Anna Baker was a brilliant artist with a comic touch

copyright the Chronicle, August 8, 2012

World of Fantasy, The Life and Art of Anna P. Baker, by Beryl Hutchinson and Roz Hermant.  Self-published.  185 pages in paperback.  $59.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

I need to begin this review by confessing my bias.  Anna P. Baker, the subject of this richly illustrated work, was both a close friend and an important contributor in the Chronicle’s early years, when it remained to be seen whether it would sink or swim as a community newspaper.

That it swam, I believe, was due in large measure to one of the most unlikely duos to ever put ink to paper.  Loudon Young was a dairy farmer all his life, and his role in my life as friend, neighbor and mentor in the ways of rural Vermont predated the first Chronicle by four years.  When I asked him if he thought a weekly newspaper in Barton would have a chance of survival he said he didn’t think so.  Given his preference for color in language, he more likely said that such an enterprise would have a snowball’s chance in hell.

So it was a considerable surprise when he volunteered a column for the first issue, and a greater surprise to discover that this highly accomplished talker could also write, and that his writing was very funny, indeed.  His back-page column immediately became a weekly feature in the paper.

We didn’t make Anna Baker’s acquaintance until we were moving the office from a farmhouse in East Albany to an old barbershop on Barton’s Upper Main Street, and she wandered in to find out what the devil her new next-door neighbors were up to.

She found us amusing.  But then Anna found most things in life amusing.  That knack, along with the most exquisite good manners I have encountered in another human being, were pretty much what got Anna through an otherwise challenging life.

Anna told us she was an artist.  But I don’t think she mentioned that she was also a cartoonist.  She was a good enough cartoonist that, as a 16-year-old art student at a London, Ontario, technical school, she was interviewed for a possible career in animation with the Disney Studios.

I didn’t know that last detail until I read this book.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before Anna brought in a cartoon she thought we might like to publish.  Her chosen subject?  None other than the above-mentioned Loudon Young.  Loudon’s profile — a sharp chin often decorated with a bit of a beard, a sharp and substantial nose — was a cartoonist’s dream.  But it was Loudon’s humor that captured Anna, because his ear for what was funny about the most ordinary, everyday situations so exactly matched her eye.

Both of them thought there was something fundamentally funny about the common cow.  Loudon wrote about them constantly.  In her book, Beryl Hutchinson reproduces the first Baker painting she acquired.  Called Pent House Farm, it was executed at that same technical school, which Anna attended in 1944-45.  It’s a whimsical, wonderfully busy urban landscape with people farming on the rooftops of a couple of apartment buildings.  Ms. Hutchinson is careful to point out that it includes, atop one roof, Anna Baker’s first cow, a Holstein.

Anna’s renderings of Loudon and his cows appeared in many Chronicles over the years that followed.  They accompanied the best of Loudon’s columns in the Chronicle’s first book, Off Main Street, West Glover, Vermont, and the dairyman and his Holsteins were featured in a series of calendars she drew for the paper.

A generous selection of these cartoons is included in World of Fantasy.  But there are also many of her “serious” works — whimsical, intensely detailed, richly colored paintings that will delight the fans who have an Anna Baker hanging on the living room wall, and surprise those who know her work only through the Chronicle.

As we grew to know Anna, it became obvious that we were in the presence of an artist of great talent and considerable reputation.  Her works caught the eye of critics and connoisseurs wherever they were displayed.  That her reputation didn’t reach further was to some degree her own fault.  She volunteered once that a friend, a sophisticate in the business of art, had told her she couldn’t find success as an artist if she insisted on living in a backwater like Barton, Vermont.  She needed to be in New York City.  Anna acknowledged the advice as sound, and chose not to take it.  Whatever glue held her to the Northeast Kingdom, we are all the richer for it.

Beryl Hutchinson enjoyed a friendship with Anna Baker that went back to high school.  Her book includes a photo of a schoolgirl softball team named the Eagles with Anna in the front row, Beryl in the back.

Thus Ms. Hutchinson was the ideal person to stitch together this fully illustrated biography of the artist.  She opens with a surprising revelation about Anna’s origins — a surprise best left to her readers — and takes us through the artist’s school days, her formal education at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she entered in 1951, and the early teaching career that led to her friendship with Bunny Hastings, daughter of a prominent Barton physician.  That friendship brought Anna to Barton, and lasted the rest of Bunny’s life.

Anna beat cancer once, but lost the second round and died in 1985, at just 56.

To all of those who still miss her kindness, her wit, and her great talent, this book will serve as long-awaited consolation.

To buy World of Fantasy, go to “contacts” at  www.annabaker.net, or see www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3334768.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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