Interview: Artist and Assistant-Baylor and Witz Explain the Process
What does an artist's assistant actually do? The Renaissance and Modern Art Masters employed assistants, using workshops to help them complete their paintings and sculpture. Reginald Baylor, a well-known Milwaukee artist, would ask himself: "How in the world do they have this much work? How do they do it? There's no way to reach the magnitude of that beauty unless there's a team."
With the answer to that statement, Baylor leaped into a fine art career full time and hired Heidi Witz four years ago. They connected through her Uncle, by happenstance Baylor's fourth grade principal who exclaimed to him he needed to become an artist at the tender age of ten. When Witz moved to Milwaukee the three of them (Witz, her uncle, and Baylor), through destiny, met at the same church and the rest is history. Baylor and Witz explain the collaboration that began four years ago, and continues at the lower lever studio in the Third Ward's Marshall building where they both work on Baylor's art full time.
Q: Heidi, what's your background for being an artist's assistant?
A: I have been sewing all my lifeâŽ¯started out as a seamstress at age three, and began winning contests at the Minnesota State Fairs. Eventually I graduated from the University of Minnesota in Fashion Design. But I had a difficult time with fashion illustration because I couldn't draw. So I worked in the workrooms, on construction. Yet it made me hungry for creativity when I moved to Milwaukee.
Q: How did this help you become Reggie's assistant?
A: W: I met Reggie at church, and found out he needed someone to help him. Within five minutes I was so excited because I had seen his work at the Haggerty in 2004. He had a show there with his brother, Trenton, who does furniture sculpture. Then the first thing I learned was his technique…Learning how to bend the tape for Reggie's paintings.
B: This is very important for my paintings, because they are all drawn first and then taped to get a very clean line. She did it perfectly the very first time, mitering the corners.
Because of her sewing techniques, she sees the attention to detail.
Q: And the sewing techniques relate to Baylor's paintings?
A: W: The blueprint of Reggie's work looks like fabric, and his lines are like stitches. So we fit perfectly.
B: Because I now had two hands I could do twice as much work, use twice as much detail. An average painting takes 300 hours. My work was more minimal until I had an assistant. These memories are so great, and that was four years ago.
Q: So, explain exactly how this works…
A: W: I was so afraid to begin the first one, to put the color onPenumbra #6. All his instructions have numerical codes that Reggie maps out in his mind and then on the canvas. Reggie draws the canvas, tells me about the painting. Talks out loud about what he's after. As an assistant I don't make any choices. After drawing the painting, he makes the color choices, the color-coding, the mixing of all the colors, and then assigns all the sections [to be colored] for the painting.
B: At this point we're working on the painting together, taping and painting. I'm like the architect, she is the builder. Artists use the expertise of others, people to help all the time.
Q: So Heidi, you help create the structure, color in the shapes on the paintings?
A: W: Yes, and when I was working on Passage of the Cars I noticed that there was a numerical mistake. So I called Reggie and asked him if this was correct, although I knew it wasn't. He said it was a mistake. I know his work, his system so well, I can catch him mistakes when he makes them.
B: The one [painting] we're working on now has 2000 to 3000 shapes of color to tape and fill in. So it's hard to get everything right. And each shape is painted three times; each line is painted three times. I couldn't do the volume or the complexity of work without Heidi.
Q: Do you also manage the business side of art for Reggie?
A: W: I thrive on organization. Also Reggie depends on my inner and outer scheduling. If we need to have something somewhere, get a photo or painting to a gallery, a meeting, I know this. This allows him to focus on the art, exclusively on making art.
B: This allows me more time for the art. Say, on a Monday, she's on the computer checking e-mail, answering phone calls, scheduling meetings. It's a matter of finding someone who has the strengths you don't, so I focus completely on the art all the time.
Q: You need to work well together?
A: W: Going back to fashion, sewing would never be as satisfying as working on his work. I want to be assisting and involved. We never argue about artâŽ¯and Reggie's always looking ahead to the next canvas after he's halfway through one painting, so then I know it's time to start listening again. I need to stop him when he gets four or five paintings ahead in his mind. I'm relentless about believing what he's doing. If he doesn't believe in what he's doing, then he won't put it on canvas, the art….That's what makes this work.
B: We can finish each other's sentences. She knows not to talk when I draw, my drawing mood is most introspective. A painting is only one snapshot of what the artist actually sees or conceptualizes [in his mind], what is thought about. Isn't that what art is all about? Making someone believe in your vision…encouraging someone to believe in that vision?