I LOVE when I find out the talented artist behind a public artwork which I pass every day and which always makes me smile. I also love when someone we interview turns out to be so totally charming and generous with his responses,… so basically I really LOVE this guy Stephen Baker. I really don’t know him personally, but in the brief time we have spent pulling together this story, I’m getting the impression he is pretty awesome. You be the judge.
After originally studying graphic design at Swinburne, Stephen spent many years designing graphic art for various clothing brands. Like so many creatives, he would work the obligatory 9.00 to 5.00, then spend all night and every weekend on his own stuff – paintings, art exhibitions, gig flyers, album covers and a host of other projects. Now concentrating on his own artwork, Stephen says his time in the rag trade has been a fantastic grounding for his practice, particularly the use of repetition in pattern design, and the controlled colour palettes (he colour-matches his paints by eye, referencing Pantone colours!).
In recent years, Stephen’s creative practice has moved into new territory, as he’s started taking on ambitious larger scale public art projects. He finds this new format extremely rewarding, and is particularly fond of his ‘Pool Parade’ mural on the exterior wall of the Fitzroy Pool. ‘I loved the interaction the artwork created, I felt a huge community vibe from it’ he says below. If you’re a Melbourne Northsider I’m sure you know this distinctive facade, it has become such an iconic part of this colourful neighbourhood!
Stephen works from a studio in the Everfresh Studios complex in Collingwood, in a space that is houses numerous other artists, designers, photographers and creatives. He’s currently working towards an exhibition scheduled for late April at Modern Times in Fitzroy. He’s also recently hatched a plan, whilst travelling in Japan, for a collaboration with his good friends (and ours!) at Loose Leaf. We’ll keep you posted..!
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, and what path led you to what you are doing today?
As far back as I know I’ve always enjoyed creating art. Art class at school was the best subject by far, along with graphics a close second. I grew up with a very artistic sister who studied textile design and a father who had a knack for drawing and creating things. He was the Dad who would help build costumes for school plays, or stay up late gluing spaghetti bridges together.
I was a young kid growing up in the back half of the ’80s, very much into my heavy metal music, and drew so much inspiration from the amazingly detailed album artworks of the genre. Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Exodus, Metallica… I would sit there in my room for hours with an endless supply of HB pencils drawing Pushead skulls and H.R. Giger styled aliens, perfecting various shading techniques to make the drawing seem real. My year 9 co-ordinator once told my parents that I had a talent for drawing but thought my work was a little on ‘the dark side’. Probably because I had drawn an A0 sized poster of Iron Maiden’s ‘Can I Play With Madness’, one of my favourite LP covers.
Skateboarding graphics were a huge deal back then, and still are, so there seemed to always be skulls in most of my work! There was a stage in school I was drawing skull tattoos on kids arms for money during class and at lunch times.
School finished and I really wanted to go to art school, I actually got into print making at RMIT, but chose Graphic Design at Swinburne School Of Design for fear of becoming a penniless artist. Graphic design just seemed like the safe bet at the time, which I don’t regret at all. Having a sound knowledge of design and computers has allowed me to pursue my art career, as well as have some coin in the pocket.
For many years I spent my days designing graphic art for various clothing street/commercial brands. I would go to work for eight hours and then bust out art shows, gig flyers, album covers in every spare moment I had. The exposure to the rag trade industry developed my love for screen printing and also yardage repeat pattern making. All of this has definitely influenced my process in my art. There’s a lot of repetition in some of my previous works.
Nowadays my artwork has become less intricate and relies on a more definitive style of line work. Rather than a million lines telling a story, I try to tell it with using 20 good ones or less. My work with colour palettes and Pantone swatches in the rag trade industry is engrained in me. I still choose a colour palette based on Pantone reference swatches, mix up tubs of colour matched paints, and then use these across my canvases, the same way I would if designing a range of printed garments. There are definitely less skulls in my art these days, but I still feel there can be something eerie about the characters I portray.
How would you describe your work, and what influences your style?
Lately my paintings have become more geometric and abstract in form. Simplifying the line, shape, and colour of my scenes, representing less information without losing the viewers understanding of the work completely. I think my work also has a degree of nostalgia and subtle sexual references in it’s themes also, sometimes. Groundwork sketches are often influenced by watching and studying film scenes and a photographic compositions.
What have been one or two of your favourite projects in recent years and why?
Both the mural at the Fitzroy Pools (‘Pool Parade’) and a larger mural in Greig St, Seddon have been extremely rewarding experiences.
‘Pool Parade’ was completed in five days, painting roughly from 9am to 9pm each day in fairly hot conditions, as it was December. The design centres on how the community could best use various methods of transport to get to the pools, focussing mainly on those that are more eco and community friendly. Using traditional paints and brushes took time, but I wanted the finish only a brush can deliver, especially when it comes to final line work.
The response I received while painting was really positive, it made the whole experience so much more special. I had kids as young as five through to senior citizens all commenting on what a great job I was doing and asking questions about the piece. I loved the interaction the artwork created and felt a huge community vibe from it. There was one guy that would stop regularly each morning before and after his swim to chat about life in general, it was really nice. I couldn’t have asked more from my mural design, I felt it really did speak to the community.
Tell us a little about your creative process – what materials do you use, is your creative process intuitive or meticulously planned, and how long does each piece take to complete?
