Sink or Swim?

posted by @HeyItsKamo

I’m going to try my best to keep this post free of cuss words and other swears, but it’s going to be tough because I got a chance to get my picture taken with a GOTT DANG SHARK! Well, sort of…

This past Friday night, Project 308 Gallery, a local Western New York art gallery run by my friend Natalie Brown, hosted the opening reception for an exhibit titled Sink or Swim. The exhibit featured work by the very talented Kimberly Baer, who was nice enough to invite me to the gallery and view her work. I’ve had the chance to check out one of Kim’s previous shows (I was pretty drunk, so I don’t need to explain how much fun I had), and I was blown away by the quality of what she produced- Kim is able to take seemingly normal ideas and run with them in such a way that what comes out in the end is all sorts of incredible. That first art show had a lot of great paintings, but one struck me as more impressive than all the rest- a five foot tall oil painting of a shark. Aptly titled Razorblade, the painting features a close-up view of a menacing great white shark. It’s done in such a way that it looks like the monster is going to actually eat the viewer- the perspective is that of looking down at the water from the safety of a boat or dock, straight into the sharks gaping jaws.

In the Belly of the Beast

Naturally, when I heard that Kim had more paintings of sea creatures and she was putting them all on display for an exhibit, I knew I had to go. The show, which will run December 7-21 at Project 308, features fourteen large canvas oil paintings of underwater life. Viewers were treated to more of the same great work that comes expected from the likes of Baer- vibrant colors, breathtaking perspectives, and amazing detail. A pair of giant walruses (something that I learned today is that the plural of walrus is not walri…) are the focal point of Baer’s The Blubber Brothers, while a close-up of a lone whale is the focus of Big Blue. Beatrice features a large sea turtle, and Deadly Jelly shows a colorful group of stinging jellyfish.

While I didn’t get a chance to talk much with the gallery owner about the newest showing, Brown was able to give me a few quotes about the artist, who happens to be a close friend. “I met Kim while we were attending Buffalo State College for Undergrad. She was in the Fine Arts Department and I was in the Art History Department,” explains Brown. “She also minored in Art History and we took a few classes together. One day she invited me to her studio at Buff State to see what she has been working on. It was an oil painting of Kim balancing on a rail road track while walking by a creek in a landscape. I fell in love with the painting, the artist (in a best friend platonic sense) and the rest is history.”

She went on to add, “During my college years, I knew I would end up either working in or preferably owning a gallery. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to renovate the now Project 308 Gallery space. Among the talented local artists I booked for gallery shows, I naturally had to show my best friend’s amazing work at some point.”

So what did she think of her friends bold new idea? Brown explained to me that, “Kim told me her idea about the underwater theme and I shared her enthusiasm for a show at the gallery. I knew it would be a lot of work for her because she stretches the canvases and builds the frames on top of actually painting the piece, but she wasn’t worried. She has perfected her fast-paced yet elegant painting style. I’ve spent time watching Kim in her studio paint with poise; I’ve helped her move her 6 foot wide paintings from Buffalo to North Tonawanda. For me, her overall theme in any painting she produces is “adventure”. Whether it is a 10 foot scene of some incredibly painted hippos, a slightly smaller painting of an Italian landscape painted from her personal memory, or a setting that features an up-close perspective of her delicious baked goods, each work is painted with an adventurous heart and a skillful hand.”

I did manage to get some time to talk with Baer about the show, and the number one thing on my mind (besides, “can I have the shark painting please?”) was, where did the idea of a show featuring sea life come from? “The first thing was I wanted to paint the shark, so that started the whole thing,” said Baer. “I just had this vision of, “wow, it would be so cool if I painted a shark with its mouth open” and made it realistic, like you were falling in. And from there I started thinking of more large scale, life-size things. After the shark, I did the hippos and then started branching out to other animals, but then I came back to the water because I really wanted to paint a walrus, and that got me thinking of cool colors and textures because they have all the tusks and the blubber and the whiskers; I love their wrinkles. The scale is really awesome for me because being my size (five feet even) it’s really nice to do the big gestures and get into the painting.”

Such large scale paintings took a bit of ingenuity on Baer’s part, who explained to me that, “when I was painting the hippos, I was in a 12 x 12 studio, so I either knelt or crouched or I would lay sideways on the ground and paint that way. I just wanted to be right there.” That struck me as unique- Kim really gets into her work, literally crawling around just so she can get a highlight, or fin, or splash of water just right.

So how does Baer deal with perspective in her work? “Most of them [the creatures featured in her paintings] are things that you wouldn’t normally see, a perspective that most people don’t get to view personally. For example, in the turtle painting, he’s swimming over you- you’re just kind of, “ahhhh!” and he swims right over you. The whale is more in your face all of a sudden, and with the angler I wanted it to be like you’re swimming down deep and you see him light up. So they’re little surprises kind of.”

The two paintings that grabbed the most attention were Razorblade and In the Belly of the Beast (Percy’s Hunger Cry), a 5′ x 10′ painting of a group of splashing hippos. Personally, the shark took the blue ribbon, but which creation does the artist favor over the rest? “Ohh… I don’t know, they sort of change as I’m painting,” said Kim. “I really love my angler fish because I was excited about how he turned out, but I think that my most favorite is the hippos. I spent about a month on that, hours at a time- it was the most extensive, it involved a ton of different motions and elements  I also like the walrus, he’s kind of like a big couch and I love him. My shark was my first one so I’ll always love that one.” No clear answer, but when you put out work as good as Kim does, can you blame her?

So why hippos and alligators? Why not goldfish or shrimp? How exactly did Baer decide on what to paint? The answer is a bit more simple than I would have first thought. “Most of them are kind of… badass. The shark was the first one, and then I read about how hippos kill more people each year than great white sharks, and they don’t eat meat! I thought that was pretty badass and I had to paint them.” Baer went on to explain that, “after I went to Hawaii, I really wanted to paint sea turtles, just in a cool perspective. I think they have the same effect [as the hippos], they’re just no as vicious. But even the more vicious ones, I feel that they’re still kind of tame and not as scary as people think.”

You can view more of Kim’s work here, or if you’re able, her next show is coming up February 1st at Main Street Studios in Buffalo. “The next show is Italy. I just went to Italy, I’ve lived there a few times; Italy is always on my mind and it’s a big inspiration. There’s tons of things to paint and I love food and make food all the time. There’ll be tons of scenes of Italy and lots of food, it’s going to be like a little scrap book of my travels.”

To wrap things up, Kim’s own words beautifully sum up the entire spirit of Sink or Swim:

“The surrounding environment and its creatures deserve more appreciation than they often receive. They inspired me to create this exhibit, and continue to inspire me in my artistic vision. From a technical standpoint, the differences in shape and size never disappoint, and give me an endless repertoire for future paintings. The textures, surfaces, and colors vary greatly, and inevitably leave me wanting more.

“With each painting I attempt to create a representational environment in which the creature or creatures take the spotlight. By portraying them in unique, life-sized perspectives, it gives the audience a chance to glimpse the animal kingdom in a different light, with an intimate understanding. The attention-grabbing point of view demonstrates the idea that most human beings never experience such scenery in their entire lives. It allows the audience to walk into the creature’s world and witness beautifully rare moments in nature.

“Every creature, every landscape that I create hold spirit, vitality, truth, and simplicity. I hope through creating these paintings, I show the world a side of nature that often remains forgotten.”

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