Miami artist, designer, and educator Bhakti Baxter let us into his studio to talk to us about all things art, design, education, and to give us a sneak peek at some of his current projects. We met him during our studio visit with fellow Miami artist Douglas “Hox” Hoekzema. I immediately became interested in his highly conceptual art, and how he always manages to find new and interesting ways to express himself. He keeps you guessing about his direction which is risky in a world where most successful artists pick a direction and stick to it. I am learning that this is not necessarily the way they do things in Miami.
Couch Sessions: Who are you?
Bhakti Baxter: I’m an artist who lives in Miami
CS: And what’s your name?
BB: (laughs) My name is Bhakti Baxter.
CS: Where does Bhakti come from? It’s kind of a unique name.
BB: Bhakti comes from India. It’s a Sanskrit word for devotion. A universal love, a Divine love, depending on how you look at it.
CS: Has having a unique name help develop who you are. Do you think there’s a difference between you and people named Dave for instance?
BB: I mean it’s definitely set me apart. In school it was not easy to have a name like Bhakti because anything that rhymed or didn’t rhyme with it was used to mess with me. But that was fine, it didn’t last long and it became something a little more respected I guess off the bat, because we weren’t little kids any more. And because it means something that intense, the more you learn about it, the more respectful you are towards the name. For me too, I look at my own name as an outsider, because it was a name given to me. So it’s something you feel that you have to look up to, somewhat, or live up to. So, having a name like Bhakti has in some way shaped, or affected my interactions with people, because it’s an introductory impression that sets off other conversation.
CS: Do you remember when you first felt that you were doing something creative? Was it drawing or putting shit together?
BB: The very beginning where I first stepped out of my studio or my home was in 1998 when I did a collaborative exhibition in Hollywood, FL, with a friend Daniel Arsham. It took us about a month to install. It was interactive, it had a lot of roots and organic material, and water, and moving parts. So we had broken out of our school zone, while we were still in school, and we started to show outside in alternative spaces. That’s when I knew I was developing myself as an artist and starting a career. Because to this day that’s on my resume as the first thing. 1998. After that it was just the practice. You produce work, and when there is a body of work that needs to be shown or if there is an opportunity…
CS: Your work spans a bunch of different styles and forms: painting, sculpture, found objects. Have you stopped painting, or what is your relationship with painting?
BB: Painting now feels a lot like drawing to me since I’ve been using a lot of gouache on acrylic backgrounds, so it’s different than oils. It’s loose, you can wet it once it dries and move it around… So I’ve never really stopped painting per se, but the media is really changing the images. So yeah, I’ve been having a lot of fun working flat instead of vertical (in reference to how gouache is applied on a horizontal surface that you have to hunch over, and oils usually face the painter). Currently I have a series up at the Miami Art Museum. That’s where my last year and a half went. It was making these paintings. They feel like drawing but it’s paint, whatever. Concurrently, there’s always a number of works that are developing. Like if something is drying I’ll go to something else. It’s hard to say when something is done or needs to be rearranged, especially with the found object work. But it all happens together.
CS: So a lot of your projects overlap?
BB: Yeah. It’s great that way. If you get too stuck on something you might loose perspective.
CS: Tell me more about this exhibition you have going on at MAM?
BB: It’s something that happens every year at the Miami Art Museum. They approached me to be a part of it and it was an honor because it was the last show in their building. The new building is going to open up in December, so it’s an honor to be a part of that and that it’s my first group show there too. A lot of the artists are friends of mine, so it was easy to feel in good company. But I was making this series of the primitive abstract masks and figures and that’s when they came in to tell me, René Morales and Diana Nawi. They saw the work, they were into it, but they were like, look, propose whatever you want, if you want to propose something new, that’s great. But because it was so big and I didn’t know where I was going to show it, the museum seemed like the right place.
CS: So it wasn’t created specifically for MAM? You created the work before they approached you about the show but it was fit for the space?
