March 16, 2015
This spring, in advance of his retirement, artist and chair of West Chester’s Department of Art + Design John Baker is earning an honor reserved for a rare few in the University community. Thanks to a generous endowment he has made, the gallery in E.O. Bull Center for the Arts is being renamed the John H. Baker Gallery.
"As gallery director, curating exhibitions has always been a passion for me," Baker explains. "To endow the gallery is a way of giving back to the department and university. The endowment will provide support for the department to continue to have visiting artists and exhibitions that will enhance the curriculum."
"There couldn't be a more fitting and appropriate name," says Rhoda Kahler '95, a ceramic artist and former student of Baker’s. "John has been the face of this art department for many years and has fostered thousands of students. As a WCU alumna, I am so proud to say John Baker was my ceramic professor and he introduced me to the medium I love so much."
Added Darcie Goldberg, a photographer and one of Baker's close friends who is a former executive director of the Chester County Art Association, "To me, John is a rock star in the art world. Everyone who knows and has worked with him feels that way. He has made everyone feel so welcome in our art community."
Goldberg first met Baker when she started working at the art center 20 years ago. "We became friends; we did collaborations, public arts programs. He helped me greatly as the executive director of the association. He is a great peer, a very good listener and he encourages you. He allows you to use your creativity at a level I never thought I could achieve. I think there are very few John Bakers in this world, and I'm just lucky that I got to know the real John Baker."
Kathy Davis '73 agrees: "I think the world of him. Everybody clearly loves him. He offered such sound and gentle guidance."
Davis is chief executive and visionary officer of Kathy Davis Studios and founder of Scatterjoy Art Center in Horsham, Pa. With her leadership gift toward the renaming of the gallery, she has become the keystone of the campaign to honor Baker. She met him here when they were in the same art class together, and says, "When I returned for my credits for permanent certification for teaching, I decided to take ceramic courses, and lo and behold he was the teacher!"
Baker graduated from West Chester in 1974 and was asked to stay and teach part-time. "My first class was a graduate-level class. I think the students were all older than me," he laughs.
He found a mentor in art department chair Jack Hawthorne, in whose name Baker created a scholarship. "He acclimated me to the department and faculty and guided me toward academia." Now, as department chair and associate dean for the College of Arts and Humanities, he says, "This was all part of the plan."
That plan involved spending long hours at the ceramic kilns; going to national conferences with students and colleagues; mounting art exhibits here and abroad; launching and leading an art camp; participating in the regional arts community; supporting faculty; overseeing curriculum; and of course, creating and teaching. Many of his memories are of the senior student art shows every spring.
Baker has guided the department with an inclusive attitude, sharing opportunities to get faculty noticed and involved regionally and beyond, even at China's Guizhuo University, where "both junior and senior faculty could exhibit at the international level."
He has connected the University with the regional art community in many ways, including the Art Trust at 16 West Market Street in West Chester, which promotes regional and emerging artists, links businesses and art philanthropically, and has brought scholarship dollars into the department.
He also directed the department's move, with the entire department participating in the building renovation plans. "The move to Bull Center recognizes our corner as the 'arts parts' of campus. We are the supporting foundation. As a department, we really are like a family, and our students recognize that."
Bull Center for the Arts now houses "the two premier exhibit spaces, and they are more accessible to the community. These are very sought-after spaces by artists. We have the next two years booked already and proposals for about four years. And as a teaching gallery, we feed [artist lectures] into the curriculum."
As for retirement, Baker says he's anticipating spending more time in his studio working on ceramics, handmade paper and mixed compositions. "Now I can pick up where I left off 18 years ago when I became chair."