Playing With Fire and Making Art
Painting was all Saige Baxter ever wanted to do. A natural artist, she practiced painting ferociously through elementary school, high school and college, going so far as to travel to Florence, Italy, for four months in 2015 to study the classics. Then she took a single sculpture class at Seton Hill University, where she got to work with metal, and that experience sent her artistic endeavors in a whole new direction.
“It was like magic,” Baxter says. “As soon as I got to play with fire and was able to melt something solid, it just changed everything.”
Baxter traded her paintbrushes and canvases for cutting torches and grinders. On metal-working days, the 23-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident puts on her steel-toed boots and drives her Chevy pick-up truck to a local studio or furnace. There she suits up in her welding helmet, jacket and gloves and begins fashioning chunks of metal into works of art. She admits she gets a charge from busting down stereotypes. “I take off my helmet and people say, ‘Whoa, there’s a girl under there,’” Baxter says.
She’s also big on making her art accessible: “I got tired of hanging paintings in galleries and having a select few see them. It wasn’t fulfilling… Once you make [sculpture], you don’t have to put it in a gallery. You can put it outside for hundreds or thousands of people to see. And it’s free.”
At age 21, she completed her first public solo art commission—a 9-foot-tall, 1,000-pound sculpture in Greensburg, memorializing Jennings Womack, a well-respected community volunteer. The work took almost a year to complete, including the day Baxter accidentally welded herself inside her sculpture. The experience was amazing, she says, but also a lot of work for one person. Since then, Baxter has spent most of her time as part of a group of community artists.
Working with the Industrial Arts Cooperative, which seeks to “inspire artistic literacy” in Pittsburgh by creating site-specific art installations, Baxter has a mentor with the Mobile Sculpture Workshop. In this summer outreach program, expert metal artists teach aspiring teenagers safe and proper welding and metal fabrication while working together to produce public art. The group tackles one major project each year. In 2016, it was a rocking horse for Spring Hill. Last year, it was a massive archway for the African Healing Garden in Larimer.
“I love working with a group because it’s so difficult,” she says. “You have different personalities and different ideas clashing, but you manage to make something great out of it. I think it’s really important for our youth to be taught to collaborate.”
Baxter also has started her own community-outreach program, Stamped, which gives artists the opportunity to address contemporary social issues. Stamped’s first big project was Every Two Minutes, a 2016 short film addressing the problem of sexual assault in America. The film, which Baxter directed has been presented by Planned Parenthood and a number of local universities. Stamped also recently organized an artist talk and exhibit at Robert Morris University.
If you think Baxter sounds busy, just wait—you haven’t heard the half of it. Until last month, she worked as a studio tech at Seton Hill, advising students and helping maintain the studios, and as a pizza maker at Il Pizzaiolo on Washington Road. (“It was very traditional Italian pizza making,” she says, “so it was just another craft I got to learn.”) She had to leave those gigs when she was named a full-time creative arts advisor at Propel Schools in Hazelwood, a charter school where she had been working with students in grades kindergarten through seven as an after-school artist.
The 2013 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate says she could see focusing entirely on teaching full time someday, noting that there’s no better feeling than planting an idea about art in a younger person’s mind that could stay there forever. But, in the meantime, she has plenty she wants to accomplish on her own. Baxter recently had a 6-by-3-foot solo sculpture titled Liberty Pod displayed at Westmoreland Museum of American Art as part of its Handle with Care exhibition.
And, despite her promotion at Propel Schools, she continues to be engaged with both Mobile Sculpture Workshop and Stamped. It’s a lot to fit in, but Baxter makes it work. “People see this dirty chick in a truck,” she says, “and then I come home, and I clean up like everybody else, and enjoy a bottle of wine.”
Feature photo: Baxter’s rocking horse sculpture, made for the Spring Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.