium I work in, a collage of sorts where I organize color and draw out things I’m thinking about. But there are also trolls and ghosts and copyright infringements. I’ve had to hire an artist copyright lawyer. It’s a strange little universe.
Any advice for other creative women on growing their own instagram audience?
I’d say avoid imitating other people. Don’t compare yourself. Post what you love and what you believe in and what makes you unique and different. Find your own visual language. Don’t take it too seriously. Tell your story.