By Bob Reid
In the right hands, the same sheet of metal used to make a trough for feeding pigs can be used to sculpt a bald eagle or a rooster.
Rich Baker has created both in his small wooden framed workshop on the home property shared with wife Jenn in the Oxford County hamlet of Harrington.
“To me a bare sheet of metal is like a blank canvas,” said Baker, a clear indication of where his true interests lie.
When he moved to the property 10 years ago and opened a welding shop, his first job was to make a pig trough for a neighbour. It was the first and last job his welding shop took on for repairing or fabricating farm equipment.
He decided immediately that he wanted to make a living sculpting with metal, founding Rich Baker Distinctive Sculpture Metalworks.
It was not too surprising that the business took on more of an artistic bent. Baker’s first career was as a musician, travelling across the continent performing and writing country music.
The main part of his income at that time came from writing music for other performing artists with several of his songs topping the country charts in Canada.
“The music industry is a hard one to survive in because more people want to see you fail than succeed,” recalled Baker of that tumultuous period in his life.
He disconnected himself completely from the music industry and joined the United Steel Workers and began welding metal door frames. He later applied to the Canadian military but before that was processed he was able to secure a welding job working for General Electric.
While that provided an opportunity for developing metal working skills, the repetition and-confinement in a fully enclosed building eventually became overwhelming.
“I couldn’t take being closed in,” said Baker who is an avid hiker and close observer of nature. The desire for being closer to nature resulted in the move to Harrington which happens to border the Wildwood Conservation Area.
While he needed to make a living with his metal working skills he immediately determined it wouldn’t be patching grain elevators or wagon tongues. Instead he began making stick figures by welding together antique nails.
There was demand for the figures that provided an income but that work too became repetitious. This pointed Baker toward taking on the more complex and complicated sculptures of wildlife that now occupy his time and talents.
He works with thin metal sheets from 16 to 22 gauge from which he cuts individual pieces using metal shears. These are pounded into the desired shape with a variety of ball-peen hammers.
Larger pieces are pounded into shape on a 500-pound section of maple tree.
Baker did take a blacksmith course, working with a forge, but he found it took too much time to shape the metal pieces he wanted. He prefers cutting and shaping the cold metal by hand or using a plasma cutter.
Currently eight of his wildlife sculptures are featured at the Algonquin Park Art Center, along with other notable artists such as Robert Bateman.
It was while on a hike through Algonquin Park in the fall two years ago with another artist that Baker came in contact with the pack of red wolves that inspired one of his recently completed works.
“It has taken months to complete,” said Baker of the wolf head profile.
While it is difficult to attach an hourly rate to his work he estimated the piece would be offered online – the main marketing venue used – for $3,000. He also sells his work at the Art In The Park outdoor summer displays in Stratford.
Baker is currently working on a kangaroo sculpture which will be auctioned online to raise money for a wildlife rescue foundation in Australia called Wildlife, Information, Rescue and Education (WIRE.) It is estimated that one billion animals have been affected or destroyed in wildlife fires there.
Baker has been involved with wildlife rescue much closer to home involving bald eagles and owls. As a result he was given the honour of releasing a red-tailed hawk and a snowy owl rehabilitated by Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge near Jarvis, Ontario. The organization is staffed by volunteers who are young offenders, youth at risk or adult offenders.
That experience inspired Baker to create an “anatomically correct” metal owl that currently sits in his shop. He has read and researched articles on owls to replicate exactly how many feathers a mature owl has.
Many of the sculptures Baker creates are related to his contact with wildlife. He described his first encounter with a timber wolf in Northern Ontario as “breath taking.”
Two packs of wolves, attracted by all the deer in the nearby conservation park, can be heard howling from his doorstep.
Bald eagles are also plentiful in the area.
Two of Baker’s sculptures now perch on municipal signs welcoming visitors to Harrington – a bald eagle at one end of the main street entrance and a heron at the other.
Baker’s work sculpting farm animals has not been as extensive. He did keep a small flock of chickens for a short period but found it too emotionally draining when – as chickens are prone to do – one died.
Still, he was able to use that experience for creating a metal rooster for a customer in Switzerland, enjoying the opportunity to create a life-size sculpture.
For some reason he admitted to struggling when trying to sculpt horses in metal and moose as well. Fortunately wildlife stirs something inside that releases his creativity.
“If art speaks to you, you figure out a way to create,” said Baker. ◊