By Ron VandenBoom
James A. Baken, associate professor of fine art at Rocky Mountain College, said he seeks truth through his art.
Baken's work is on display at the Heritage Center this month.
It is a relationship between art, animals, and humanity, Baken said.
"The work I have done has honored animals, remembered animals, given respect to animals and hopefully benefited animals," he said. "The truth that I am finding regarding animals is that they do not want anything to do with us."
Baken, who grew up in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains, lived next door to a zoo while growing up and refers to animals as "my best friends." Now he says he pays them homage and gives them respect.
Baken's tongue-in-cheek personality comes sharply into focus when his next comment notes that he hunts deer every year.
The experience teaches his children about "our cyclical relationship with each other," he said, while at the same time providing food for the family table.
The Heritage Center exhibit is partly the culmination of a sojourn Baken made on behalf of the Holter Museum into the Helena National Forest a privilege extended to only 10 artists in 1998.
"My project involved art for the animals.'" Baken said.
He describes the idea for the project as an extension of a Zen belief that "the small things we do here affect events worldwide." His goal was to affirm his belief that a wild animal could somehow be changed if exposed to the fine arts.
One of his works created at this time was a self portrait from which he suspended strips of bacon. The Salt Self Portrait, as he calls it, was placed in the woods to "attract salt lickers and show them an image of a human," he said.
The mission failed, however, to attract any four-legged spectators and very few of the eight-legged variety ventured near the scene. This led Baken's wife to note that the portraits might be too real.
"Perhaps animals prefer abstract art," he claims she said.
Baken said he is currently working on three door paintings that camouflage deer. He plans on displaying these works in the woods where, he says, they can not be seen.
"The idea is to give them what they want," he said, "not to be seen."
The term "door art" is not a misnomer. Baken actually uses doors as a canvas.
He derived the concept as a result of his time serving as a hospital corpsman during the Vietnam War. "If you came upon a situation and have too many victims for the number of stretchers, then kick off' a door," he said.
To Baken, use of a door as a stretcher denotes charitable giving from those who have to those who have not. Several examples of this idea can be seen at the Heritage Center Gallery during the show.
Baken's unique sense of humor and sharp message combine to form a sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, message that can strike the spectator as "just art," or as something much deeper a symptom of our time, our self destructive nature, and our humanity to our fellow man.
The clubs might say "road rage" to Baken, but simply be colorful toys to others. Bacon pinned to a portrait might be signature art, a fanciful indulgence or a fond memory of a time in the woods. You be the judge.
Baken will be at the Heritage Center March 11 for a reception from 1-4 p.m., with a talk scheduled for 2 p.m. There is no charge and the public is invited.