It was 102 degrees the day the chipmunk decided to become a patron of the arts.
You can see him there, perched on a rock, looking intently at a pair of paintings.
Maybe the heat got to his head. Maybe he was bored. Or maybe he was just strolling by and got distracted.
Perhaps he was even inspired by the paintings themselves. One is of Jesus, the other is Saint Francis of Assisi. If the chipmunk is drawn to St. Francis, that would be only natural. The 11th century Italian friar was known for preaching to birds and other animals.
“Fioretti di San Francesco,” a 14th century anthology that captures incidents from Francis’ life, describes the monk stopping some fellow travelers as they wandered the Italian countryside.
“Wait for me here,” Francis said, “while I go and preach to my little sisters the birds.” Francis saw animals as not only open to God’s love, but worthy of it.
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The story of Saint Francis inspired Jim Baken, the artist who not only painted the rocks that so entranced the chipmunk, but — with a trail camera — captured the little creature marveling at the art Baken had displayed at animal level. Baken calls that little pile of rocks the chipmunk is posed on the “Chipmunk Monastery.” He loves the wordplay with the word “monk.”
It’s all part of a new project Baken has been involved in for a couple years. He calls it “Dolittlism,” after Doctor Dolittle, the children’s book character who could speak to animals. Baken isn’t only the inventor of “Dolittlism,” as of right now, he’s its only practitioner.
Being inspired by one of the most venerated figures in Christianity and a goofy kid’s book doctor is pretty typical for Baken. The artist is a blast of warm energy, overflowing with ideas and concepts and always ready to share his influences.
Lots of those ideas went into “Dolittlism.” It is, simply, showing art to animals. There are other things that play, but that’s the jist. Show animals paintings and drawings and sculptures, and see how they react. “Dolittlism” isn’t just the art itself. It’s the whole experience, how the audience engages wih the work is as important as the work itself.
Baken currently has a “Dolittlism” exhibition at the Ryniker-Morrison gallery at Rocky Mountain College, where he taught art for 31 years before recently retiring.
“This is a cool project for a retired person, because you do very little,” Baken laughed. “I used to be known as a painter and now I’m known as a photographer, but I don’t even need to take these pictures. The animals take them!”
“Dolittlism” is a perfect project for him, since it combines painting and photography. Baken makes all the art, places it in the wild where animals can find it, and then captures their reactions with a trail camera that’s triggered by movement.
Baken uses works of art that are durable, that he can leave out in Montana’s unpredictable weather. He’ll use oil paints, mostly. Some of the paintings are on cardboard, something Baken, a skilled and practiced artist who got his Master of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of New Orleans, bristled at.
“I shouldn’t be doing work on cardboard,” he admitted saying at first, but then he came to a realization.
“Cardboard might mean cheap and cruddy to people, but not to animals,” he said. “I’m not producing these for people."
His first attempt to introduce Montana’s wild creatures to art was a couple of years ago. Baken placed two self-portraits on a friend’s property along the Stillwater River between Columbus and Absarokee. He covered one painting with bacon, and another with salt. He’s using the same concept art galleries use when they offer wine, cheese and other snacks.
It worked. The animals showed up. So Baken expanded. He bought two game cameras and will leave them nearby to pick up animals interacting with art. Most of the pieces he’s done so far have been in National Forest land near the fire lookout tower atop Deer Mountain in the Bitterroots, east of Darby. Baken and his family have been tending that lookout for decades. It’s a 14 foot by 14 foot structure. There’s not much to do. You feel natural in places like that, like you’re just another animal enjoying the woods. Why not share something you love, like art, with the beings you’re spending so much time with?
Baken does various types of work and sees how the animals react to each one. There are some paintings, some sculptures, really anything that seems like it might draw attention. And he likes to use works that have big, expressive eyes. Something for the animals to gravitate toward.
It’s the type of thing that art critics might sneer at. Art is often thought of as so high and mighty, so exclusive. Baken hates that. “Dolittlism” is, in some ways, him striking back at that world.
“I don’t like the elitism in art,” he said. “That’s why I did so well at Rocky teaching farm and ranch kids. I bring it down to their level and I explain it.”
He’s doing the same thing with animals. Baken has loved the natural world and the beings that populate it for his whole life. He grew up in Red Lodge, right next door the See’Em Alive Zoo. For 12 years of his childhood, armed with equally adventuresome brothers and a lifetime pass, Baken explored the zoo and the animals that lived there. He saw something in them. He wanted to reach them, to treat them like siblings, just like Saint Francis did almost a thousand years ago.
“It’s a gesture of respect to the animals,” Baken said. “I want to acknowledge them.”
The respect seems to be mutual. Mostly. Baken has found a few of his pieces tipped over. There were animal droppings on one. And something took a bite out of “Young Doe,” one of his paintings.
But for the most part, the animals seem respectful.
“I’ve taken a lot of disrespectful kids to museums,” Baken admitted. “I’ve tried to get them to respect where they are and what they’re seeing, to appreciate the artist’s efforts. But when I show art to animals, I don’t see any of that behavior. They look at art as if their life depended on it.”
There’s so much unknown here. That’s the magic.
“I’m curious, what is it that they see?” asked Baken. “Do they see color? Do they recognize a face?”
There’s something gleeful about “Dolittlism.” But it’s silly, too. Showing art to animals and expecting them to have a reaction to it is ridiculous. And Baken knows that. He’s embracing the absurdity of the whole experiment.
“I’m not so naive that I think they think it’s art,” he admitted. “I’m ready to back off to ground level and call it ‘a thing.’ It’s just a thing to them. But we go to museums all the time and we wonder ‘Is that art?’ I’m willing to say that this is just stuff to them, but it’s a foreign thing.”
He hopes that by looking at how another species interacts with art, it helps us examine why we’re so drawn to making, displaying and interpreting it.
“I’m curious about their curiosity,” Baken said. “I’m curious about their intelligence and their wonder. They don’t seem to be in a hurry. We might even call it mindfulness.”
Baken, aware of “Dolittism’s” inherent goofiness, still sees something profound here.
“I have a sense of humor, but I do take this work seriously,” he said. “This project helps me not only rethink the way we look at art, but how we produce it.”
It all comes full circle. Hugh Lofting, who wrote the Doctor Dolittle books, first drafted them in the trenches of WWI. He’d seen hell, and he wanted to give his children a story of hope and joy.
“I’m concerned with the world and politics,” Baken said. “And I’ve always wanted to address that in my art. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. With this work, it’s fun. And we laugh at it. But it’s possibly making a difference if we re-examine how we make art, and how we look at art.”
He once watched a deer walk up to one of his self-portraits, and jump back from it with surprise. The doe locked eyes with Baken, looking from him to the piece as if she was realizing they looked the same.
“Animals are wary of their surroundings, they’re wary of what they’re being confronted with,” said Baken. “And when I saw her do that, I thought, ‘Oh that’s so wonderful. She gave it everything she had.’ In that moment, she was observing.”
The biggest thing that Baken wants is to not work alone.
“I’d like it if other people started doing this,” he said. “Then we could call it a movement.”
It’s not that outlandish. Doctor Dolittle, the movement’s namesake, talked to animals like they were people. And Saint Francis, who so connected with animals that on his feast day, parishioners still bring their pets to be blessed, would maybe see the wisdom here, and share in the respect that Baken has for his work and his subjects.
Baken didn’t invent working with animals, but neither did Saint Francis. They’re both part of a natural movement that goes back a lot further than 2022, or even the 11th century.
Psalm 96:11-12, from the middle of the Bible, puts it this way: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”