She first did it for a project for her first-year photography class at Oberlin. "The assignment was to use the concept of working in red," she recalls. "I was a biology major, and I said, 'I'll paint myself red and sneak into the greenhouse.'"
The result is a picture that is captivating and, perhaps, a little disturbing. Smack in the middle of the verdant greenhouse that is known to practically every Oberlin student and graduate is Baring-Gould, naked but for bright-red body paint, crouching toward the camera. Is the dense greenery her natural habitat? Is she ready to pounce?
To Baring-Gould, the work was a way of seeing something anew. "I say 'Tappan Square,' and you see the square in your mind," she says. "This was about taking a space everyone knew and exposing it from the underside."
How did Baring-Gould, who graduated with a double major in biology and environmental studies end up as a site-installation sculptor whose massive works are gaining praise throughout the Northeast? Her minor in studio art hints at the penchant for observation that Baring-Gould admits was "undeniably present long before I actually arrived in Oberlin." Still, she attributes her evolution to her experience at Oberlin. "Oberlin was where I began to tie together these threads of observation, biology and art . . . much of what I think about comes from the years I spent at Oberlin," she says.
Baring-Gould began creating art in and around Boston by gently altering nature to get people to rethink their relationship to the world.
"I started making lines out of leaves. I started stealing leaves out of people's yards," she says with a laugh. It was a way of getting people to "look more closely. Sometimes people noticed and sometimes they didn't notice." One of her most recent works-Means of Egress, a site-based sculpture installed last February at a Newton, Massachusetts, church recently converted to an art gallery-was tough not to notice.
Visitors walked into the church-gallery and saw 11 tons of rock salt lining the floor in waves. Above them five long, sleek, copper-lined Viking ship hulls appeared suspended in the air, wooden ribs visible through translucent fabric lit from within. The work, at first view, was jarring. Flying ships? Not exactly what one would expect to find in a converted church.
Yet a converted church was the perfect place for her flying ships, says Baring- Gould, for whom the connection between her creations and the sites in which they're exhibited "is of utmost importance."
"The decision to work with boats . . . initially came from a long-standing historical, architectural, and spiritual association between boats and churches," wrote Baring-Gould in her artist's statement. She noted several connections between boats and churches, including the origin of the word nave in the medieval Latin word navis, which referred to ships and shipping. Inspired by the Viking practice of burying their dead in boat hulls so the deceased could make the journey to the afterlife, Means of Egress, like other works by Baring-Gould, explored, among other themes, those of death and transcendence.
"Oberlin was where I began to tie together these threads of observation, biology and art . . . much of what I think about comes from the years I spent at Oberlin."
"The boats were a real means of egress on to the next life," says Baring-Gould. Why the lights? Greek mythology. "Boats crossing the River Styx would ferry light-filled souls."
Working from the plans of early Viking vessels, Baring-Gould designed long and streamlined boats that conveyed lightness and speed. "I didn't want dumpy canoes," she says. Suspended with supports that couldn't be seen from the floor, the boats looked as if they were flying overhead, carrying Vikings to the next world.
The Boston Globe, which has called her a "gifted sculptor," was impressed by the "versatility and universality of Baring-Gould's symbolism," noting that the shape of boats resembled that of a cradle, or even a coffin. "People from different cultures and backgrounds may see very different things."
Indeed. Some came and sat or stood in the salt for as long as 45 minutes. Others returned to view the show again and again. In the comment book at the exhibit, one group of viewers who were avid boaters wrote, "we're your crew." Another person wrote, "I felt like I looked up at some sort of spiritual whole overhead."
"I got people to slow down and observe," Baring-Gould says. "That's an honor."
Perhaps the ultimate accolade was delivered by boat builders from outside Boston who took in the show.
"They had hands like black locust trees," Baring-Gould recalls. "One of them looked at me and said, 'nice boats.' It felt great."
Despite the admiration and congratulations, Baring-Gould downplays her role as an individual artist, citing the importance of community-especially the Oberlin community-to her work.
"I don't think we function alone in this world, and one of the most profound things Oberlin continues to give me is the inspiration gained by watching other Oberlin grads strive and accomplish their goals."
The more than 30 alumni who helped Baring-Gould construct and install Means of Egress seemed to share her feelings. Indeed, the entire process almost seemed like a Winter Term project for Oberlin grads.
They contributed inspiration, expertise, manual labor, and tools to the project. Jonathan Myers '80 offered wheelbarrows (to haul salt) after he heard Baring- Gould ask for help at the alumni reception for President Nancy S. Dye that was held in Boston last January.
Much of the construction and installation work was done by Zark Strasburger '94, whom Baring-Gould has called her master builder and overseer. "His volunteered time, sensitivity to line, building experience, and instruction allowed the boats to take form," she wrote in her artist's statement.
"The whole process was a wonderful reaffirmation of my Oberlin experience," she says.
Baring-Gould, who teaches sculpture at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and waitresses at a popular Caribbean restaurant to supplement her income, says she finds Means of Egress and her other site installations to be spiritually, if not exactly financially, rewarding.
"One of the greatest things you get from giving is knowing the gift is well received," she says. "One of the people sitting around meditating to [Means of Egress] turned to me and said, 'Laura, this is so wonderful. What can I do for you?'
"And I said, 'Tuesday I'm taking the salt out-do you have a shovel?'"
--Tom Nutile is a financial columnist with the Boston Herald.