Nina Runsdorf, in conversation with Joe Henry Baker.
Joe Henry Baker is a New York based artist from the United Kingdom. Beginning as a graphic designer and pursuing painting as a hobby, Joe became enamored with the tactility and spontaneity that his artwork allowed him. Now, he has a studio in Brooklyn where he paints for a living. In the calm hues, symmetry and gradation of his paintings, Baker pursues a level of serendipity. He seems to relish in the unknown and unplanned-ness of artistry, which comes across beautifully in inversion paintings where he adds material onto the back of the canvas, with no clear indication of what will appear on the other side. Joe’s masterful works have been shown in galleries across New York, and featured in exhibitions globally.
It was an honor and a privilege to be welcomed into Joe’s studio and discuss his work, his favorite city (ours too), and what’s next for him.
Nina: First, I wanted to thank you for having us in your beautiful studio. It’s very warm, welcoming and relaxing – a nice escape to the everyday. So, where to start? Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Joe: Well, my name is Joe. I am from London but grew up in the countryside in Gloucestershire and Cornwall. I've been here [New York City] for close to nine years now. When I went to university, I discovered graphic design and thought that seemed like the most sensible route. I continued pursuing that path, went into advertising in London for a while, and then I had the opportunity to come out here doing branding and production, but it involved a huge amount of time in front of the “Black Mirror,” which kind of drove me insane.
I was always painting in my basement or in my bedroom and making a huge mess, so I decided to get a space in Chinatown and dedicate my evenings there. When everyone else was at brunch on Saturday afternoons, I would go there and kind of detach myself. It really informed my design work as well because I was able to go somewhere in the evening and do something radically different to what I was doing day to day. Slowly but surely, the studio got bigger and bigger and the work got bigger and, in turn, more experimental. The design became a lot more refined and the work became a lot more elaborate in a sense. And here I am today.
Nina: I always find it amazing to hear what led people to their passions, and love that moment where you decide you are going to devote the time and the space to just doing it. I read a little bit about you, and I know that your journey started not in painting, but in furniture. I'd love you to tell me a little bit about that trajectory.
Joe: So, I was very lucky to come out here and work for Anna Karlin, an incredibly talented artist and designer and work as her design director. I was helping with interiors and furniture pieces that she was conceptualizing. Again, I just thrive off the tactile practice, you know, wiring, lighting or managing installations. That’s where I thrive. But I also love making paintings, I love making a wide variety of paintings, I like to make furniture as well.
Nina: Can you tell me a little bit about your process and what you're working on material wise?
Joe: Every day is a new opportunity to explore something that you haven't done before. I really, honestly feel that every day I come in, despite maybe using watercolors for seven days in a row, I'm adding a little more pigment to the oil, reducing it a little bit or, you know, involving other materials. I'm always trying to push it and reveal something new that can then, you know, extend the practice the next day. I'd say my process is very instinctual and quite impulsive as well.
Nina: What do you think drives you?
Joe: I mean, I feel so incredibly lucky that I get to make my art and that people are interested in it and go so far as to buy it and hang it in their homes. So I guess that definitely drives me. The inspiration that I get from people who come in here and show genuine interest.
Nina: It's the creative process.
Joe: Exactly, it’s how you will look at a piece in a different way if you rotate it, or if you leave it for four weeks. It's truly mind boggling how infinite it is, how many extensions there could be to one single piece or multiple pieces.
Nina: What are you currently working on? I noticed on the floor you had this amazing painting that was drying.
Joe: Right now I am developing my inversion paintings - a series of works that are achieved by painting and dying the canvas from the back, revealing a negative of colors and movements on the front. Exploring and pushing materials is at the center of my practice, questioning the traditional format of a canvas, and I love that here you are essentially viewing two paintings at work, in conversation, simultaneously - you are looking through the painting and back into the room.
Nina: And again, you're not sure what you're going to get until it's finished.
Joe: With the design side of my brain and the art side of my brain, it's that letting go when you come into the studio and make a piece of art. It's that giving into the process. I control so many things in my life quite well but when I come here, I surrender myself to the practice and to the materials. And in doing so, you surprise yourself and you create these moments of revelation. But I think until you do that, until you let yourself go and kind of free-fall, you never really know what's around the corner.
Nina: And what do you think your biggest inspiration is? Where do you take your inspiration from?
Joe: I think the city I live in, New York itself, the electricity and the energy is so palpable. And my friends and colleagues who are all either working for large businesses or doing their own things. I'm so inspired by my friends and family who are just pushing the boundaries of what they're doing. Be it cooking, be it, you know, collecting items, developing furniture and then also taking from what they are doing and seeing how that reflects onto your practice.
Nina: And my final question is, what is next for you? What's your dream?
Joe: Tomorrow's next. You never really know what you're going to wake up to and sort of discover tomorrow. And if someone was to tell me three years ago that I'd be doing this full time, I would have not believed it. If someone had told me I'd be living in New York ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I feel so excited about what the future holds, but also excited that I have no idea what it holds.
Nina: The unknown can be daunting, yet so exciting. Thank you for taking the time and having me in your amazing studio, it's been such a pleasure to meet you.
Joe: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.