I mostly paint on canvas or wooden board, but have also worked with various print mediums. Sometimes I’ll work directly from a freehand sketch, but for larger works such as murals I’ll use a computer in the end to map out the design. If I’m creating a set or a series I’ll work on all the canvasses at once, filling in each area with a specific colour and then applying a final outline.
As I use a lot of the same block colours across a number of works, I mix up colours and store them for future use. I’ll often colour code these using the Pantone reference system, which then allows me to use the Pantone books to create my palettes. Time taken to complete a piece varies on the size of the work, but anywhere from two to six full days is a rough guide. Isolation coats and varnishing take up extra days on top of this however so it can be a lengthy process by the time my paintings are framed up.
What does a typical day for you usually involve?
I like to start at reasonable hour. I’m definitely a morning person, I love the thought of a fresh new day. I live above my partner’s florist business Grattans Flowers on Grattan St, so it’s only a short morning’s walk down to the studio in Collingwood. I must have my morning walk, I can’t just jump into work. I definitely need a moment to think about the day, make lists and work out what I want to achieve. When I get to the studio I’ll dump everything on my desk and head straight to Everyday Coffee on Johnston St to charge the batteries. I like to sketch in the mornings or at least have a good session of generating ideas, before I kick into some colour mixing and painting during the afternoon/evening.
I must say though my routine is fairly loose! I won’t knock back a sunny day in the park for some time alone to sketch or read. I value the time away from my studio, as it’s during this time I find inspiration for my works. There’s nothing better than sitting alone at a bar for three hours just watching and listening. But you have to be seated at the bar, not on a far off seat, there’s no action at the back of the bar. It took me quite some time to get the nerve to just be a barfly. But I must admit, I do enjoy it. Makes me feel like I’m in some Bukowski novel.
Can you list for us 5 specific resources (across any media) you tune in to regularly?
1. To catch up on what’s happening in street art or sub culture in general I find Fecal Face has always been a good daily reference. I’ve been flicking over to this site for the past eight years or so. It’s a good start to the day.
2. I’m always flicking through magazines and have heaps at home. My collections of Juxtapoz and Lodown magazines are out of control and I’ve had to stop because I have no room. But I still peruse these rags at the newsagency religiously.
3. Record stores are a great source of inspiration. I love flipping through album cover artwork. There’s always great palettes to be inspired by and amazing imagery. Some of my favourite record shops are Poison City Records in Fitzroy, Record Paradise in Brunswick and Heartland Records in North Melbourne.
5. I also tap into This American Life when I’m bored of music. There’s some amazing stories on there, so so interesting.
Which other local artists, designers, creative people do you admire?
I really admire people that don’t stop basically, and have a good work ethic towards their craft. Working from a few studios over the last five years has introduced me to many amazing creatives that are now dear friends. These are the people that spur you on and keep you going, and it’s great to see them go from strength to strength. Without going into details, here’s a list of a few locals I look up to: Seb Godfrey from Open Season and Deja-View Cinema, Charlie Lawler and Wona Bae of Loose Leaf, Rob Cordiner from Heavy Time, and Hugo Hubbard.
What has been a career highlight for you so far?
There’s been a couple of moments where I’ve stood back and realised that this is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. These are the highlights for me I think. I’ve had two of these moments. The first was halfway through the painting of the Fitzroy Pool mural ‘Pool Parade’, the second being after a sellout show. It blew my mind that I could potentially support myself through what I love to do.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
For years now I’ve always dreamed of collaborating with Hermes on a run of silk scarf designs. These amazing hand screened silk screened prints have always caught my eye with their intense colour and interesting motifs. I think I would like to incorporate a more street level vibe though.
What are you looking forward to?
Waking up tomorrow and sketching ideas for more paintings and murals.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I can’t choose between Fitzroy and Collingwood so it’s got to be both. As soon as I pass the Tankerville on Johnston St I feel at home. Although I live in Carlton I spend most of my time in these two suburbs. Playing drums for over 10 years you can’t help but frequent every bar and pub available on Brunswick, Johnston and Smith Streets. Not to mention the obvious art community that is so strong in Collingwood, I really love this area.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
It’d have to be a local establishment in Carlton called The Markov. It’s a short walk from where I live and they do a mean Wagyu burger with fat chips. These chips are the best in town, crispy almost triple fried style with fluffy mash inside. It also has a great wall painting inside, and also outside in the alley way by local artist Tom Civil, his work is really inspiring.
Where in Melbourne do you shop for the tools of your trade?
St Luke’s Art Supplies on Smith St supply me with most of my art materials. I also frequent Manfax Paint & Hardware if I’m doing any exterior work.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
I like to make lists. So often even on a Saturday morning I’ll pencil down a list of things I want to get done that day. Ticking off things on a list is the best. I make my ‘to do’ list pretty easy so I know I’ll get maximum of ticks.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Not sure how much of a secret it is or if it’s that exciting to most. But I know that there’s a large old Don Martin painted advertisement for a champagne company hidden behind a newer extruding billboard on a building opposite the South Yarra train station. I noticed it when the newer billboard had been taken down for maintenance purposes, exposing this treasured hand painted piece. His wing-nut eared long chinned faced characters in MAD magazine just take me back to my childhood. The piece was only visible for about a month before it was covered up again. Who knows when it’ll be available to see again, if ever.
If you’re after a best kept ‘food’ secret then it’s the ‘Promite Special’ for breakfast at Le Chien in Seddon.