Originally created 05/16/97

Georgia artist's works heavy on social themes

If you view Lamar Baker's political paintings and then look at his self-portraits, you'll be in for a surprise.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, the title painting of a new exhibit at the Morris Museum of Art, is a panorama of black suffering. The exhibit, which opens Thursday, shows a house being burned, people being beaten by Ku Klux Klan members, another person being lynched. It's one of a series of five paintings of similar themes carrying the titles of black spirituals.

Mr. Baker also created a series of 13 prints criticizing the textile industry in the South. One shows a cotton field and a cavern filled with black bodies - illustrating how the industry used up people's lives.

"Most people, when they see (those works), they think Mr. Baker was black," said Karol Lawson, director of collections at the Columbus (Ga.) Museum of Art.

In fact, Mr. Baker was white. He was born in Atlanta in 1908. He created the work during a time when he was interested in portraying those, black and white, to whom society did not seem to offer an equal opportunity.

Ironically, he showed none of his paintings during the most active years of the civil rights movement, possibly because he wanted to avoid conflict.

He created much of his work in the 1930s and 1940 in New York, and showed it there. But after he married and moved to Columbus in 1952, he put politics aside. He worked as a draftsman and occasionally showed his newer paintings - simple still-lifes.

"Through the whole civil rights movement, you don't hear a peep of them," Ms. Lawson said.

Only in 1990, a few years before his death, did Mr. Baker exhume his political works for a show at the Columbus museum.

Little is known about why Mr. Baker, at one point so outspoken, kept his most provocative works under wraps for so long. It just may have been that what he felt comfortable saying in New York became impractical when he married and moved to Columbus, where he had in-laws and a job at a commercial print shop.

"I think he just thought it was best to be quiet," she said.

In his will, Mr. Baker left about half his collection to the Columbus museum. About 60 of those works will be on display at the Morris show.

Many of Mr. Baker's works are surreal, making symbolic statements about the world. His painting Ezekiel Saw The Wheel, for example, shows a big wheel in the sky connected to the round, stained-glass window of a church.

In addition to his spirituals and his prints of textile mills, Mr. Baker's works include etchings of the Okefenokee Swamp and prints of Freudian images inspired by newspaper stories.

Ms. Lawson said she was talking recently with Mr. Baker's sister, and she identified as one of her favorites a spiritual-inspired painting, Sinner What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire. She found it poignant and funny.

"The white people were running to the black people for help," Ms. Lawson said. "The black people were running to the white people for help. Nobody could help anybody because it was the end of the world."

On exhibit

What: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen: The Art of Lamar Baker
When: Opens Thursday. Reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Karol Lawson, director of collections at Columbus Museum of Art, speaks at 6 p.m.
Where: Morris Museum of Art, 1 10th St. at the Riverwalk
How much: Free to members, $5 others
Phone: 724-7501


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