Just across the border from Arizona, you know...on the other side of that wall…in the town of Naco, Mexico, sits a small colorful building covered with hand-painted artwork called Studio Mariposa. The modest structure seems to be so full of joy and creativity that it has cracked open, no longer able to contain all the youthful positive energy that is now bursting out of it into the street. Kids of all ages are painting, laughing, and rocking out on drums, guitars, and singing their lungs out. To this uninitiated outsider, it looks like a cross between "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Where The Wild Things Are."
Studio Mariposa is the handiwork of American artist and creative spirit-sherpa, Gretchen Baer. One look reveals an amazing and inspirational backstory behind this incredible woman and her tireless work to make the world a better place, through the simple act of opportunistically turning others on to the transformational power of art-making. Her unorthodox portfolio is impressive and includes an art car that she drove across the country in support of Hillary Clinton, spending two years before the mast of a colorful sailing dragon raft, and forming the Border Bedazzlers, a group of child artists that turned the US/Mexico border wall into a giant canvas.
The Paintress is living a life she created. By staying open to opportunities generated by getting out into the world and engaging with others through art, Baer paints with broad strokes of positive energy that inspire others to see art in everything around them. Studio Mariposa is just one of her artful creations, which all seem to start out as art projects and turn into vibrant amplifiers of creative energy, inspiring others to see art in everything, and that they too can tap into the joy of art making.
PMA: What was your life like as a kid?
GB: I was one of four kids in a modest household on Martha’s Vineyard Island. When I was really young I had a dream that I could fly around and help people. That really stuck with me and helped me understand who I am as a person.
PMA: Depending on who your parents are, we get indoctrinated differently about what’s expected of us as adults. Do you feel like you were presented with the idea that creativity and empathy were taught to you or did you find them on your own?
GB: They were presented to me and I was very lucky in that way. Both of my parents are artists. My dad was also the school art teacher and my mother was a photographer. They always gave me freedom, creative experiences, and the ability to create art, all the time. I think that they instilled in me the concept that through art anything is possible. They showed me the freedom and dreaming that came along with making art.
PMA: Is it a conscious part of your thought process that the kids who come to Mariposa aren’t necessarily growing up in supportive environments like that, and don’t have someone telling them something as radical as “through art anything is possible," and therefore you want to indoctrinate them with that idea?
GB: Absolutely yes. I think that the majority of the kids down there don’t have art and music in school, and I feel like I was really blessed having art all around me as a kid. At a certain point in your life you realize that you need to share it and pass it on as much as you can. So yes, I think that starting up Mariposa and creating those opportunities and sharing that realization with those kids is directly correlated with my childhood.
PMA: Do you ever discuss with them the realities of the situation, like that artists aren’t really compensated like other people?
GB: No. I don’t discuss anything like that with them. We just make art and have a good time. There’s no reason to say anything like that. But you know, looking back on my own childhood...my dad as the art teacher with four kids, I guess I inherently understood that. We never had any focus on this was how you were going to make money, it was just about having fun and enjoying ourselves.
PMA: One of the things that I want this magazine to help with is the thing that happens when people get in their own way of living the life that they deserve to live. We come up with lots of excuses for why we can’t pursue our dreams. Are there coping mechanisms or things you’ve put into play in your life that have helped you stay out of your own way to get to where you are?
GB: Well I wait tables three nights a week and I do that because I like the people, the money is good, it stays out of my way, and I don’t have to think about it when I’m not there. It allows me four or five days to just do what I want to do. It takes money out of the equation. I decided early on that I didn’t want to monetize too much on the art, because it could ruin it for me.
PMA: How do your projects get started?
GB: Well a lot of this started because I wanted to paint the border wall. The kids got involved, not intentionally, but because they were there. I thought artists would come, but instead kids came. I see things as giant canvases. Whether it’s cars or boats, or all sorts of different things, I take one thing and turn it into something else through art. So it all ties in because part of this is teaching the kids to recognize that anything can be art. That’s what I’m trying to show them more than anything. You can look at an object, and it can be a negative thing, and if you can turn that thing into art...you transform it.
PMA: There are plenty of artists who just sit and paint, and there’s no message. They’re not trying to change the world outside of creating some beautiful art to look at. Is the advocacy aspect of your life something you found naturally?
GB: Yes! I’m just doing it mostly for fun because I love to do it. That’s why I started Mariposa, because I love to do it. I do love to sit in my studio and paint but that only goes so far for me. It can start to feel like you’re creating in a vacuum at some point, and you know, to me, the fun is working with other people to see what we can create together. I don’t really find going to galleries very interesting. I don’t even really care about product as much as I do about turning people on to the process of making art.
