Making Boxes Into Rocket Ships – Beverly Baigent, Photographer

It’s a fitting conclusion to this run of a dozen interviews that after some artists I’ve spoken with have been stymied by questions I’ve asked or ideas I’ve proffered, and others have posed gentle disagreement, Beverly Baigent is the first who outright tells me at one point I’m full of shit. I’ve known Baigent for years now, and unknowingly witnessed her growth into a photographer and visual artist- a growth so seamless and natural that I’d thought until this conversation over drinks in her Torrance neighborhood that she must have been doing this all her life.

It’s a welcome reminder that no one is ever a fully formed being. Hopefully, we’re all growing and evolving throughout our lives. Baigent and I talked about her move from South Africa to America, and how her perspectives on family, art, self-motivation, and artistry have shifted over the years since that move, and how she hopes to continue evolving:

OI: Start us off with some biography, when did you move to America
BB: ‘98.

OI: And the photography came over from South Africa with you, correct?
BB: No, I majored in Psychology and Sociology, I did a photography course briefly in high school. My dad’s the photographer of the family. He’d decide it was time to do family photos and would set up his whole deal with external flashes in the lounge and would pose us. I didn’t take up photography or pick up a camera until Lily [my daughter] must have been about 2 years old, so about 13 years ago.

OI: So after coming to America then? Is that something you communicated taking up to your father back home?
BB: The reason I got into it was because my dad had asked me to buy him a camera here in the states because it was cheaper. It was my brother in law’s wedding and I said ‘dad, can I use your new camera at the wedding?’ 
I don’t remember what it was, a Canon 30D I think. I just fell in love with this camera and the things it could do. I could take pictures of people at the wedding on the other side without them knowing I was focusing on them [laughs]. I fell in love with the camera and said ‘oh my word, dad I’m going to use this until you come visit.’ He said, ‘yeah use it, it’s just sitting there.’ 
I still have the photos I took with that camera. I have photos of Lily with her great-grandmother who has since passed. It’s a brilliant photo. She’s one and a half in her grandmother’s arms and they’re both laughing and it’s a beautiful picture that I would never have gotten otherwise.

OI: I’m terrible at being anywhere and remembering to take photos, weddings or otherwise.
BB: You’ve got to find the balance of being present in the moment. Because when you’re behind the camera you’re a step away from what’s happening, so finding the balance between being present in the moment and yet capturing what’s happening- you can get lost. If all you’re there to do is take photos, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on.

OI: Have you done event photography since that first wedding?
BB: I have. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I’ve done a few fundraisers for the school and birthday parties. It’s not my favorite thing because I feel like when somebody hires you for an event they expect you to capture certain moment and that’s something you can’t guarantee.

OI: Speaking of being present in the moment, how does that reflect in the work you’ve done photographing the beach and California scenery?
BB: I haven’t been down to the beach at sunset or sunrise in a while, but when I get down there I spend more time with the camera down. You’re waiting for that moment and then when it’s there you try and capture it, but I’m not constantly behind my camera scanning and looking. My camera’s down and when I see something or feel like that’s cool- the sunset, sunrise, the colors or clouds, you craft and compose the picture in your head and then you take the picture.

OI: There’s a deep appreciation for California and its scenery in all of the photos you share of it.
BB: Oh yeah, but what’s really funny when I moved here we moved because family was here and work was here, but I was hell bent on not raising a family in L.A. This was a starting point, there was family and jobs, but I was like ‘we’re never raising a family in L.A. I’m not doing that.’ I didn’t want to fall in love with California, I didn’t want to like it, because I wanted to move.

Photo Credit: Mike Shields

OI: So you had a romantic comedy with city itself?
BB: Yeah, I had a love hate relationship. I remember going ‘ugh, those mountains are so ugly.’ Now, of course I look at them and love them, but I was like, ‘What are those? Those aren’t mountains!’ I really tried not to like California. I’d never lived by the beach, I’m not a big beach person but there is something very healing about being at the beach.

