Debra Baxter was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Lincoln, where she went to a small school that was, in her own words, “in the middle of nowhere.” Despite her artistic predilections early on in a mostly conservative town, she was not, as she puts it, “the freaky black sheep.” She was a little more conventional than that. Her childhood was fairly normal; her mother was a kindergarten teacher and quilt maker, and according to Baxter, “insanely creative and crafty,” and her physician dad was also a photographer. This craftiness clearly passed on to Baxter, who experimented early on with natural materials, including a crèche crafted from toothpicks and erected inside a nutshell. She laughingly said, “It’s probably my earliest piece. I think I was like 5. I have no idea how I got those toothpicks in that nut. I could never do that now. My hands must have been tiny.”
Baxter is an artist for one refreshingly honest reason. “If I didn’t make art, I would lose my mind.” And with that telling statement, you begin to understand the passion that drives this extraordinary woman. For her, making art is a selfish act. But art is also, in her estimation, what makes life culturally rich and infinitely stimulating. A sculptor for the last 20 years, she creates art with two distinct paths: one to be beautiful and one to send a message. And how does she unpack that message? “By demonstrating the juxtaposition of the power and vulnerability of being female.”
Baxter believes that to impact the world, you must be vulnerable to it first. She illustrates this vulnerability in her Breastplate sculpture. Originally a lady’s Victorian shirt, the Breastplate sculpture and its ongoing series was a high-necked shirt that Baxter then turned into a piece of bronze she terms “lady armor.” With a nod to a time of great repression, the Victorian Era piece was designed to emit the power of women in its heaviness and metallic structure, without losing its feminine edge.
But perhaps Baxter’s most famous piece, and the one that gives the biggest nod to her feminist spirit, is her Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles, a piece in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Baxter’s Devil Horns are a mash-up between hip-hop and new-age – designed to hurt and to heal. The Smithsonian acquired the Knuckles in 2015, after they were showcased at the “Art and Healing” show at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington. Sculpted to represent the power of femininity, the Knuckles have made such an impact worldwide that a set of them was stolen out of a gallery in London. Baxter is currently in the process of creating a new and final set.
It’s a process that changes with every sculpture. “How I work depends on the piece,” she says. “Rarely is a piece linear, and rarely do I see the whole thing in my head before it happens. Like when I was making the Brass Knuckles or the Breastplate. Turning fabric into metal was a complicated process and took many people to help me. But for the most part, I’m in my studio trying to put the puzzle together.”
It’s the puzzle that she loves. Recently, Baxter came back from vacation with an enormous cinderblock, broken, but perfectly symmetrical. She’s always looking for provocative rocks and minerals. She gets them into her big, airy studio and then stares at them. Plays with them. Then she looks around to see if she has another piece that would look good with her newly discovered cinderblock. She finds a really thick piece of glass. She sets the glass on top of the cinderblock, and it appears to levitate. To her, it’s like reverse gravity. It’s on a precipice, on the edge of going over, but it doesn’t. It’s taking something to the breaking point without actually breaking it.
Baxter sculpts mainly in bronze, a medium she’s been working with for many years. “I work with traditional materials – bronze, rock, concrete, glass – these are the things that attract me. Maybe because they are materials that will endure, and I love the idea of that endurance.” When Baxter started her career, women were not really working with heavy metals. It’s a very physical, intense labor – not “woman’s work.”
“A majority of my work, especially the jewelry, is to embolden women, make them feel stronger. make these big crystal necklaces, and women wear them when they’re doing something noteworthy. The necklace gives them confidence, calms them,” she says. “I firmly believe crystals have healing properties. And there’s a tremendous amount of evidence to support that the effect is real.”
But actually, it’s Debra Baxter whose effect is real and affecting the world around her. Her most influential teacher once told her, “Let the material stand alone, and the piece will reveal its integrity in the end. Let the features be what they are. The beauty will tell the story and endure.” And it will. Much like Baxter’s art.
Join Debra Baxter at the Form and Concept Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for her solo show April 18 through June 17, where she will showcase 20 sculptures. To view more of Debra’s crystal bomb jewelry, go to dbcbjewelry.com.