Remember that scene in Superman: The Movie when Clark Kent travels to the North Pole and ends up discovering his life’s purpose in the crystalline Fortress of Solitude? So does Debra Baxter. But the impact the film made on the local sculptor as a young girl lay dormant until adulthood—when she realized her own superpowers.
Over the past three years, the 37-year-old artist has earned three grants from 4Culture (King County’s cultural services agency), an Artist Trust Fellowship, a Jentel Artist Residency (in Wyoming) and a solo exhibit at Massimo Audiello gallery in New York City. In the past six months, she’s had a highly acclaimed solo show at Seattle’s (now closed) Howard House, received a rave in national Sculpture magazine and caught fire in the blogosphere—thanks in part to her recent work with quartz, a fascination she traces back to that influential 1978 movie in which crystals were the key to manifesting power.
While Baxter refuses to “trip out” on crystals in the New Age, “woo-woo” sense, she concedes that working with quartz and geodes—which she marries with wood, alabaster and metals—gives her a feeling of strength. That sensation is perhaps most visible in her 2009 piece “Crystal Brass Knuckles (I am going to realign your chakras mother******!),” a set of hand-forged brass knuckles sized for a woman’s grip and adorned with spiky crystals decidedly not of the healing sort. The humor, feminism and craftsmanship of the piece are irresistible—evidenced by the adoring bloggers who caused a photo of it to go viral last spring. Little did they know that these traits have long been hallmarks of Baxter’s work.
Raised in Nebraska by a quiltmaker mother and an anesthesiologist-turned-landscape-photographer father, Baxter earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and moved to Seattle in 1997 (mainly, she says, “because of the winters in Minneapolis”). After a brief stint in New York to obtain an M.F.A. from Bard College, she returned to Seattle and currently lives on Lower Queen Anne, teaches art appreciation and visual art to computer game designers at DigiPen in Redmond and sculpts in an industrial-Ballard studio.
While Baxter’s previous work has expressed a desire to feel safe (cloudscapes made of powder puffs, tissue and cotton; sculptures using inflatable life jackets and water wings), she says recently she decided to embrace her vulnerability—an acquiescence that has resulted in exposed necks and disembodied vocal cords and tongues, made of stone but seemingly also soft, pliable and naked.
Her incorporation of crystals began with the 2009 sculpture “Suck It Up (hyperventilation bag),” a paper bag made of alabaster and crimped at the neck, as if someone breathed in it to avoid passing out. On one side the bag has split, and quartz pours out like frozen panic. An asthma sufferer, Baxter incorporates breathing (or not) in her work—recently via balloons made of thin glass (whole and shattered), alabaster punching bags resembling lungs, an alabaster ventilation mask and inhaler.
The crystalline path has also led to an unexpected sideline in jewelry making—slices of geodes slung on chains and crystals jutting out of silver rings—which Baxter attributes to being “so in love with my rocks, I’m trying to figure out how to wear them.” Either that or she’s secretly perfecting her superhero costume.
NEXT SHOW: Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery in Reno, Nevada (a group show with Seattle artists Dawn Cerny and Jenny Heishman) in October