The Multi-Talented Mr. Baroth

By David P. Kozinski

Before specialization became the order of the day in football, as in everything else, there were so-called triple-threat men who could run with the ball, pass it and kick it. George Blanda played for the American Football League’s Oakland Raiders before the merger that created today’s NFL. Blanda played quarterback and led his team to more than a few come from behind victories, throwing for touchdowns or kicking game-winning field goals. These days there are quarterbacks who are fine passers and can run the ball too, as Randall Cunningham did for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s and ‘90s, but none of them kick field goals and few, if any, ever punt as Cunninghamcould – if need be.    

There have been a number of artists who have worked in two art forms. Anthony Burgess became famous for his novels, especially A Clockwork Orange, but was also a prolific composer of music. More than a few writers are also accomplished visual artists. Very few, however, are proficient in three art forms, as is Peter Baroth. In addition to being a painter, he is a published novelist and a remarkable poet, possessing a unique voice and a bold, innovative style. He is also a bass guitarist who trained in childhood as a cellist. The band he plays with, Party Crasher, wrote and recorded a song titled, “Roy Head”, that was recently aired on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. 

Baroth notes that he, “began drawing at an early age, as virtually all children do,” in nursery school in Chicago, where he was born. His family soon moved to Norman, Oklahoma where he continued taking art classes in middle school and high school. In addition, he studied at the Firehouse Art Center where, “as a teen…I stretched my first canvas, had my first exposure to figure drawing and the potter’s wheel, and made my first (and only) tie-dyed shirt.” Baroth also credits his father, an industrial designer in the aircraft industry, with instructing him and inspiring him in art.

Baroth presented his poetry and exhibited his paintings at the Regency Café in Lansdowne, PA in September 2015. He was the featured poet that afternoon, reading from his first full-length book of poems, the recently published Lost Autographs, (The Moonstone Press) amidst an exhibit of a dozen or so of his acrylic paintings. Images of some of the works that were on display at Regency accompany this article.

Many of Baroth’s colorful paintings are figure studies, often of people in action. “Belly Dancer” depicts a pale-skinned woman, scantily dressed in green, dancing. The abstract background appears to be undulating and vibrating along with the dancer, due to the juxtaposition of primary and secondary colors. Her face bears a rapt expression, framed by her dark hair and a necklace that echoes her body’s movements. The standing figure in “Oklahoma Dancer”, seen from behind, legs apart, raises her arm to the upper right, her torso twisted a bit in that direction. The background, again abstract, is largely dark with a bright red swath across much of the painting’s top, suggesting a theater setting.

A study in mostly blue and yellow hues, the “Guitar Player” holds his instrument’s body between his knees with the neck angled up, in the Spanish classical style. A hint of palm trees and the light blue water behind the seated figure indicate a tranquil, warm setting. The musician’s demeanor is a mixture of concentration and calm.

Baroth’s ability to capture a character in action with bold strokes, using a vivid palette, is found repeatedly in both his paintings and poetry. His poem, “Earth Mother” introduces us to his German grandmother, even though his knowledge of her is, “shorthand and scant / dying as she did, / riding her motorcycle…” As the narrator relates, “She was a breed of female hippie in ‘30s Germany, an anomalous light / shed upon a violently darkening landscape…” We’re told she was a violinist who, “performed a recital at Heidelberg’s Concert Hall…and was a pharmacist by profession.” The poem continues,

I picture her as a cultivated wild seed.
A free spirit,
uncompromisingly and angrily so,
especially with Hitler,
that dwarfish Dark Age nightmare
who would lead a world to flirt with ultimate destruction.
I wonder if it was antifascist defiance that led her
to rev her machine through Heidelberg,
a scenic city in a country turning ugly
as the Gothic spires of its ancient university
looked down upon the coming apocalypse.

The language is colorful but not flowery, and full of contrasts and subtle musical devices. The rhythm and sounds in the line, “a scenic city in a country turning ugly,” create a momentum that echoes the growing Nazi madness.

The first section of Lost Autographs is largely concerned with the author’s ancestors and their history; full of sketches of people that are remarkably revealing in few words. Throughout the book, Baroth offers such quick yet detailed depictions of people. “Outlaw Feelings” is grounded in an erotic encounter with Wendy, “A Jewish girl from North Jersey / with dark blonde hair / cascading into various streaks and colors.” The narrator continues,

Her body illumined a grayish beige
as it flirted with the sheets,
light through cream-colored curtains
of the Gateway West.
Her eyes, too, were a haunting shade of gray,
two seashells delivered by the tides.

The scope in most of Baroth’s poems contracts and expands. He focuses on closely observed subjects and then pulls back to reveal the narrator’s interactions with them, and even further, to place these interactions in the context of the times in which they are taking place. The effect is similar to strolling past a series of tableaux, or, perhaps more accurately, watching a movie in which the camera is forever in motion. The stream of consciousness in which the observations are delivered can seem chaotic at first, but closer reading confirms that a carefully guiding hand is at work.

While the poems sometimes employ images of athletes as metaphors, paintings such as “Ready Steady Eddie” and “Surfer” reflect Baroth’s interest in sports – soccer in particular – which he played as a youth. As with the paintings of dancers in action, the artist conveys the athletes’ movement and concentration with strong diagonal lines and through the impressionistic use of colors.

Baroth examines the human form in various settings and moods. The bright red that dominates the bottom half of “Two Girls and a Chair” suggests a stage setting with otherworldly lighting. The angled stances of the two figures mime defiance, as if they await a cue to action. The red-shirted subject of “Wildwood”, seated cross-legged on a kitchen counter, holds a coffee cup out in front of her. She stares beyond it and appears lost in thought. The tranquil, “Farm Scene”, and Baroth’s, “Self Portrait”, demonstrate that he is comfortable working with classic subjects, while introducing original interplays of color and form. 

Between high school and college, Baroth attended the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain, where he painted “Oklahoma Dancer” and “Two Girls and a Chair.”  His instructor was Utah Superrealist Tony Smith and the artist-in-residence was the late Native American Modernist Fritz Scholder, who Baroth notes, “was an inspiration to me,” along with painters such as Henri Matisse, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney.

In 1981 Baroth matriculated to Washington University in St. Louis, starting out in the art school. After a semester he transferred into arts and sciences. A year-long art history course, taught by Norris K. Smith, strongly affected Baroth’s appreciation of art and its civilizing influence on mankind though the ages. The artist notes that, “an experience with psychedelic drugs…had many ramifications for me, but as far as art was concerned, it led me to use more lively and vibrant colors.” He earned his BA cum laude in 1985 and shortly thereafter moved with his family to the Philadelphia area. He received a JD (Juris Doctor) degree from Temple University’s Law School in 1990 but never passed the Pennsylvania bar exam. The allure of the arts remained strong and Baroth has continued his study with studio art courses at the Main Line Art Center.

In an artist’s statement, Baroth refers to his interests in the figure, “the movement of paint as well as subjects painted.” The influence of Dr. Smith of Washington University, who espoused the thesis that, “everything from the Impressionists onward was the product of barbarians,” was strong and drew Baroth away from pure abstraction. He observes that, “Modernism is a movement worth wrestling with.” This thought is reflected in the presence of representation in his canvasses’ subjects and abstraction in their backgrounds, with every application of paint and juxtaposition of color providing depth below the surfaces.