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Glimpses into lives of local artists surprise and move studio visitors

Kelly Lee and her mother Barbara Hill examine a sculpture inspired by the artist's homeless sister inside the garage studio of JE Baker
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio
Kelly Lee and her mother Barbara Hill examine a sculpture inspired by the artist's homeless sister inside the garage studio of JE Baker

Barbara Hill of Fenton will do almost anything to support her four daughters. A decade ago while visiting one daughter in the African Republic of Mali, Hill shut her eyes as her car's driver backed down a narrow mountain road to let another vehicle pass.

So simply riding a forward-moving bus to four St. Louis artists’ studios this past Sunday was a breeze. And an eye-opener, as it turned out.

Hill's youngest daughter, Kelly Lee, discovered the arts writers’ bus tour, part of the Contemporary Art Museum’s annual Open Studios event. 

“She just signed me up,” Hill laughed. “And I said, ‘Sure.’”

Big message and a tiny space

Daughter Kelly Lee is an art teacher at Edgar Road Elementary in Webster Groves. She was looking for ways to create a studio atmosphere in the art classroom and to meet artists who might come speak to students.

Artist Damon Davis talks with visitors at his photography studio.
Jarred Geistreich

The first stop was a group of photography studios in the city where artist-activist Damon Davis works. He showed the tour-bus participants some recent paintings as well as some prints from his “Hands up” series, known around the country as a response to Michael Brown’s death.

Davis explained he created the enlarged, detailed photographs of hands and affixed them to burned-out Ferguson storefronts as a simple gesture to the community.

“They needed something to give them hope and to keep them going,” Davis said.

Lee was struck by Davis’ quiet determination.

“He has a strong message to tell, and through his art he’s doing that,” Lee said.

Tate Foley in his Maryland Heights basement studio.
Jarred Geistreich

Next stop was the studio of printmaker Tate Foley, recently chosen to be part of the Contemporary's Great Rivers Biennial exhibition. Foley explores language through popular media. It’s a large undertaking executed in tiny space: a few hundred square feet in the basement of his Maryland Heights home. It’s a convenient location for the father of two small children.

“I can run down here any time,” Foley said.

Tate Foley's kids offered their own Open Studios display.
Jarred Geistreich

Tate, and his visitors, must step through a baby gate to enter the studio, which includes his wife’s sewing machine (“She makes all these amazing clothes," he said). It also houses Foley's Riso high-speed digital printer. He demonstrated how it works by creating small prints to give his guests, who were treated to a corner display of his children’s art as they wound their way back upstairs.

“It was a wonderful, small, organized space,” Lee said.

A movie star and a lost sister

Jamie Adams welcomes guests to his garage-sized studio. A black-and-white portrait of actor Jean Seberg is on the bottom right.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Nationally exhibited painter Jamie Adams also works out of his house. The small studio in the back of his Ladue home is flanked by nearly life-sized sexualized images of women, but also contains things you might expect to find in a garage, like extension cords and mallets.

In some of his best-known work, Adams focused on portraits of actor Jean Seberg. He was inspired by her 1960 French New Wave cinematic mystery “Breathless.”

“She reminds me of my mother and my wife, and myself,” Adams said.

Adams employs a pulley system to display some of his large paintings. Lee was struck by what can be accomplished in a garage-sized area.

“It’s incredible to see how the artists can do their maximum work in such small spaces,” Lee said.

JE Baker holds horses she created from a fiber mix of her own making.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

The next studio on the tour was inside an actual garage, behind artist JE Baker’s Brentwood home. Baker works in a variety of media. She showed the group some paper she created that contained liquids ranging from grapefruit to blood.

“It was from when I was studying slaughterhouses,” Baker explained.

Baker invited her visitors to become part of a sculpture whose core is a bed frame. She called it a "boli," a traditional African object whose power is found in its many layers.

Barbara Hill applies a brushstroke of liquid to JE Baker's sculpture dedicated to her homeless sister.
Jarred Geistreich

Baker supplied a bucket of liquid and paintbrush for her guests to apply their  own touch to the burlap-and-paper structure. She said the boli is for her sister, who is homeless: “I don’t know where she is,” Baker offered.

Kelly Lee and her mother Barbara Hill took turns with the brush. Hill, whose daughters each have a trio of sisters, said it was like sending out a prayer.

“Hopefully, we all added something to her maybe finding her sister — or just getting through not finding her,” Hill said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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