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Tuning In: Patricia Baca, April Featured Artist

By creating landscapes both inspired and physically changed by nature, Patricia Baca records her encounters with the sublime. Growing up in art-filled Mexico city, studying in war-torn Kiev and now living in Washington DC, she draws on her own experience to explore the in-between space of the self and the environment. Read on to learn about how she has cultivated the art of tuning in, and how she teaches this to her students in her studio at 52 O Street Studios. 

Patricia Baca in her studio at 52 O Street Studios

Born to a family of painters and sculptors, Patricia Baca grew up in Mexico city surrounded by art and design. As a teenager, she was interested in exploring other cultures and political systems, so she found a scholarship that allowed her to live and study in Kiev for five years. This experience was formative for her; being immersed in a completely different culture allowed her to see how place and circumstance can strongly influence one’s worldview.

“Everything was so charged with intensity and tragedy,” she reflects. “I got used to living minimally, focusing on what really matters.” After her stint in Kiev, Baca returned to Mexico City to study design, but her experience overseas had changed her perspective so much that she no longer felt that she fit in Mexico City. This prompted her move to the United States, where she emigrated to Baltimore to study editorial design.

While she enjoyed design, she longed to express ideas with more depth. “When you're thinking about design, you're trying to make things in a way that are appealing for others, and to communicate what they think they want to communicate,” she explains, “I think I've been drawn more to ideas and how to work with these ideas and find a medium to transfer those ideas.”

By moving to DC and encountering the unique landscape of the city, Baca was able to focus her practice around ideas that have interested her for her whole life. Growing up in Mexico City, the landscape was always accessible and was not as regulated as it is in the US. Baca is interested in the Potomac river and the role it plays in the topography of the city because it is not so easily contained. It is vast, open, and beautiful in the middle of a city that was rigidly planned and built.

Access to nature in the middle of a city also allows for repetitive encounters. “There is something that unfolds - a sort of lyricism. And so, with my work, I try to capture that,” she reflects. In this way, returning to the same location is a sort of meditation. Natural spaces in cities often feel like enclaves, which allows us to form a special relationship with them. Baca seeks out this feeling wherever she is; she is currently pursuing her MFA in Studio Art at MassArt, and when she is in Boston she creates work using the Charles River both as inspiration and as an active force in creation.

(from top to bottom) The Tide & The Rain, 2023. Paper, charcoal and natural pigments, 30 x 23 inches. The Storm, 2023. Paper, charcoal and natural pigments, 30 x 23 inches. Tidal Wing (video), 2023. Photo (close up), 22 x 20 inches. Photo by Amanda Muhlena.

To elaborate her artistic interest in nature, Baca references Kant’s description of the sublime: when encountering the equally beautiful and terrifying aspects of nature, we are reminded of our scale. She relates it to her experiences in different countries - the predictability of Mexico, the hostility of Ukraine. We are reminded of the vast forces around us when encountering the landscape, either as untamed wilderness or a place that holds a completely foreign cultural history.

Her current work visually and physically records her encounters with nature: the magnificence, the beauty, the things that make you feel vulnerable. She creates mixed-media landscape drawings with charcoal and natural pigments and then brings them into the landscape to create a recording of the forces of wind and water. By surrendering part of her agency as an artist and allowing the landscape to physically change the work, she is also thinking about how we interact with the unknown. “You’re at the mercy of many things,” she adds. “I’m really interested in that in-between space.”

Like an individual, her works have a dynamic relationship with their environments. The double act of painting or drawing and submersion in the landscape reminds us that we are also constantly being made and remade, shaped by our experiences as much as we shape the world around us. Visually, her works has a loose and airy quality that brings a feeling of serenity to the process, even though they may retain the gritty remains of the soil and river water that they were once exposed to.

Baca is interested in exploring this surrendering of agency more in her current and future work. She references a group of landscape artists from the 60’s called the Situationists who worked with time and distance as they did performance art pieces walking throughout cities. She appreciates the minimalistic approach of performance and the accessibility of the medium.

Baca in front of her work in a recent show at Studio Gallery in downtown DC. Left to right: The Tide & The Rain, and And There Was Rain.

Since 2018, Baca has been teaching art to children in her space at 52 O Street Studios. “I don’t like to think about myself 24/7, so I like that when I’m teaching, it’s never about me. And I love seeing the kids being happy learning and making art - it’s so rewarding,” she shares.

Baca makes it clear to her students and parents that she takes the role of teaching art very seriously. She exposes her students to art history and contemporary art and gives her students the tools to explore their own modes of expression. “I tell them that they are privileged to be in this space, in this building with professional artists. I treat them as aspiring artists and I bring in working artists so they can see what it means to make this choice.”

While her students do improve their technical skills, her lessons are more oriented around teaching the students how to look at a work of art, put it into context, and have a conversation with it. Through her teaching methodologies, the key is practicing how to tune in. “For me, drawing is an act of paying attention and connecting what you see to what you think. And it stimulates this feeling of wonder.”

Tuning in is an apt way to describe Baca’s practice and her interest in the phenomenological. We are all shaped by the places we encounter and the experience we have, and the more we are able to tune in to our surroundings, the more grounded we are. Her work captures what we see and feel - the beautiful, the terrifying, the welcoming or hostile - when we are truly paying attention.

To keep up with Patricia and her work, check out her Instagram.

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