THE ART OF DEBRA BAXTER: WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS TO SUPERMAN, DIONYSUS, AND GHOST HEARTS (NOT GHOST RANCH)

     Currently on exhibit in Alcoves 20/20 #3 at the New Mexico Museum of Art are the complementary yet clashing works of Santa Fe artist Debra Baxter – a jeweler, a sculptor, a naturalist, an historian, and a scientist. Her works are compendia of creative talent, scientific knowledge, and intense spirituality – all ingredients for a recipe of beauty.

     Ms. Baxter, who moved from Seattle to Santa Fe four years ago, creates works using an encyclopedia of materials of varied colors, textures, and surfaces: crystal, bronze, alabaster, gems, minerals, and natural found objects. Each item is physically compelling and can stand alone by appealing to shape and color. However, each work has a symbolic resonance which, when discovered and applied by the viewer, adds to the value and weight of the piece. The significance of these references also reveals much about the background and beliefs of the artist herself.

     The first of these iconographic materials is crystal, associated for thousands of years with supernatural powers and mystical healing. The most eminent among these crystals is quartz, and its most colorful variant, amethyst (see Lean 2016 and Rise 2019). 

     Specifically, the origin of amethyst is the basis of an ancient Greek myth. For a compelling version of this myth, I refer to the soon to be published fantasy novel The Chosensby Colin Cox:

“Do you know it means ‘not drunk’?”…

“The ancients believed, well Asclepiades of Samos did, that if you drank your wine in a goblet made from amethyst it stopped you from becoming intoxicated.”…

“It’s because of Dionysus. Because, one day, in his usual drunken stupor, the god of ritual insanity tried to seduce the maiden Amethystos. Amethystos was not thrilled at being mauled by the sotted god of grapes, no matter how besotted he was.”…

“Desperate, Amethystos called up to Olympus.’’… “Save me, father Zeus.”

“Hearing her prayer, Artemis, the moon goddess of hunting and virginity – an odd combination if you ask me – swooped down and rescued the maiden from the clutches of the lecherous god by turning her into a statue of pure quartz. Rueful, Dionysus wept tears of wine over Amethystos’ petrified body. The flowing claret drops stained the white quartz purple, and – voila – amethyst was born. Tell me that isn’t a fantastic story.”

     This affinity for crystals as a pathway for fantastic sculpture and jewelry started in Ms. Baxter’s childhood with her fascination for Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, his secret sanctuary constructed of crystal where the superhero could regroup, refortify, and recover. This crystal cavern contained many rooms which might serve as sources for Ms. Baxter’s works. There is a Hobby Room where Superman created paintings and sculpture using his heat vision as his tool. When you look at Ms. Baxter’s sculptures, think of these crystals and their power to provide rejuvenation and solace. There is also an Arsenal, a stronghold for weapons and armor, including a Kryptonian War Suit. Think of these protectors when viewing Ms. Baxter’s series of bronze and crystal Breastplates. In her iteration, we are transferred from historical (Bronze Age) and legendary male warriors to Victorian women wearing detailed ruffled blouses which are either open or closed. Now, with this new gender, the breastplate turns from the aggressive to the nurturing. She is literally beating swords into plowshares. When the breastplate is open, it simultaneously reveals its heart of crystal. The heart shows its power and its vulnerability. Instead of the theme of self-preservation, we are guided to the theme of opening up emotionally, of taking the risk of connection. 

     Ms. Baxter forged these bronze Breastplates at the Shidoni foundry. She would take the actual fabric, dip it into hot wax to create a mold, and then cast in bronze. Look closely at the pieces and you can see the weave of cloth and the details of the buttons. They were designed for editions of three and each edition displays a different crystal formation.

     Ms. Baxter also has another personal connection to crystals. As a child, she would work with her grandfather in the construction of quartz crystal radios. With these radios, the quartz crystal amplifies and sharpens the radio signal, making communication with others possible. The crystal provides the standard frequency to regulate external emissions, filtering out what is extraneous. Its vibration provides concentration and power. This concentration and power are sustained in Ms. Baxter’s art.

     The durability of material is also evident in her use of alabaster, another reference to ancient Greek and Roman culture with its statues and busts of gods and heroes. What is truly remarkable is Ms. Baxter’s ability to connect ancient history, mythology, comic books, and telecommunication in a singular work of art.

     Ms. Baxter has transformed the image of the heart in her Breastplates, but she actually applies current research in cardiology, the development of the ghost heart, to her work Heart of Gold, made of bronze and quartz crystals. This study is conducted by Dr. Doris Taylor, the Director of the Texas Heart Institute. Heart cells cannot divide and regenerate; therefore, transplantation is  necessary in order to correct severe damage. But the danger of rejection is formidable. The purpose of this research is to create a new kind of transplantable heart. In the experiment, a pig’s heart is stripped of all living cells, leaving behind only the protein structure which is now pure white, hence the name “ghost”. This structure can serve as a scaffold for building a new working human heart from human stem cells. The model ghost heart is injected with stem cells and placed in a bioreactor with artificial lungs. Pump oxygen and blood into this container and the heart begins to beat. 

     Durability, regeneration, hope – all are themes in these heartfelt works. It is a dream of immortality and endurance in life and art. As Shakespeare wrote in his 18th Sonnet: “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

     Ms. Baxter’s repertoire of knowledge and spirit allows her to, in her words, “play around.” Interactions seem to flow out her hands, even surprising her. She views her works as mental puzzles which are made visual, acknowledging that the results can be weird, yet humorous. She states that, “art comes through me, not from me,” as if she were an instrument.

     How fortunate we are to be members of her audience.

 

Written by Sharon McCawley, Curatorial Docent at the New Mexico Museum of Art

Image Credit: Debra Baxter, Breastplate (Reveal), 2017. Bronze, quartz crystal. Courtesy of form & concept.