The Desert as Creative Urgency

James Baxter is an Arizona native who loves desert sunsets but is also trying to redefine what home means to them. Baxter received a BFA in Fine Arts (painting) from Arizona State University and continues to work on elegant watercolors with a natural aesthetic, hoping to evoke a sense of wonder in the people that view their work. Baxter’s work is as ubiquitous as the desert—you can find it in local coffee shops as well as educational websites like Ask A Biologist, Ask An Anthropologist, and Ask An Earth and Space Scientist.

WOD: When did you first fall in love with art?
Baxter: I’ve always liked making things. I’m always working on something. At museums, I’d look at other artists’ work and wonder, “how is that even possible?” After I developed some skills, I started to learn from the processes and techniques in museum pieces. My relationship to artmaking is a little bit about love, and a little bit about asking myself, “how do I solve this problem?”

WOD: How does your identity influence your art?
Baxter: This year, I bought a house with my partner and a friend. My art fits into our queer, non-traditional, household culture. We’re trying to figure out what family, home, and success look like outside the bounds of a traditional nuclear family. Doing so has given me the freedom to move into the simple pleasure of creation, and the space to explore and reflect the fundamental beauty of the world.

WOD: What are some of your beliefs about art?
Baxter: I’m a firm believer in the theory that the author is dead. When I make art, I’m interested in the physical experience of mixing colors. I enjoy covering the smooth new canvas, as well as creating arm movements and brush strokes, building up textures, and so on. I’m not particularly concerned about guiding the audience’s experience. I want to see what it provokes in other people.

WOD: What’s your favorite work so far?
Baxter: My favorite paintings are the ones where I learn something or when I finally have a breakthrough about something that I’ve been trying to do.

WOD: How does your love of art translate into your life?
Baxter: It’s a big part of my daily life. As an undergrad, I got a painting degree and I’ve been doing graphic design ever since. I love to talk about and think about art. There’s a lot of art in my house. I make a lot of art and a lot of other things, too. When I go for a walk in the desert, or see the sky change color, I think about making. Art and artmaking add to my appreciation for nature. Seeing a sunset isn’t just miraculous and beautiful. It also evokes a sense of creative urgency.

WOD: Why do you continue to pursue art?
Baxter: Making art helps me feel more peaceful, more motivated, and most like myself. Art offers a chance to be meditative and helps me go into a focused-flow state. There’s always something new to try—it’s a constant learning process.

WOD: Who do you hope your work will impact?
Baxter: I want to evoke some sort of emotional response in people. When they see it, I hope they are drawn in by the colors and movement, and that they spend a moment entranced in thought, or feel anything, as long as they take a moment to appreciate it.

WOD: How have you stayed involved in the arts community in the past year?
Baxter: When everything shut down, I was taking a ceramics class at Phoenix Community College. We continued our class on zoom, and the communal experience made me feel more connected and less lonely. Recently, I’ve been working with a local ceramicist who is teaching me about the raku firing process. I also spend time in the community ceramic studio. Being with other artists, even socially distanced, is one of the great joys of making art. There’s always something to learn from others.

WOD: How has living in Arizona influenced your life?
Baxter: There’s something integral to my life and well-being in the desert. I’ve lived here my whole life—it’s foundational. The multicolored sunsets, plants full of water after a monsoon, quail followed by rows of quail babies in the springtime—it’s such a wild and alive place to be.