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Monday, December 22, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
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Nina Baker

Conway artist opens gallery to express ‘joy of life’

By Tammy Keith

This article was published February 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Nina Baker of Conway stands in front of a painting she did of one of her donkeys. She and her husband, Dr. David Baker, opened Art on the Green gallery about six months ago on Bob Courtway Drive in Conway. Nina, 52, has been painting since she was a child and said a doctor told her when she was about 12 that she would probably go blind, but her eyesight stabilized.

Nina Baker is wearing a long-sleeved shirt, modestly buttoned; a jacket; and a skirt that almost reaches the floor. Peeping out, however, are cowboy boots embellished with colorful embroidery.

Baker’s stories are like that, too. She speaks softly, and if you don’t listen, you could miss something special.

“She’ll surprise you,” her sister Parilee Croft of Conway said.

Baker, 52, is in her element, sitting in her new art gallery, Art on the Green, in Conway. She and her husband, Dr. David Baker, opened the gallery six months ago.

“Artists need to be encouraged,” she said, sitting surrounded by artwork, including her own.

Art is especially fulfilling for a woman who was told as a child that she would be blind by now.

Baker, the youngest of three girls, said her family moved a lot when she was growing up — Melbourne, Salem, Yellville, Bentonville, Harrison, Conway.

“I loved it,” she said.

Art was part of her earliest experiences.

“Parilee always painted; I wanted to paint like her,” Baker said.

“In Yellville, we had an amazing art teacher in grade school. She would do flash cards of famous artists.”

Baker said her mother, Colene, who died four years ago, always supported her passion.

“She washed out all my brushes. She did everything behind the scene. … I didn’t know for years she’d done design. Parilee found blueprints that she’d done.”

Baker’s desire to paint grew stronger after an eye doctor’s appointment when she was about 12 years old.

“I always had bad eyes. A doctor in Mountain Home told me I was going to be blind by the time I was 30,” she said.

Baker didn’t tell a soul.

“I thought, ‘Well, if I can paint, I can remember how things look,’ so I just started painting more,” she said.

Her family moved to Conway when she was in junior high school, and Baker took art in high school from Sherry Dean Trent.

Baker also went to an optometrist in Conway, the late Dr. Lloyd Guerin, who told her she wasn’t going blind.

“He said, ‘It’s stable now.’ My eyes weren’t going to get any worse,” she said.

Guerin’s wife was an artist, Baker said, and her work was displayed in that clinic.

Baker already had honed her talent as an artist, but now she could look forward to seeing it for years.

Among the awards Baker has won is the Jackie Guerin Beauty and Nature Award from the Conway League of Artists Tri-County Art Show.

“[It is] very special to me,” Baker said, “because I’d always followed her paintings.

Baker met David through a high school youth group at church, and the couple dated during college.

The weekend after he graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, the couple got married. She had graduated a month earlier from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock as a nurse practitioner.

He attended medical school at UAMS, then went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville where he finished his internal-medicine residency, planning to go into cardiology.

One of his six-week rotations as a resident was at a hospital in Nepal, she said, and they both went.

“It’s a leprosy and TB (tuberculosis) hospital,” she said. “I was doing clinic and helping deliver, and then we would trek out and do village health clinics.”

She was working at Baptist Hospital in Nashville in 1989 when she had a serious accident on the ice driving her husband’s Bronco.

Baker said she was wearing a big down coat, which emergency responders had to cut off, “and there were feathers everywhere,” she said.

The ambulance took her to the trauma center at Vanderbilt, where her husband was doing a renal rotation and was just getting off work.

“I coded in the ER,” Baker said. Her breathing stopped, but not her heart, she said.

When someone recognized her as Dr. Baker’s wife, he was paged.

She said he figured it was an emergency having to do with his rotation.

“They said, ‘Sit down, your wife’s been in an accident,’” she said. “They said I’d be paralyzed on the right or be a vegetable.”

Her face was injured in the car accident, and she had swelling of the brain and a concussion.

Faith has always been part of the couple’s lives.

Baker said her husband’s grandmother always carried little cards with Bible verses on them in her purse. He had one and stuck it in his billfold that morning.

It was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Baker said her in-laws started a prayer chain for her.

As Baker began to recover, she said, doctors told her family, “We don’t know what happened, but she’s going to make it.”

Near-death experiences change people’s lives, and Baker said she felt an urgency.

“I had a lot of guilt because I had several friends who had accidents that didn’t make it. I got to live with no residual problems,” she said.

“I wanted to seize every day and build on rock. I try to live without regrets.”

The wreck changed her husband’s focus, too.

Although he finished his internal-medicine residency, he decided to apply for an ophthalmology residency because she said he thought that specialty would give him more family time.

