It’s fair to say that Roger Baker’s artwork can be found throughout the Hudson Valley. A prolific sign painter, Baker’s touch ranges from the simple (a small Cragsmoor Historical Society sign) to the sublime (a five-panel mural depicting iconic Ellenville scenes). For his largest “canvases,” however, his tool of choice is an unusual one — a lawn mower.
Since 2000, Baker has carved eight exquisite portraits into grassy fields, the largest measuring a million and a half square feet. His reason is akin to mountaineer George Mallory’s “Because it’s there” answer to why he’d climb Mount Everest.
Baker, who was born and bred on the Jersey Shore, always had a thing for art — and hang-gliding. So he packed up his art supplies after his 1971 high-school graduation, strapped his hang-glider to the roof of his car, and made a living painting flames on hot-rods and murals on the sides of vans. He’d stop in various towns, offering to touch up the gilding on local firetrucks, and hang-glided during his time off.
Roger Baker has used grass blades as a unique canvas, and a tractor and mower as his tools, to create amazing portraits.
“I painted and flew across the country,” he reminisces.
Baker heard of great gliding in Ellenville, so in 1975, he rolled into town and never left. That scenic overlook off Route 52 provided perfect flying conditions.
The gliders’ target was a bull’s-eye formed from long and short grass carved into the Kelly Farm landing field. In 2000, a volunteer mistakenly mowed that bulls’-eye, and the resulting clean slate sparked an idea.
“I said, ‘Let’s cut the Statue of Liberty into the grass,’” Baker says. Plotting it out on graph paper (a half-inch equaling 10 feet!), he carefully sketched it, stretched string across the field, and had the half-million sq ft portrait mowed in about 12 days with the help of a brush hog, lawnmowers (for finer details), and a couple of volunteers.
“I’ll be in the middle of the field, and I can’t see the other end of the field,” he explains. “You look at your drawing, and you’ve gotta have faith.
Artist Roger Baker mowed this 850,000 sq ft rendition of the Purple Heart medal.
There’s no perfection here; there’s just perseverance.”
He persevered again two years later, with a stunning, 1.5 million sq ft Elvis portrait, followed each succeeding year by Albert Einstein (replete with “E=mc2”), Jimi Hendrix, motorcycle legend Indian Larry, the logo of the Vintage Sailplane Society (at Wurtsboro Airport), and an 850,000 sq ft replica of the Purple Heart at Thomas Bull Memorial Park in Montgomery.
Baker took a hiatus from field portraits for nine years, during which he continued hand-painting beautiful signs and murals (getting around town, sometimes, on his signature unicycle). Then in 2016, inspiration struck via a stack of classical vinyl.
One million square feet later, Baker wanted Ludwig’s portrait to come alive. He enlisted the help of the Ellenville Middle School Fortissimos choir, a violinist, a saxophonist, Cragsmoor harpist Victoria Drake, and some pianists, and “planted” a grand piano on Beethoven’s grassy lapel.
The result was Baker Does Beethoven, a film by John Hazard that’s been making the rounds in local theaters.
What’s next for Baker?
“If I did have something planned, I probably would never say what it is,” he reveals. “I don’t want to shut it down by defining it.”