OI: It sounds like your love for California, photography, and deciding to have the kids here all evolved in a harmony.
BB: I hate to disagree, but I wouldn’t say so [laughs].

OI: You’re allowed to disagree, you can even tell me I’m full of shit.
BB: You are! I like that you’re trying to find something to match here, but no, that’s not how it worked [laughs]. I fell in love with my dad’s camera, yes, but photography was not a big thing for me. I would say the time I started in photography was when my marriage fell apart. That is when photography became a huge part of my life because when I’m behind the camera I get into that zone. Everything else goes away. 
I had taken a few courses, I was kind of getting into it. Online courses, I’d gotten into the online camera community, and was kind of putting stuff out there. Then my marriage fell apart and I just dived into the camera world. I dived into classes, I dived into new lenses. My focus was macro photography because I could only focus on one thing at a time. So, macro photography was and is my first love: getting down into the nitty gritty. I was looking for- this is so cliche, but- I was looking for the beauty other people just walk past.
I could literally walk around one block in my neighborhood and spend three hours because I would stop and see a spiderweb and spend fifteen minutes taking photos of the spiderweb with the dewdrops, but I could only focus on one tiny thing. Then I would see a flower and focus on that then take two steps and see a leaf. It was getting me out of my nightmare world that I was in with everything around me falling apart I had control over that.
It’s interesting because when things settled down and I could take a broader view of my own life? That’s when the landscape photography kicked in. I feel like my photography reflected where I was mentally. When I could only focus on one thing I only had the mental capacity to photograph something little with the macro photography, and when my life settled down and I could start thinking more broadly that’s when the landscape kicked in.

OI: I try not to, but still accidentally take it for granted that no one is ever fully formed when we meet them. I met you when you were getting into photography, but it felt so fixed already that I assumed you must always have been a photographer.
BB: No, I say that photography saved my life. I know that sounds a little extreme, but I don’t know what else would have got me through if not for my photography. I don’t know how I would have gotten through certain moments in my life without the ability to pick up my camera and just escape for however long I needed to.

OI: Emma-Buntrock Muller told me about how she was eventually drawn out to share her work more, and you also have your own path: you’ve gotten involved in the South Bay Artist Collective, help other artists, and present your work at shows. Tell me how you went from photography being a personal pastime to something you’re sharing and putting out there.
BB: I haven’t thought about it, how did I get from Point A to Point B? I think a big part of that was Kevin Gilligan. I met Kevin at a PTA meeting. Our kids were in the same school, and he is a fabulous photographer. When he found out I was just getting into photography he pulled me under his wing and I consider him my mentor in that regard. He does amazing stuff. He pushed me to get out there. He said, ‘you need to explore.’ He would call me up and say, ‘Bev, what are you doing? What are you shooting this week?’
He got into the collective and said ‘Rafael is starting this collective, are you interested in getting involved?’ It was an opportunity to get my stuff out there. I’m trying to remember how I started though. I think people just started noticing stuff I was posting and complimenting it, but I’m trying to remember how I got from Point A to Point B… I just found myself there and I can’t remember how. 
I saw Kevin putting his stuff out there, and saying ‘I think I can do that.’ People I respected as artists would respond and say they thought I had a great eye. The encouragement from other people who I respected as artists in their own right made me look at myself and say, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ It was Kevin who made even the possibility of me putting myself out there an option.

OI: Aside from that hurdle of stepping up to put your art out there for criticism, you’re a working single mom, and that compulsion to create is there in spite of the demands on time and energy you have.
BB: The compulsion to create is inherent I think in all of us. My biggest hurdle was considering myself an artist. I still struggle with that title, artist.

OI: What do you think causes that struggle? What’s the line or gulf between yourself and that state of being?
BB: Everyone fakes it til they make it, I’m still faking it [laughs]. I think having other people and look at your work calling you an artist only makes you go “maybe?” I don’t know. I struggle with that, with calling myself an artist especially as a photographer. Photography as art- it’s not like I’m painting something. I think that’s where I felt the need to learn to do transfer onto canvas. I didn’t want to take a photo and just print it. I felt like I needed to add something to the process to make it more unique.

