Abundant Life: An Interview with Detroit Painter Darius Baber

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Perhaps owing to Detroit’s recent history of industrial decline and urban blight, some of the city’s most well-known visual artists have achieved success with works that repurpose the detritus of its industrial past in exciting and haunting ways. Tyree Guyton’s Heidelburg Project revitalized abandoned houses with bright paint and collages of old toys, records, and found shoes. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Scott Hocking’s sculpture installations emphasize the eerie, almost alien atmosphere to be found in the city’s abandoned, crumbling factories.

While those works deftly capture an image of Detroit as seen from one particular angle, however, there are dozens of artists active in the city today who are finding ways to make arresting work while leaving the rust and debris on the ground.

One of those artists is Darius Baber, a painter whose bright, vibrant oil portraits practically make the canvas breathe. A buoyant personality who brings a photographer’s eye to the dramatic lighting in his paintings, he takes inspiration from the community of artists, writers, and musicians with whom he collaborates and socializes. Many of those artists also serve as the subjects of his paintings, which lends his work a certain documentary character. As a documentarian, he sees his friends with an intimate, affectionate gaze, and as a painter, he knows how to portray them from their best angles.

Baber’s work will be featured as part of “The Mud Narrative,” a group show at Oloman Cafe in Hamtramck, MI, from 7:00-10:00 p.m. on May 25th. He also has paintings hanging at the Live Coal Gallery (3000 Fenkell, Detroit, MI, 48238) until June 7th. 

In the following interview, conducted at the Cass Cafe in Midtown, Detroit, Baber discusses his beginnings as a painter, the various influences informing his style, and his experiences working and living as an artist in a changing Detroit.

To begin, could you tell me a bit about how you got your start as a painter?

It was through my high school art teacher. I had always done art as long as I can remember, but she was a super teacher. I’m still friends with her to this day. She works out of the Scarab Club — that’s where I did my first oil painting. Ever since then I’ve been dabbling in painting. For a while I had stopped doing visual art completely. I was working at the plant, I thought I had a child, it was crazy, but it turned out it wasn’t mine. So I was going through all of those motions, trying to be a provider, but once that was alleviated I went towards getting back to being creative. I started with a self-portrait that’s actually hanging at Detroit Clothing Circle right now. Ever since then I’ve just kept on painting.

You’ve got your first painting hanging up at a clothing store? Wow. 

Well, it wasn’t exactly my first painting. I started oil painting right out of high school, maybe 2008, 2009. I did it in my teacher’s studio, I was just hanging with her. And then I went to College for Creative Studies for a year, but I only went because you’re supposed to go to college after high school, you know. I didn’t really have a plan. I just knew my art teacher was the shit, so I thought I wanted to be an art teacher. I do still want to be an art teacher, but maybe like an internet art teacher, you know what I mean? I guess I kind of want to be the black Bob Ross. Actually, I don’t kind of want to, I’m definitely going to be the black Bob Ross. Just not as corny. I mean, even though Bob Ross is a G, he’s kind of corny. 

It’s interesting that you say you want to be the black Bob Ross, because he’s pretty much a landscape painter, and almost all of your work is figurative. Everything I’ve seen is portraits. What draws you to figurative work rather than landscapes or collage?

I got into figurative work … I don’t know why. I think it’s maybe just the narcissism of being a human being, you know. We’re just attracted to the human form. What I like about creating art is the act of building something that’s its own reality out of color and form. That fucking drives me nuts. You can just take some light, color, and form, and build a thing. It feels really good to take a blank surface and turn it into something beautiful. The most challenging subject for me has always been figurative work. My artistic practice has always revolved around challenging myself. I should have said this earlier, but the reason I really first got into art was my friend in third or fourth grade, he was into art. We both drew “Dragon Ball Z” and “Pokémon” and stuff, and he was better than me. He was just naturally better. So I was just so focused on getting better than him. And in time I managed to do it. But then I felt bad about having worked so hard just to get better than him, so as I got older, I don’t know, I think I kept that going, but more in competition with myself. I always try to top myself every time I start a new piece. So figurative work, it’s very challenging for me to do it, when it comes to painting. Drawing is easy, but in painting it’s hard. 

