Saturday, August 04, 2007

With Pasture as His Canvas, an Artist Turns a Purple Heart Green

If Roger Baker mows it, they will come to see it, or at least fly by for a better view;
he turned this Hamptonburgh, N.Y., park into a Purple Heart.
Photo by Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

Published: August 5, 2007


First came a chance encounter at the antique store he and his wife run in Ellenville, 90 miles north of New York City, then a trip to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in nearby Vails Gate, and along the way an idea he could not get out of his head.

So, almost inevitably, there was Roger Baker prowling around an immense, sweltering field of grass and clover here on Thursday in work boots, blue jeans, green plaid shirt and engineers cap, taking swigs from the jug of Leisure Time spring water and contemplating his latest adventure in field carving, lawn mower art and large-form Americana.

By Friday, it was pretty much done, an 850,000-square-foot Purple Heart medal, more than 1,000 feet long, each detail precise down to the seven 36-foot laurel leaves on each side of the three gold stars above the portrait of George Washington.

“Hi,” he said when he made his pitch to Orange County officials in June. “I’m Roger, and I mow the lawn.”

On one level, that’s pretty much it, though, even including the space aliens who carve mazes in Kansas wheat fields, he may be the greatest lawn mower who’s ever lived. On other levels, well, pick your own job description for a guy who carves titanic portraits, most of them visible just from the air, into summer fields, which within days give way to grass, bugs, dust, butterflies and nature’s heedless currents.

Beginning in 2000, Mr. Baker, now 53, has created field portraits ranging in size from 500,000 square feet to more than a million: the Statue of Liberty, Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix. When last seen in these pages, he was contemplating his next act after a portrait of the late custom motorcycle builder, Larry Desmedt, known as Indian Larry.

His instincts this year were pulling him sax-ward — either John Coltrane or Boots Randolph (a personal favorite) — until May, when he met Bill Bacon, an official with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who was passing through Ellenville. Mr. Bacon was planning events in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the Purple Heart medal.

The more they talked, the more the idea of a giant Purple Heart took hold. Mr. Baker visited the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, where the director, Anita Pidala, was instantly intrigued. He made a drawing, using as his model the Purple Heart of Art Livesey, 88, of Middletown, N.Y, who was a marine who fought on Iwo Jima in World War II.

And when he and Ms. Pidala found the site 16 miles from the Purple Heart Hall of Honor, off State Road 416, at the edge of Thomas Bull Memorial Park, he had to catch his breath: It was a gorgeous sloping field, thick grasses, even gentle strains of purple clover. “I thought,” he said, “that’s one of the nicest fields I’ve ever seen.”

And so, after getting permission from the county, which owns the park, he began work a week ago, walking the field with his Craftsman Hi-Wheel gas-powered push mower.

He did the detail himself, like the 260-foot-long portrait of Washington, while county workers on brushhogs did much of the large-scale mowing. He gets different colors and shades by changing the height of the blade. The piece will be unveiled today at an 11 a.m. ceremony.

EACH piece is different. The biggest new element in this one is that because of the slope of the land you can see it from the ground — “not perfect — it will look like a bad haircut — but it gives you a sense, and then I know from the air it will be something.”

Mr. Baker, a sculptor, artist, cartoonist and whatever comes his way, has no cellphone and no computer. He’s not political and he won’t make any money from the project. He did it because in a visceral way it hit him like a sudden burst of wind — his attempt, at once large and small, to make sense of and to honor the sacrifice people make in battle.

He said when he began, he looked, as usual, for reasons not to do this one. How about, he was asked hypothetically, the notion that many people won’t be able to think of it apart from the passions surrounding the war in Iraq?

“My thought processes never went there,” he said. “Not one time did that enter my mind. I look for things — aesthetic, personal, artistic, technical — that draw me. What I’m concerned with is my craft and doing this as if it’s the last time I’ll ever have a chance to.”

One thing he loved about the Indian Larry project, he said, was how Mr. Desmedt’s friends and family came to the site, and then walked it as if touching his spirit in the furrowed fields.

Mr. Baker hopes that happens even more this time — no simple answers or message, just a chance for people to silently traverse a country field to pay tribute, to give thanks, to contemplate heroism, to find peace.