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The Return of Sarah Baker

The artist talks about her Buffalo soap opera and meeting Jackie Collins

Jerome has made millions running Sparkle, a soap company in Buffalo, but his loving wife’s dreams trouble him, and his relatives are plotting to wrest the company away. A community activist fights the expansion of a business on Elmwood Avenue, while a champion of the expansion plots a devious long game. In Niagara Falls, a honeymoon quickly sours.

These are just a few of the narrative lines that Hallwalls artist in residence Sarah Baker weaves together in Our Time, a pastiche of the soap opera genre set in her hometown of Buffalo.

Baker, now based in London, tapped a wealth of local talent to create her film: The actors include Vincent O’Neill, Kristin Tripp Kelley, Josie DiVincenzo, Frank Rossi, Diane DiBernardo, Tilke Hill, Jessica Wegrzyn, and Megan Callahan, among others; Tim Newell is co-director; Chris Santucci directed photography; Joe Rozler wrote the musical score. Betsy Frazer of Frazer/Montague Design worked with Baker to create the accompanying Our Time Digest, a 60-page sendup of weekly soap opera magazines.

The film and magazine are but two of the elements Baker’s exhibit at Hallwalls, opening Saturday, comprises: There will also be portraits from Baker’s Hollywood glamour series, Beauty Spread, and portraits of Baker as Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer. Also screened will be her short film, “Studs,” a 10-minute conceptual homage to author Jackie Collins and her book The Stud.

Hallwalls executive director Ed Cardoni spoke at length with Baker about many aspects of her project, including her fascination with Jackie Collins and her sister, Dynasty star Joan Collins.

Ed Cardoni: How old were you when Dynasty was on?

Sarah Baker: Well, I was only [four to 14 years old]. So I just got the DVD box set and I watched it. The first and second seasons, in particular, are interesting. The first season is about oil and in the very last episode of the first season Joan Collins makes an appearance, and then the second season is just all about Joan Collins. And the ratings go way up because of all the cat fights…it just becomes one ridiculous plot line after another. And so it becomes more enticing and more like a soap opera.

The first season of Dynasty was really good. I don’t want to criticize it. I just think that it could have had both [oil and cat fights]. And I think that [towards the end] they relied a bit too much on the scenario of the cat fight. But you know, in some ways it did have both. There were a lot of the money politics. The rich guys. The actual oil riggers who were doing the manual labor. I’m fascinated by the subject of mining for natural resources. So for me, I thought it was an interesting balance of those topics.

EC: What made you want to rediscover Dynasty?

SB: Actually it was because of Jackie Collins. It was because when I was in London there was a little market near my house and they used to have inexpensive books for sale. You could get, like, three paperbacks for five pounds, or something like that. And Jackie Collins’s book covers were really striking to me because they would just say things like The Bitch and then have, like, a tube of lipstick on it. All of the titles, and the graphics on the titles—that’s actually what drew me to her. But then it turned out that the job I had, polishing brass in a factory…

EC: In England?

SB: Yes, in England. And right above the brass factory was the studio of a celebrity photographer. And it turns out that he was Jackie Collin’s daughter’s husband.

EC: Jackie Collins’ son-in-law?

SB: Exactly. So he was going to try to get me an interview with Jackie Collins. And it turned out he wanted something in exchange. Something unspeakable.

EC: That sounds like a soap opera in itself.

SB: It totally was! So that went totally pear-shaped…I had been led on by this person. “Oh yes, we’re going to meet with her. Oh yes, come to my house and I’ll help you write a letter to her.” Those sorts of things, right?

EC: Is it possible that the daughter of Jackie Collins had married a guy who was kind of like the guys in her mother’s books?

SB: Well, apparently he is one of the characters in one of her mother’s books…Jackie apparently was inspired by him. This guy is a celebrity photographer. He’s photographed Jack Nicholson. He’s photographed Cindy Sherman. He’s photographed everybody. He’s worked for People Magazine, Vanity Fair.

EC: Well, I know that you did meet her. So how did that happen eventually?