Well, in some respect I’m not surprised to hear you started off drawing cartoons. I think I see a certain tinge of cartoonishness in your work. I don’t mean to say that your paintings are unrealistic, because they are. It’s just something about the energy and the color of the works that evokes a cartoon, or even some French impressionism ..

I love impressionism. I’ve taught myself everything I know about painting — I had some guidance in elementary school and high school, but then I really just went crazy on the internet teaching myself. I work at an art supply store, and every time someone comes in there buying paints I make a point to ask them a thousand questions. Now that I’ve taught myself enough technically, I feel, I’m trying to get myself into more expressive work. So I think that’s what you’re seeing on my Instagram, me trying to be more expressive, rather than realistic. But I ultimately think I want to find a medium between the two, like “It’s really interesting the way he showed that shadow,” you know what I mean? I want to find an interesting way of doing something rather than just representing it the way that it is. I do photography too, and a lot of my paintings are from references of my photography. So to make it fun, rather than a reproduction, I try to get gestures of different things. That’s something I’m teaching myself now.

Beyond using your photographs as references, is there anything in your approach to photography that you think informs your work as a painter?

Lighting. So when I first really got into art — I mean, I didn’t even go to the Detroit Institute of Arts until I was almost graduated from high school. I didn’t really understand the depth of art, you know what I mean? That’s part of why I want to get into teaching — I feel like so many young people who are creative people don’t know the depth behind art. Learning about all of that now, it’s kind of overwhelming. When I went to the museum, I saw these paintings by Caravaggio, all those paintings when you first come in off Woodward on the right. The dramatic lighting. It’s not really realistic lighting, it’s just adding to the story that they’re trying to tell. I really like that, so when I got into photography that was the type of work I was doing. Trying to play with light. So a lot of the paintings I’m working on now are playing with light too, trying to do something interesting with the way light is hitting the subject or coming into the frame. With photography, that’s all it is, controlling light. But with painting, you can just imagine it. That’s what excites me about bringing photographic touches into the painting.

I can certainly understand how you would appreciate Caravaggio. A lot of your portraits have a certain drama to them, definitely in the lighting, as you said, but also in the faces and gestures of the subjects you’re painting. I’m thinking of one you have with a young woman with two other women on her sides …

That’s a portrait of a group of girls that goes by “iii Sisters,” they’re all poets. But the main portrait is of Aja Salakastar. She’s a performer, actor — it’s mostly a portrait of her because she’s the member of that group I have the closest relationship with. It’s called “Abundant Life.” That painting — I guess it is a story. Aja says “abundant life” any time something good happens. It’s just something to say whenever you’re thankful, you know what I mean? I really like that idea. That image was a full-length image of all three of them, but I wanted to narrow in on the portrait of her with her two sisters side by side. I think it just illustrates the support she has. I mean, not only is she very accomplished herself — she was a Gilda Award award recipient — she’s been in a lot of different things. Mahogany Jones, who’s also in that image, to the left — she’s a Kresge Fellow. Imani Mixon, she’s a great writer and journalist. They’re just really dope women, and they all support each other. It’s an “abundant life” situation, you know what I mean? What makes me angry about my portraits is that nobody’s gonna know that unless they ask me, so I’m trying to find ways to have that conversation just through visuals.

Abundant Life. Darius Baber.

In any case that painting is definitely telling a story. I mean, just the way she’s looking at you …

She’s looking stern, she’s not looking happy. But she’s definitely looking confident, because she knows what she has behind her — and because she’s painted so dopely, haha. Man I love that painting. You know, somebody wanted to buy that thing for like $500 not too long ago, and I was so happy because I needed some money. But I was looking at that thing and I was like, “Man, I’ve got to make another painting like this because I love these strokes.” And eventually I just decided I couldn’t sell it, which is crazy. I’m not rich at all, but I knew that painting was gonna teach me. That’s one of the first paintings that I’ve done where I knew that painting was gonna keep teaching me after I was done with it. That’s another abundant life situation, you know. Like, your craft can keep teaching you more after you’ve made something with it.

I’m glad you brought up someone trying to buy your work, because I wanted to ask you a bit about your development professionally, building a business out of your artwork.