PMA: If you’re driving an art car that’s also a clear statement about a political candidate, you are going to engage with people around that piece of art. People are going to say nice things, and mean things, and you are putting yourself out there. I wonder if that is a good touch point or example of your engagement with the world through your art? How do those interactions feed back into the art?
GB: I have long since learned that turning objects into art and being out there in the public is super fun but also super expressive about what you’re trying to say. People all over America responded to the Hillary car. Even if they didn’t like Hillary they still responded to it because it's fun. I was surprised by how well it worked. It inspires other people. They might look at it and say I can do that and I want to show them how.
PMA: How do you help people orient or align themselves to their own craft or their own way of expression once you’ve convinced them that creativity and art can change the world and their lives?
GB: One way is just to do things that involve other people. By putting a brush in their hand and letting them try. Especially adults that have never done it, you hope that from that they’ll do it again. With Mariposa, right now we try to offer as many things as possible including music and art, and give them all the chances to try it all. It’s about triggering creative responses.
PMA: It must be super gratifying to turn people on to something that's been so critical for you your entire life.
GB: It is, but other people do that for me all the time.
PMA: Mariposa grew organically from the Border Bedazzlers project. What were some of the challenges you faced to keep the project going or happen in the first place?
GB: Well one thing is that I have to fund it. Some people try to raise money first but I just go out and buy what I need. It doesn’t cost a lot to buy a few cans of paint. I try not to complicate things by over thinking them. If it's in the flow and it resonates with the world then I keep going. If it doesn’t then I stop.
PMA: I’m going to challenge you a bit on that. You don’t seem like the type of person that says “this isn’t working so I’m going to stop doing it." Haven’t you been confronted?
GB: Actually no! No one ever told me not to paint on the Mexican side of the wall. I’m not looking for trouble. Even with the Hillary car, I just never fought with people over it. If someone is going to give me trouble I just go the other direction. There have been things that were more internal, where I felt like I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I should be, so I'll just do something different. That’s generally what happens. I've done projects that could’ve gone gangbusters and people might really like it, but I’m not enjoying it anymore so I’ll do something different.
PMA: Are there any stories about a particular student or kid that you think is a penultimate example of the success of Mariposa?
GB: This one kid comes from a super tough family...six brothers and sisters, his mom is a prostitute and a drug addict, they don’t have a home, and he doesn’t get to eat regularly. He’s kinda hyper but he’s a really sweet kid. One time he came and thought it was funny to totally destroy $200 worth of art materials. I was pissed and I yelled at him. I don’t generally yell at anybody, but I was mad at him for that. So he kinda went away for awhile, and he wouldn’t show up, so I told his brother that I wasn’t mad anymore and to ask him to come back. He finally came back, and we had gotten a drum set while he was away.
Well once those drums came into the picture, it just clicked for him. Not only does he come every day, every time, but he will come hours early to play those drums. Sometimes he’ll be sitting there two hours before we open! Well it turns out...he’s a really good drummer. He’s excited by it and he’s perhaps found a calling for himself. You see that and you go...well I don’t know what his life would’ve been without that moment. Could this be a fork in the road for him? A life changing moment? I love seeing him there, excited about it and ready to go every week. That’s amazing!
PMA: You said that if you don’t enjoy it, then just don’t do it. That seems like philosophically oversimplified version of your core philosophy. Creative people don’t typically walk around with a "My Top 10 list of Philosophical Principles" in their pocket, but is there something that represents a few core principles that you hold dear that guide you to live the life that you live?
GB: Obviously that one, but I really pay attention to those opening doors. If you get a green light, then go for it. Don’t even think about how I’m going to afford it or if it's realistic. I just barge ahead and if you get enough knock downs then you’ll know that's not the direction. But if you get help, then you’ll not only know but you will be compelled to go forward. I pay attention to that. If things keep pushing me in that direction then I’ll keep going there. Certainly with Mariposa that was the case. I wanted to create an art center just because the border wall was coming down, and I wanted to build a free art center. So this guy I ran into said one day he would meet me in Naco the next day, he handed me some keys to a building, and told me I could have it. So I’m like, "all right...why wouldn’t I do this? I was just given keys to a building!" I don’t have any money...I just told you I wait tables for a living. But I would be stupid to not do this because this guy just gave me a building! So I just keep going, and I spend what money I do have. As it turns out other people are interested in it too, and they help out when they can. As long as you see those green lights, take ‘em and don’t overthink or complicate issues with doubt. Just go ahead!
You can find out more about Gretchen Baer and her latest projects, including Studio Mariposa, at gretchenbaer.com