This article was written by the Violence against Women Initiative's Fall 2021 intern, Fia Walklet '21.
I begin my series of interviews of Lesley affiliates with Associate Professor Catriona Baker, a multi-media artist who teaches here at Lesley University. I meet Baker virtually over Zoom: She sits in an eclectic office, the walls riddled with far-away framed art I admittedly want to know more about, and with one of her paintings resting proudly on an easel a mere few feet behind her. Later, I learn the painting, which depicts a horse, bloodied with fire-like hues of vibrant red and orange, is one of Baker’s “lighthearted” projects that provides her with some repose, or removal, from the at-times-suffocating world of violence against women (VAW) advocacy work. As she fiddles with her tea (“I made it too full,” she notes regretfully), I prepare to embark on my first-ever interview, and although I don’t know it then, I have been incredibly lucky to have Baker as my first subject. She is as kind as she is artistically genius, as patient as she is powerful.
Baker’s story, and coincidentally our interview, begins with the stories of her own mother, and her mother’s mother before her, speaking to intergenerational and collective experiences of resistance to violence against women and other forms of oppression. Starting with her grandmother, who was a fierce advocate for vulnerable populations and eventually tackled helping political refugees come over from East Germany (one of whom ended up living with the family for 25 years, and is described by Baker as “the woman who raised her”), she bestowed in Baker “this feeling that we always had to play a part, if we saw something unjust or not right, in making it better. We had an obligation to make the world a better place.”
“The woman who raised her” had herself experienced sexual violence while living in East Germany, before seeking refuge in the United States through Baker’s grandmother’s sponsorship. When speaking of her experiences, Baker warns me that she may get emotional, to which I respond, “That makes total sense. It’s always difficult discussing the violence that affects our loved ones.” But I’m quickly corrected: Baker clarifies, “What makes me teary is not the violence that she survived, but how loving she was. I just miss her because she was such a survivor. She taught me there was always a reason to fight—to live. She was just a very beautiful person.”
Although Baker does discuss her more personal connections to violence against women, she is firm in her belief that “it’s something that all of us are more affected by than we know that we are.” She remarks, “Yes, people always ask if I have a personal connection. Yes, absolutely I have a personal connection. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a personal connection to this. And if they say that they don’t, they are denying it.”
Baker’s connection to, or concern with violence against women, was central to her upbringing, both inside and outside of her familial relationships. She recalls being only seven, taking riding lessons and also acting as a hand walker for therapeutic riding. “It occurred to me, even then, that life is really uneven,” she remembers, adding, “I always felt like my job was…teaching from the very beginning.” She then went on to attend an international, all-girls boarding school where violence against women “was a topic.” She was introduced to perspectives from diverse women all over the globe, inclusive of all socio-economic backgrounds. Baker notes, “It was unfortunately something that connected all of us.” She began to first study studio art as an undergraduate at an all-women’s college with comprehensives in print making (in addition to having a second undergraduate BFA in painting from Maine College of Art), then going on to get her master of fine arts in painting and animation. She learned over time that animation, as a medium, allowed her to tell her narratives in a more powerful, accessible way.
Although I had briefly acquainted myself with her work, I was blown away once she began sharing her projects with me in depth. Her animation piece from 2013, “I Am Red,” was inspired by her mother’s work teaching children’s literature. “It came from the drawing of a wolf, and all of a sudden I looked at the wolf and said, ‘That is the attacker. That is the perpetrator.’” She began studying all the different iterations of the tale of Red Riding Hood dating back to the 1400s. She notes, “It is a cautionary story for women that’s been told for eons, for centuries, in many different societies.” But the impact of the tale is, as Baker emphasizes in her work, more malicious, especially given its young audience.
She says, "The impact puts the responsibility on the child. The responsibility is not on the wolf…There’s something about telling a kid that bad things will happen to you if you make a mistake, if you walk off the path, if you don’t wear the right clothes, if you talk to strangers, if you go on a date…It’s your fault for doing the wrong thing, and that’s why you get attacked by the wolf."
Baker continues, remarking, "It puts the onus on the victim, not the assailant. And I think, at some point, that story should be retold. It’s the wolf that really needs to be kept on the path. He needs a leash!” I laugh in agreement, affirming that he does, in fact, need to be put on a leash.
However, the “I Am Red” project doesn’t end there. Baker contemplated the significance of the fact that violence against women occurs every two minutes in the United States. “If it’s every two minutes, then what does every two minutes look like?” She then began her complimentary book project, creating blank books comprised of 120 pages (symbolizing 120 seconds) in which survivors of sexual assault could tell their stories.
“It’s a way for people to share their stories without publicly sharing their stories. They can own it and it can become an object for them. And with that object, they could do whatever they wanted with it.”
As an aspiring gender advocate, I had to ask, "What was the hardest part about the work concerning violence against women?" Baker, at times, has felt debilitated by the excess of pain and adversity in the world that needs to be addressed. “It’s hard work, and sometimes it can be really depressing. Sometimes you see stuff that you don’t want to see, and it’s really hard. You can’t carry that all of the time. So, I switch it up.”
"What’s most rewarding, then?" I ask.
“When you’re making someone else happy, it’s really contagious," she replies. "It’s one thing to hear people’s stories, but to give back, that’s really huge.”
And give back she does: Aside from her art, that is only considered complete “once [she] figures out how [she] can reach the community or how [she] can make a difference with it,” Baker also meets with women’s survivor groups, takes her work to other schools within the community, leads co-ed sewing circles that discuss healthy relationship behavior and VAW prevention, and has joined domestic violence roundtables. It is in these spaces where she takes into account the needs of survivors directly, and her greatest takeaway is that of two-fold violence: “There’s the crime, the violent crime, and then the shaming that happens.” The shame enacted by families of survivors is the most consequential, Baker believes, because “We all know assailants are out there. But people that you love, when they turn their backs on you and make it your fault, then you’re really left stranded. And it’s a double whammy: you’re victimized, and then you’re abandoned.” We discuss one day collaborating on pamphlets for loved ones of sexual assault survivors, akin to pamphlets for patients recently diagnosed with cancer, on “what things not to say or do” to recent victims of VAW.
When asked what’s missing from the current discourse concerning or surrounding violence against women, Baker believes the primary concern is a lack of intersectional understanding. “What’s missing? Bridges of the interconnectedness, and how intersectional this pursuit is. We’re not just talking about women. It’s transgender communities. It’s queer communities. I want to say it’s everything that's not male-machismo. I would like to say it's violence against humanity, and it really, truly is.” Her intersectional approach is evidenced in her work on immigration, inspired again by the “woman who raised her,” and the focal point of her current project. It’s also evident in a project she’s co-creating, in which the two artists are reinventing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as female role models, or more specifically, “Amazonian women” (referencing the derogatory term, "Amazon," used to historically antagonize suffragettes). “One is a tomboy, two are lesbians, and one is transgender. We’re trying to depict what it means to be an intersectional woman: Femaleness is more than feminineness.”
Overall, my conversation with Professor Baker illuminated me both on the excellence of her work—through art, education, and advocacy—and the urgent need for systemic reform to better equip and support survivors on their healing journeys. As Baker perfectly put it, “The world needs more training.” For now, both the Lesley and greater community are beyond are fortunate to have Professor Baker as our teacher.
Catriona Baker’s book recommendation: Jimmy Carter’s "A Call to Action"
To view more of Catriona Baker’s work, visit her website.