That’s the hard part. How do I say … make me sound good when I say this, haha. Let’s say I’m still learning how to be a professional. I feel like I was raised my entire life to be an employee and now I’m learning entrepreneurship. How to manage myself, be my own accountant, marketer, all of that stuff. It’s very hard and goes very slow, but it is going steady for me. There’s a bittersweetness to it, you know, because people are trying to buy my artwork, but I find myself getting into these situations where I’m just selling my artwork, but I don’t want to just sell it all the time. I want to keep some of it for myself and let it grow in value as I grow as a person. Just so I can see it and watch its growth. I do try to create relationships with the people I sell my work to so that I can keep seeing it. 

It’s a learning process and I try not to judge myself too much. When it comes to life, I try to not give myself timelines, but I do feel like I’m kind of late to becoming a professional artist, even though I’ve been doing art as long as I can remember. A lot of that has to do with confidence, you know, trying to love my work as much as other people do. I’m hard on myself, just in trying to learn as much as I possibly can. 

But it seems like you’re doing fairly well for yourself. You’re showing your work and there are people who want to buy it from you.

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities come my way. I had a show here at the Cass Cafe not too long ago. It was a group show curated by Sydney James and Tylon Sawyer,  who are people I really look up to. I actually got a job here from that show too. I had a bunch of prints of my paintings, and I would try to sell prints to each of the tables I had. Whenever I sold a print I’d ask to leave early, because I really didn’t want to be waiting tables at all. No problem with Cass Cafe, I love it, but I just didn’t want to be doing that. 

On the West Side there’s a group that meets called The Breakfast Club. It’s a lot of older black people that collect art or are interested in collecting art and go there to learn about it. A lot of people found out about me from there — I lined up some shows from there. It’s all new to me. Before that it was just me doing art and posting it on Facebook, when I first got into it. 

I’m still finding my niche. I don’t think I’ve found it at all. I think my work is good, people like it, and sometimes they want it. It’s not where I want to be yet. But I try not to worry about it too much. I just want to focus on creating. I feel like as long as the work is good, people are gonna find it. 

Really I just want to be able to work on art as a living, you know. To do well enough to have like two kids, pay off my house, have a studio, and send my kids to college if they want to do that. That’s the most I want from my art. Anything else is like, “Wow, that’s the shit!” Aiming for fame — that doesn’t last. But as long as you’re focused on your work, that’s where it’s at. I’ve never been really interested in being rich — I’m just interested in creating. I feel like that’s the most beautiful thing humans can do on the earth is add to it. Whether it’s being an engineer and building a bridge, or being a writer, you know, I feel like as long as I have the ability to create something so that people can enjoy it in the simplest sense. Just viewing something and evoking emotion. 

I had a painting on view here called “I Can Believe” — a picture of my girlfriend looking out of a window, drawn in graphite, with everything else painted around it. Sometimes I try to combine drawing and painting. But I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that they relate to that image, that it captures how they feel, or they feel like the girl in the painting is them. Like, man, I want all my artwork to do that! I want my paintings to take people somewhere in their head.

You’ve also done some modeling, and I’m wondering if, similar to your experience with photography, modeling has impacted your painting at all.

Modeling started after I started painting. It mostly comes from people just asking me. I don’t really pursue it that much, and I feel foolish for that sometimes too, because it’s another way to make money. But I’m not a real look-in-the-mirror type person, you know, so being conscientious about modeling feels strange. It’s exhausting for me. With everything else I do I feel like I’m being myself, but with that I feel like I have to try and think about it. It’s out of my comfort zone.

When I do model, I take notes on how the photographer directs me, try to learn from them. For a while I was doing portrait and fashion photography, and I really didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like trying to do conventional portraits and just make my work cohere with what people expected out of portraits. But then I work with some photographers who do it and it seems like they really enjoy it, so I try to figure out what it is about it that’s making the process so fun for them. 

You’ve mentioned fun several times in this conversation, and it’s interesting to hear you talk about that because, I think, in so much of the conversation about art you hear these days you almost never hear anyone talk about how fun it is. There are any number of articles about how this painting sold for however many millions of dollars, but nobody talks about the experience of actually making the artwork. Could you elaborate a bit on what about painting is where the fun comes in for you?