BB: It fit. It was happening and the opportunity to show at MAM accelerated the process to complete the work. The piece is almost 50 ft wide. The project involved sourcing different items from different locations around the world. Regardless of the archeological references, I was most interested in the qualities that repeat in the different places on earth, and the rule was that these pieces would be abstractions of figures. Huge head, little hands, or a gigantic penis… almost cartoonish. It creates a catalog of all kinds of humans and time periods. I saw similarities in the way they incorporated the spiritual world into the physical world. Ahh the train…
CS: WHEN WE DID HOX’S INTERVIEW THE SAME THING HAPPENED. DON’T WORRY THE RECORDER CAPTURES IT ALL…
BB: SO… SOO…. :::Train noise diminishes as it passes::: Some of the earliest artifacts found were made of bone, rock, wood, things they found from the earth and shaped. Even after they introduced new technology like the shaping, molding and firing clay archaeologists found artifacts that were not utilitarian, weird figures, and big boobed women…
CS: Like the Venus of Willendorf…
BB: Yeah. Humans worshiped gods and we were a spiritual people before we were practical. We had to survive and keep our food supply going, but before refining tools they were making these figures that had spiritual a function which of course related directly to their needs for survival. So in a way the spiritual practice was practical. Thinking about our story now [in a modern context], I thought about the representations of men we have… and it brought me to cartoons. Like… actual cartoons… They’re exaggerated forms of our psyches/dream world/metaphysical world. Then I thought of sculpture. Sculpture doesn’t have a necessary purpose but it can be so powerful in other ways. So this was the frame for the work at MAM.
CS: I hear rumors of a new underwater project where you are working with coral?
BB: I’ve been working with Coral Morphologic, a group formed by Colin Foord and Jared McKay. Colin is a marine biologist and Jared is a musician but they both are interdisciplinary. They approached me about some opportunities to create artificial reefs. They’re also interested in creating underwater landscapes and sculpture parks for underwater ecotourism and restoring natural habitats. It’s something that’s super interesting to me. So it’s good to combine efforts – you know, science and art, and making them work together
CS: What other stuff are you working on?
BB: Well, recently the Port of Miami awarded me a project that involves wrapping 18 parking booths with images, and coincidentally the images I chose and thought were most relevant to this project are by Coral Morphologic. They’ve been documenting these animals called a corallimorphs and zoanthids. They’re in-betweens for animals and plants. They’re free roaming, and self divide. Their radial symmetry is amazing, and the colors are mind blowing, especially under certain lighting conditions. They glow, they’re amazing creatures. I saw those images and immediately thought they would work well for this project. So that’s in the works… it should be completed by October.
CS: Can you talk a little about your work in art education?
BB: Art is not about making aesthetically attractive things. To me its more of a process of learning. Work is learning. For a few years I taught an elementary school art class once a week. I worked with kids ages 6 to 11. With any other subjects in school they invite you to think, but you’re pretty much confined to certain rules. You get to art class and the kids asked, what are we supposed to do; so I asked them back what they were going to do. In the process they felt empowered; they felt like they were allowed to be themselves and be creative. So in this process we had the kids learning about themselves and finding ways to express that in painting, or sculpture or collage. So it’s not just making aesthetically pleasing stuff. It’s a learning experience for the person who views it and for the person making it.
CS: It’s important to get involved with the kids since there are so many careers in art. There’s graphic design, architecture, and everything you look at is designed by someone. Beyond self exploration and big concepts have you worked on commercial projects?
BB: Yeah, but what does that mean?
CS: Well you know some artists have to supplement their income by working in advertising, etc.
BB: Pretty much my whole life. I don’t make my living the way a dentist makes a living. I can come to work every day and not know where my next paycheck is coming from. But along the way opportunities do pop up. I’ve art handled, I’ve done murals on commission, I’ve taught school kids and private tutoring as well. You do what makes sense, as long as it’s not too commercial.
The Miami Art Museum held Bhakti’s group exhibit New Work Miami 2013 until Sunday June 2nd when the museum closed for renovations.