OI: You evolved not just your intrinsic approach to your art, but also your methods and skillset.
BB: I love arts and craftsy stuff, but I didn’t feel like I would make enough of a unique footprint without doing something different. Learning to transfer the photo onto a canvas added just a little more.

OI: So what if I tell you that you’re full of shit because you just challenged the notion of photography as art even though you’re waiting to capture a moment, and haikus are art that strive to poetically accomplish the same thing: to capture a single moment in time?
BB: Anyone can pick up a camera. There’s a skill to painting a face. There’s a skill to picking up a paintbrush. I feel like the skill needed to pick up a camera? Yeah it helps to know the whole technical side like the ISO, shutter speed, and such. I say this as a dichotomy because all my photographer friends are absolutely artists, but I struggle with that title for myself.

OI: Are you persevering with photography in pursuit of that title?
BB: I think so. I told my daughter this: if I went back to high school I would do things differently. I would have taken art in high school. It took me to the age of forty to discover something I didn’t know that I had. If I had just allowed myself to consider myself as having the potential for art- I would look at the kids that did art in high school, see their projects and say ‘Dang! I would love to be able to do that.’ I think if I had given myself the chance I’d have been able to do it. What did Picasso say? Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
You talk yourself out of creation. As a kid you have the ability to create, you can make a box into a frickin’ rocket ship, but you grow out of that. I wish that I had given myself the opportunity to figure that out.

OI: Tell me about your recent collaboration with your daughter, you’re shepherding that artistic spirit in her now as well.
BB: Well, her dad is an artist too, this is not all me. He can paint, he’s a musician- he’s one of those really irritating people who’s good at everything. Getting involved in the gallery has provided me with a creative space to share with both my kids. Lily is a sketcher, she sketches with pencils, inks, has a drawing tablet. She has none of the inhibitions I had. She’s putting her stuff on Instagram, and just created a RedBubble account. She wants to get her sketches out there. She’s experimenting with different mediums in her school art classes.
The gallery has a show called Symbiosis: artists from different disciplines joining forces. She had the idea, we went down to the beach, I took the picture of her staring up at the horizon, I transferred it onto the canvas after we decided what size to do. Then she covered the bottom third of the picture and painted the sky of the canvas. I love what she did: a huge moon and a sci-fi scene, and sunset sky of red into blue with a boat on the horizon. I was blown away by it.

OI: That must blow you away seeing where your daughter is with her creative spark.
BB: She is so confident, she knows her style. It’s established. She knows what she wants, she’s confident in what she does. That took me years to discover.

OI: How does that make you feel to realize you’ve become the shepherd and guide thanks to your own artistic growth?
BB: That’s the challenge in raising kids. You can’t teach something you don’t know. I feel like I need to keep growing so I can teach Lily to keep growing. That’s not the only reason to grow. I think if you stagnate and come to a point in your life that you’re like, ‘yeah, I’m done,’ you might as well end your life right there. Sorry, that’s a little brutal. Everyone grows, but I can’t teach something that I don’t know, so I feel like as I’m growing and figuring out my own stuff I can bring her along with me.

OI: My prior interviewee Nicole Lucas wanted me to ask: do you think you embody your astrological sign?
BB: I’m a Gemini, I know that much, and that Geminis are a dual personality?

OI: Not necessarily duplicitous, but more so that they can compartmentalize and shift gears.
BB: See, I did not pick that up, but I’m not really into astrology. I know what I know out of hearsay. As a teenager people probably would have agreed because I could go from hot to cold and then cold to hot. I think that can become a crutch and you say ‘that’s just how I am,’ and it can be an excuse for being the way you are. I’m so not okay with that. I think if you get to a place with, ‘oh yeah, I’m an asshole because I’m a Gemini.’ So I don’t define myself by my astrological sign.

OI: Closing question, what should I ask my next interviewee?
BB: What do you want your legacy to be?

Beverly Baigent is a photographer who works with the South Bay Artist Collective, you can follow her on Instagram and check her website, for more information.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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