The couple work together now — her specialty is family practice, but her husband trained her in eye surgery. “I’m with him full time on clinic and call,” she said.

That period of their lives in Nashville was significant.

A couple of months after the wreck, she was stable enough to have surgery that she needed on her nose.

“I found out I was pregnant; we’d been trying for years,” she said.

David L. Baker III is 23 and lives in Jerusalem, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish studies with an emphasis in Hebrew. Baker calls her son D.L., which stands for David Littleton.

Baker said employees with the hospital in Nashville wanted her to come back to work and called often, but her husband said they’d waited too long for a baby to have her under constant stress.

Instead of going back to work, she went to her happy place — doing art and being creative.

“We were in a little apartment in Nashville, and David said, ‘Now’s the time to start painting,’” so she set up an easel. “He had to crawl over it to get to anything.”

Baker got paid to do calligraphy on cards and wedding invitations for a Christian book store. She also gave lessons at a nearby art store.

“I would teach art to home-schoolers or after school,” she said.

“The point in my doing the art classes — they won’t all do art their whole lives — it’s just the freedom to express and encourage kids to be creative and look at the beauty around them,” she said.

Art is not her only talent — she also took on sewing projects.

“The ICU at Vanderbilt had trouble getting scrubs that matched everybody, so I made scrubs, and I made wedding dresses,” she said.

The Bakers moved back to Conway in 1994.

She taught art, and their son, whom she home-schooled, would play nearby as she taught.

“He is not an artist. He loves writing and storytelling and learning,” she said.

Baker said she strongly believes that everyone needs a chance to experience art, whether as a viewer or a participant.

A strip shopping center the Bakers own in east Conway, Littleton Park on Bob Courtway Drive, had the perfect space for a gallery.

“Through the years, we’ve just met more and more artists,” she said, who didn’t have a place to market themselves.

“This is a place to bring them together for a gallery where they can show their art and be encouraged to paint more.”

With the downturn in the economy, galleries are closing, she said, and some artists have their work “in the back of a closet.”

“David said, ‘I think it’s time,’” she said.

They opened Conway Art, which was renamed Art on the Green. Baker said they considered moving to The Village at Hendrix but are staying put for now.

Through Baker’s many friendships and connections with artists, it was no problem to fill the gallery. “It’s worked out really well,” she said.

Designer Georg Andersen of Conway created the layout, she said, “where people can come in and contemplate art and not feel crowded,” she said.

One side of the space is set up for art lessons, which different artists give each month.

Baker’s older sister and inspiration, Parilee, organizes the classes and teaches, too.

“We want it to be a long-term thing,” Baker said. “We’re trying to encourage all the artists around.”

Artist Steve Griffith of Conway, and his wife, Vivian Noe-Griffith, are represented in the gallery.

Steve said they are impressed both with the Bakers and the gallery.

“We’ve worked with gallery owners all over the country, and she and David are doing their gallery as professional a way as any gallery we’ve been in,” Steve said. “Nina — her art is awesome. I’ve known of her art for years.”

Vivian called Baker a “kind and gentle spirit.”

Steve also said Nina is “very giving back to the community.”

Baker has donated some of her paintings to fundraisers, including for a new operating room in Honduras and for the Young Life organization in Conway.

Baker is partial to sheep. She said her parents raised sheep when they lived in Melbourne, and sheep are mentioned throughout the Bible.

“We raise sheep,” she said. “We have about 130 and 51 lambs and two donkeys.”

One of her paintings depicts fish that she saw at a market in Jerusalem, she said.

As she gives a guest a tour of the gallery, Baker talks about each artist’s background with admiration and familiarity.

“She grew up in Morocco; she’s just a delightful woman to talk to. … He was a landscape architect who transitioned into painting about 15 years ago,” Baker said, pausing at the work of each of the 26 artists from throughout the country who display pieces in her gallery.

Baker creates in watercolor, oils and pencil. Her favorite subjects come from her life.

A large wall in the back of the gallery is a backdrop for her paintings, and she points out the painting of one of her donkeys, specifically the donkey’s eye.

The artists’ works rotate every three months, she said.

“People wanting to have your work in their home spurs you on more and more,” she said.

“The purpose is to have excellent art and promote excellent art and just to encourage people to appreciate art and do art."

“Everybody has a story,” she said.

Baker loves the ones she hears at the gallery — the elderly man who has never painted in his life but is overjoyed when he takes a lesson and paints a bird — a good one at that. Another older man who said he’d never been in an art gallery in his life until hers. And he enjoyed it.

Baker works with her husband in his practice, but the gallery is a big part of her life, she said.

“After my vision and my wreck, for me, it’s just to be able to express a heart of thanks and joy of life. There’s pain all along the journey, but just to get people to communicate that. … If this could be a place where those stories come out,” she said, that would make her happy.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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