Garin Baker is not afraid to talk to strangers.
Often this has helped, such as in the case of the carriage house on his New Windsor property, originally a 1790 Dutch settlement. By the late 1990s, Baker, a visual artist, was living and working in his main house, but the carriage house was untouched and debris-strewn. He hoped to convert it to a studio but didn't have the necessary $300,000 or so he thought he needed to renovate the space. "We'll wait 'til I get rich and famous," Baker said at the time.
Then Baker and his family hosted a barbecue, inviting a friend who brought a Frenchman. Having a smoke, Baker chatted with the Frenchman about the property. He showed him the carriage house. "One day," Baker told him, pointing to the dilapidated building.
The Frenchman, named Patrick, looked at Baker and asked, "When would you like to start?"
Patrick, a master carpenter who renovated structures in New York City and France, wasn't joking. He would send Baker a materials list on Thursday. Baker would buy the materials, then Patrick would meet Baker on Friday night and start work Saturday morning. He'd work over the weekend, leave, then return maybe two weeks later. He accepted no payment, no gifts. After 18 months of this routine, Patrick had taught Baker everything necessary to safely renovate a structure. "He disappeared," Baker says. "And I finished it on my own in the next two-and-a-half years."
Baker hasn't seen or heard from Patrick since. But thanks to the mysterious master carpenter, Baker, who specializes in realist painting—everything from portraits to public murals—has his studio inside a renovated post-and-beam barn attached to a stone-walled carriage house. Here, at the aptly titled Carriage House Art Studios, Baker presents both his work and work by other artists. He also runs workshops and classes out of the carriage house, often giving artists accommodations inside his main house. Essentially, Baker is an artist constantly giving back to the art community; fitting, because strangers have given him plenty of help along the way.
Hudson River School
Born in New York, Baker was living and working in a cramped two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with his pregnant wife and two-year-old son in 1990. Around that time, after visiting friends near Peekskill, the Bakers did what many before and since have done: look for a home in the Hudson Valley. Their hunt brought them to New Windsor, where they fell in love with the Dutch settlement off Union Avenue, whose structures also date back to the 18th century.
The main house has three stories. On the first level is a living room painted in a deep Colonial red and outfitted with Baker's paintings of his family members. There's his daughter lounging on the grass outside their house. There's his girlfriend, Clara, wild and intriguing in black on a colorful sunny afternoon. A black marble fireplace is in the dining room, and in the kitchen stands an original restored fireplace with beehive oven, perfect for home-baked pizza.
The house has four guest bedrooms, each decorated differently, which are put to use at Baker's artist workshops—up to five each year. Artists from all over the world have been traveling to Baker's house for five years to improve their drawing and painting. Baker especially loves to take artists out on plein air excursions. "I go to those place where Thomas Cole painted, where Frederic Church painted, all the Hudson River painters, I know where they painted," Baker says. "I take people to those spots, and they come up from Brooklyn or wherever and are like 'Holy ...'"
Baker enjoys telling the stories of the Hudson River School, just as he relishes hearing the stories of the painters who visit him. "These days, I find more younger artists want to get into the work and the process of creating something personal on a craftsmanship level, and on a real level that touches their own personal narrative or story," he says. "They're looking to express themselves in a meaningful way, and I think representational painting, traditional painting, allows them a language to examine that a little bit more honestly."
Baker's devotion to traditional painting and mural work has afforded him opportunities in places like Helsingor, Denmark, where his mural of ship builders references the city's history, or Santa Clarita, CA, where he painted a mural of firefighters controlling a forest blaze for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Baker observed and rode along with the firefighters for three days before starting his mural. "Most of the murals I do are really about communities, about the people," he said, "and it's about the stories they want to tell through public art."
The same philosophy holds true for his framed paintings, everyday work, and play captured in bold color. In Maine he watched a family salt entire bags of herring, which would be thrown into the water as lobster bait. And back home, down at Plum Point on the Hudson River, he met fishermen attempting to haul in some striped bass. For weeks he'd show up, sketch their activity, sometimes join them.
Those paintings rest against the railings and walls of his Studio Gallery. Walking in, a visitor is immediately welcomed by the cozy stone walls and timber frame. Paintings and sculptures line both sides of the front room, a gallery that changes periodically. Baker wants to accept work from across the region while keeping regular themes.
A staircase leads to a loft space with a leather couch, chair, and television, a place for artists and visitors to relax. An upper-floor walkway connects this space to Baker's office, with two computers, a drafting table and paperwork spilling from every crevice. Back downstairs, and through a hallway extending from the gallery, is Baker's studio. It's an old horse barn, confirmed by the chew marks, about horse-head high, on the original wood that frames a doorway. The studio and upstairs office underscore the nonstop pace of Baker's busy existence as an artist/entreprener. There's space in the studio for a computer monitor, his painting easel, and then, at the far wall, an 18-foot-by-24-foot space for mural work. An object that resembles an oversized paper-towel rack stands in a corner. It holds mural canvas that can easily be unfurled against the wall. Baker also installed a skylight that faces north, which allows for controlled, indirect sunlight throughout the day, perfect for a visual artist whose use of color is essential.
Whether in the studio, nearby in the gallery, up in the loft or office, or even inside his main house, Baker hopes people stop by, curious to view some artwork. It helps that he owns an 18th-century Dutch settlement property, and that he took care with a willing French carpenter to keep alive the carriage house's character. "You have to be truthful to the reality of what [the carriage house] is, but then you have to bring to it an energy that creates an excitement about it," he said. "I have the benefit of [the house], though it wasn't such a benefit when it was crumbling and falling down and I had to jack up half the building," says Baker.
"I think you have to start where you are with what you have and the tools that are available, and you have to bring the most honest, positive energy to that and build something," Baker says.
And it doesn't hurt to talk to strangers.