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Chicago icons get carried away in new print by father-son art team

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Updated: June 28, 2013 9:03AM



Chicago print maker Kyle Baker is grounded in his work.

He has designed elegant rock posters and album art for the Zac Brown Band, the Steepwater Band and many others. Baker is a patient 30-year-old artist who is grateful for his evolving gifts. He tells you this eye to eye.

Baker sees his sense of purpose in his father, Terry.

Terry Baker was a successful art director at the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago. He was laid off in 1998 as part of a major downsizing. He was only 48 years old. Baker free-lanced and then drove a school bus in Highland Park, where his family resides.

“I got promoted past my usefulness,” Baker says during a father-son conversation in his son’s North Center studio. “After 20 years they said, ‘Terry, your stuff is old and stale and so are you. Get out.’ It was just as well. My time had ended.”

Late last year, Kyle began teaching his father the art of screen printing.

And now Terry Baker’s time has begun.

The Bakers’ first collaboration, “The Windy City,” is a 36-by-24-inch, limited-edition screen print featuring 197 Chicago icons ranging from Blackhawks Hall of Famer Bobby Hull flying through the air like his “Golden Jet” nickname to a subtly placed Jeff Tweedy, singing perhaps “Far, Far Away.” Father and son are selling the detailed original pieces for $85 (color) or $50 (black and white) at Bakerprints.com.

Terry Baker walks by a studio window.

Outside the rhythm of the streets are slowed by a steady haze. Passers-by soak up every warm moment.

The father looks at a draft of “The Windy City,” mounted on a double-wide drawing board. He seems delighted. “People resisting the wind,” he says. “Or being picked up and blown away.”

Things change.

He continues, “We enjoy being blown away in Chicago. Everybody still seems to be true to who they are. Oprah is protecting the dog with her natural maternal personality. The Mayor [Richard J. Daley] is having deep-dish pizza. We have a brave fireman and firedog.”

These figures have influenced Chicago’s collective culture.

This is a story about prints.

And imprints.

†††

Kyle Baker grew up in Highland Park.

He flourished in a modest ranch house under the eclectic wings of Terry and his mother, Trudi. “It was a happy childhood,” says Baker, whose sister Sarah, 32, works at the Wild Animal Sanctuary east of Denver. When his dad would come to school at talk about his job at Burnett, “he was always a big hit.”

Kyle and Terry Baker attended Bradley University in Peoria. Kyle graduated in 2005 with a psychology degree. Terry graduated in 1972 with a bachelor of fine arts.

Working on the Pillsbury account, Terry Baker gave Doughboy puppets to each member of his son’s class at Wayne Thomas Elementary School in Highland Park.

The father worked on animation accounts. Besides Pillsbury, he worked on Miller Lite and Starkist Tuna.

“Charlie Tuna,” Terry Baker says with a smile. “The tragically flawed guy looking for redemption. That’s who he was.”

Terry Baker has no ill feelings toward Burnett.

“They didn’t owe me a thing,” he says. “I owed them everything. They gave me a chance to raise a family. I was fighting for my life every day, but that’s why it was a shootout. You take your work into a room, and if you suck, you die. After they pick the pieces up and pour you back into that mold, you return the next day and say, ‘I’ve got another idea.’ You had to thrive on rejection. You were there to fight for your work and your job. And that’s the way it should be.

“You keep it competitive and everybody stays honest.”

Where does that attitude come from?

Terry Baker takes a long pause. He then answers, “The old man. He was a G.I. in the war. Two things dawned on him: ‘It’s not about me.’ And ‘I am not entitled.’ Those are important things to learn in life. It makes life a lot less disappointing.”

Terry Baker is impossible not to like. His positive attitude falls in line with his Johnny Carson persona. He looks a bit like Carson and carries the snappy accent of the talk show host’s voice.

“I get it all the time,” he says. “I loved Johnny. He was a great man.” Terry Baker, who started at Burnett in 1978, was lost in the purge after United Airlines dropped the firm. He free-lanced until the mid-2000s. “Then that disappeared,” he says.

†††

Terry Baker was born in Hyde Park. When he was a year old his family moved to Highland Park with his twin brother Patrick and their older sister.

William, his father, had caddied at the Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood. “My dad’s father passed away when he was very young,” he reflects. “He met all these guys at the country club. They were father figures to him. When he had a chance he wanted to live in that world.”

William Baker became an illustrator who also worked at Leo Burnett from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s. “It was the golden age,” he says. “Most of the stuff in print was illustrations. That evaporated in the 1960s, and that’s when he moved to the agency because they needed storyboard artists. I saw storyboards and how to plan a film project from him.”

Kyle Baker listens from across a table in the studio across the hall from Steve Walters’ Screwball Press. He says, “I thought it was cool someone was paying him to draw things. We always refer to a room in the house as a ‘studio’ as opposed to a ‘den.’ There was always a drawing board and a desk. That was the same at Grandma and Grandpa’s place. It was the same at our home. The same at my Uncle Pat’s place.”

Imprints.

†††

Can you teach someone to draw? “A little bit,” Terry Baker answers. “Drawing is hard work. The spatial reasoning part of the brain needs the whole brain to work. I can’t carry on a conversation and draw at the same time. You need an aptitude for drawing in order to do it well. Technique will only take you so far. You have to instinctively know what to do, how to solve the picture mystery so the viewer understands it.”

Kyle Baker reached out to his father and uncle to work with him at the shop. “I had discovered the gig poster world and had just learned how to print,” he says. “And I have two of the best illustrators around that I could probably trick into working for me pretty cheap.” One of Kyle and Terry Baker’s first collaborations was a 2010 tour poster for singer-songwriter Todd Snider.

“About a year ago I told my dad I wanted to move into original art,” Kyle says. “Because everything I do is commercial. I said, ‘How about you make me some art for Arches National Park in Utah?’ He took me there camping when I was 13, kind of in lieu of a bar mitzvah or a confirmation.”

It is one of Terry Baker’s favorite places on earth.

He designed a geometric piece of the golden Delicate Arch that his son made as a screen print. The professional relationship was born. The arch had cast an everlasting shadow.

Kyle and Terry Baker began work on “The Windy City” in January. The team did thousands of sketches in pen and pencil. They needed to figure out who and what belonged in the art.

For example, they sketched 16 different positions of the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton before settling on the most iconic choice of the running back carrying the football and the Super Bowl trophy. It took three days to get Oprah right.

Once the characters were established, Kyle scanned the individual pieces into a computer. They arranged the character cutouts on Chicago’s bold skyline.

The son nods to the father and adds, “The most important thing I’ve learned from him with regards to drawing is that illustration ability is more about patience and imagination than anything. People think you pick up a pencil and draw, and you’re that way or you’re not. But it takes hard work and failure. I saw the artist side of my dad I had never seen before. I don’t think I ever saw him struggle with something. And any creative project worth doing is going to be a struggle.

“The most practical thing he taught me was that you get the pencil moving. And you do it again. And you pick out the lines you want and do it again and again until you get where you want to go.”

†††

And there goes Ernie Banks floating through the air in “The Windy City,” trying to get where he wants to go:

Perhaps a World Series. Or maybe the flatlands of his native Texas where he romped as a boy.

At one time Kyle and Terry Baker thought of having Mr. Cub in a relaxed, seated position. Terry Baker looks at the board and says, “He has very long legs. He was high-waisted with these immense hands. I changed what I was doing to get his legs prominent, his cheekbones and his shoulders. He was a powerfully built man but he looked like a skinny kid. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the same. I was trying to find a pose that would get the feet in front.”

Moving forward.

Always moving forward against life’s strong winds.



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