Making one of the Gipper

BALBOA ISLAND — An African man peers from one side of her bed and an African woman stares from the other.

Miriam Baker, the Balboa Island artist who will sculpt Newport Beach's Ronald Reagan statue, lives among her works. She admires people's faces and cultures so much that her house is filled with life-like, vibrant reminders of them.

"Those little highlights give the eyes life," she said, pointing to wrinkles below the eye of a Reagan bust she created for Chapman University.

People who stroll the island's south boardwalk will recognize Baker's "Balboa Buddha," a life-size bronze of another African model sitting cross-legged on her patio. Her male bronze roommate has a pierced nose and oblong head.

"Their features are very strong," Baker said of African people.

Besides Africans, Baker has made about 20 busts of local and national figures for Chapman, memorialized members of her family, and honored hall-of-famers at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The Reagan piece at Chapman impressed Newport City Manager Dave Kiff, who chose her to complete the now-controversial city work.

"I think she has a special style that captures the character of her subjects," Kiff wrote in an e-mail.

From Abraham Lincoln to her granddaughter, her sculptures line the walls and dot the nooks of her South Bay Front home.

While her art has been recognized by major institutions — a bust of Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel sits in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. — Baker said she's really looking forward to having her sculpture displayed in her hometown.

"It means a lot to me. I guess it's recognition," she said. "You can take your family there."

Baker, 71, has lived on Balboa Island for about 15 years with her husband, Art.

She paints and creates some small works in her home studio, but does most of the sculpting in a studio in Huntington Beach run by Rhonda Jones, an artist and sculpture teacher. They sometimes recruit subjects from Golden West College, whose art department uses live models.

Many of Baker's larger pieces, like the life-size bust of Reagan wearing a cowboy hat, can be heavy, so she says she likes working with others who can help her lift the clay-covered wire frames (called armatures).

From the Huntington studio, she sends the pieces to a foundry in Santa Ana. There, they are cast in bronze. Later Baker recovers the clay and often makes terra cotta busts to display at home.

A clay Ella Fitzgerald holds a microphone as she watches boardwalk walkers from the corners of Baker's first story.

Reproductions of her sculptures sell for thousands. For the city commission, Baker bid $50,000 — the amount donated by private citizens — and says that half of the cost will go to the foundry.

She beat out Stan Watts, a Utah sculptor who Councilman Keith Curry originally proposed create the statue. Baker said she was pleased that the controversy surrounding the commission caused the city to seek proposals from other artists.

Baker chose to portray Reagan's image from around 1983, she said, because "he was still looking good and still had his mind."

The Reagan statue will be life-size, with him standing and probably waving. It's slated to be somewhere in Castaways Park near the intersection of Dover Drive and West Coast Highway.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World