SB: So in the meantime, after being led on for so long, I was becoming more and more interested in Jackie Collins. I was already making artwork that was about this monstrosity of a character, like The Bitch. This idea of this really obsessed, money-hungry, power-hungry mentality. It was really about capitalism, ultimately. But about materialism on a superficial level. About people who are blindly obsessed with material possessions, and blindly obsessed with obtaining certain things in their lives like, for a woman, a big, fat diamond ring.

EC: Or long nails, or hair extensions, or a boob job, or…

SB: Yes, and all of those things that are about female representations in magazines, and where that stems from. But then, on a more tangible level, certain fashion lines, like Versace. What does it look like to be rich? And how do we achieve that look?

EC: Ostentation.

SB: And also branding, and celebrity branding, and what it’s like to have a really fancy sports car with your name embroidered on the upholstery. And that you’d have your own sunglasses line, and your own perfume line. For example, Brittany Spears’ perfume is going to retail for $79.95 a bottle, and hundreds of thousands of teenagers are going to buy that.

Having read a bunch of Jackie’s novels, I realized that here, in literary form, were a lot of topics I was interested in. So I was really disappointed that I couldn’t get the interview that her son-in-law promised. In the meantime, I decided to make my film piece, “Studs,” based on the Jackie Collins novel. It was very much an conceptual art piece. I used the actor Wes Studi from The Last of the Mohicans, and the synchronized swimmer, Bill May, and I was in it. I extracted lines from Jackie Collins’s novel and I had Wes Studi read those lines, and so he kind of narrated it. Bill was sort of this stud, and he was doing his synchronized swimming with three beautiful synchronized swimmers. It was a tribute.

EC: Were you one of the swimmers?

SB: No, but I was in the film, reading a few lines from the Jackie Collins novel. I was filmed in the Phoenician Hotel in Las Vegas, and then I also filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During my filming I got a really serendipitous e-mail notification from something like Some kind of online social media site to share what books you’ve read. I went online once and said I liked Jackie Collins, but I never looked at the website again. Yet they still sent me junk mail regularly. I got a piece of junk mail on this day in Santa Fe saying that Jackie Collins was on a book tour, starting on such-and-such date. I clicked on the link and found that she was giving a book reading somewhere nearby—well, a five-hour drive from where I was staying—and it was happening in a week’s time. It was perfect timing. I went to the reading, unannounced. I tried to get some magazines on board ahead of time, to try to authorize an interview. Everything failed. Going through her public relations people never worked. So I just went there, along with a few copies of magazines that had published my artwork in large photo spreads. I ended up getting a 20-, 30-minute interview with her, which I later had published.

I became friendly, subsequently, with her UK publisher. I started a blog based on her []. So they know all about me. And later I was invited to go to her London film premiere. So I’ve met her a couple times.

EC: Right.

SB: It was a happy ending to that story. I felt like I had become a bit like a Jackie Collins character, because she always has that strong woman who, against all odds, if she’s determined, will obtain her goals, especially if she’s good. So if I were to have slept with her son-in-law, then I wouldn’t have obtained my goals.

EC: Ah, interesting.

SB: That’s how her characters are written in her novels. You have to be good to really get what you want. She often has young girls in her books, with movie producers who are constantly offering them roles in films if they hang out with them for a couple of weeks. But they just end up getting dropped and they don’t get the roles in the films. And that happens in her novels all the time. So she has this really moral, kind of be true/do good undercurrent. Strong women’s skirts aren’t too short.

EC: We’ve talked about London, Las Vegas, Denver, Dynasty. So how did you put all the glamour together with Buffalo? How did you bring those things together?

SB: Well, Buffalo has all of that as far as I’m concerned. And whether it’s there on the surface or it’s not immediately apparent, it does exist. And it certainly has in the past. Darwin Martin was one of the highest-paid executives in the entire country when he was living in Buffalo in the Frank Lloyd Wright House in the early 1900s.

EC: Right. At that time Buffalo was a bigger, industrial city of millionaires.

SB: It’s unsustainable. And we’re learning that now, with the current economic situation. It’s the perfect place to do an art project or a soap opera. What you have here is a really rich cultural life. My project has been so enhanced by all of the actors here. And everybody has been so willing to open up their private spaces, or houses, to my film project. I think people are more willing here to do things for art, more so than in other places.

Sarah Baker: Our Time

Saturday, March 10, 8-11pm. Artist's talk at 8pm.

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

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