The alchemy of it. Having a pile of fabric, a canvas — and now I build all my own surfaces too, which is turning into a whole different thing — but really the act of taking those raw materials and turning it into something else. I feel valuable when I can make something with my hands. I also know it’s inspiring to others — it feels great when somebody sees something I’ve done and tells me it gave them the energy to try to make something for themselves. That gives me a lot of pride. It’s very affirming. I feel like I’ve gotten all the confidence I have through art.

Talking about fun in this context is also I think appropriate for a city like Detroit, where the art scene is so intertwined with nightlife and music and other genres. I’ve been to any number of concerts with live painting going on next to the stage. Can you tell me a bit about your experience getting plugged into that scene, or I suppose your impressions of the relationship between the art and the scene that’s producing it?

I feel like the art scene in Detroit is new. There’s always been artists in the city, but it wasn’t always a scene, you know? They were just making art because that’s what they do. But now that the city is getting more acclaim and there’s more money in town, people visiting, people interested in Detroit, in the ideals of Detroit — now there’s a market and people are trying to capitalize off of that. I feel like even though I haven’t been active in a business sense, I’ve always been active with art, so I feel like I’ve kind of been grandfathered into the scene. I talk to people about art a lot, and sometimes I give advice to other artists, and sometimes they tell me that they can[t really get themselves in here, and I just tell them to do what they do and share it. Share it without any fear, and if you fit in it’ll work. Even if you don’t fit in, just do it because you want to, you know? I mean if you’re trying to make money off of it, then go read about business. It’s completely separate things. 

It’s very authentic. Detroit has always been a stupid creative city. When I was a kid growing up on the West Side, there was a place called Artist Village. It was this dude named Chaz that owned it, and he had the whole place decked out in his artwork. They have sidewalk festivals there now. It was just somewhere I would go to see art, and it was crazy. Tyree Guyton — I knew him as a kid and I didn’t even realize it until way later on. My neighbors across the street used to have a lot of barbecues and stuff, and their auntie is Tyree’s wife. I used to see him there.  

Of course, as you mentioned, there’s a certain trajectory to art in Detroit — or at least, the art has always been here but the business around it has been changing, and particularly so with all of the investment coming into the city. I’ve spoken with other Detroit artists particularly about the racial dynamics of that change, how the arts community used to be largely black, and now there are so many more people with money to spend on art, many of whom are white transplants from other cities, other parts of the state. As an artist who seems to be able to navigate this changing landscape successfully, I’m wondering if you could speak a bit to your thoughts on those changes.

That’s the beautiful thing about art. I just went to pick up a painting from a collector’s house. This lady lives in Palmer Park, she got a 3000 square foot apartment covered in my friends’ artwork. It was a black lady. But being an artist, it feels like there isn’t really the same border of class. You can interject across those lines with your art, whether it’s in a performative way or just in terms of selling your work and interacting with people. I’m still learning about that, but I love that I don’t have a limit to what I can do with my art. I also feel like that’s a reason art is so important for Detroit youth. It gives you a way to reach across those lines where you might not be able to otherwise, and of course it gives you so much confidence, too. 

Detroit is wealthy even when it’s broke, you know? I feel like that’s part of why we’re so creative — we have to figure out how to make money out of nothing. I mean, it’s dudes on the West Side with millions of dollars, but their interests are just watches and cars and shit like that. I’m pretty sure they got it from doing horrible things, but the fact that we can just get money from our imaginations, that’s an incredible thing. People find ways to keep their existence going in a city that doesn’t do anything for you.

One of my paintings I sold to Alex May, she’s married to the director of the DIA. I haven’t been over to her house yet, but she did invite me over — it’s kind of intimidating. At the same time, I have family members that still ask me to draw their tattoos. It’s cool, I don’t take offense to it at all. 

I don’t know. I guess I try not to think about it too much. I try to focus on just being a better me. I think you if you worry about that too much you can get lost in the sauce. But you do need to be aware of it so you can figure out how to navigate it. A lot of times I tell my students, like “Man, you know if you can get into art, you can manipulate rich people,” haha. I mean, that’s a joke — “manipulate” isn’t the right word. It’s that if you have an imagination, you can figure out ways to create wealth for yourself, or build wealth out of your creations. You can go between these words and create wealth for yourself out of your own hands.