When Rick Baker applied for a transfer to North Junior High School from split teaching gigs elsewhere in the Boise School District, he finally found a school, principal, parents and students who were looking for a creative spirit.
Baker, who died two weeks ago in a skiing accident at Bogus Basin, often dressed in a sarong and sandals, with toe rings and earrings. He had the look of a North End artiste.
"The North End calleth and the artman cometh," North Junior High Principal Matt Kobe quipped at Baker's Memorial Service, drawing many chuckles from the crowd.
Baker was a creative guy who wanted to foster a favorable environment for his students to thrive. At other schools, many of his initiatives were quashed by the school establishment. At North, Kobe gave him the latitude to revitalize the classroom and try new things. One of the first things Baker did was to paint the floor blue and walls bright red and yellow. He gave life to a non-functioning dark room for photography. He was in the process of revitalizing a room for throwing pots and making ceramics.
"When I first started teaching at North, they said, 'We don't do pottery,'" says Johanna DeJong, a long-time friend who now teaches biology at North. "They already had a kiln, so it was a matter of finding some space. Rick was making it happen."
So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Baker proposed a project for his art students that would allow them to paint with their feet. The class all worked on a single painting, about 8 feet by 8 feet in size, and they let their feet do the talking on canvas.
"They did it Jackson Pollock-style," DeJong says, referencing a noteworthy abstract artist. "The project helped them with color theory, the difference between lights and darks, and when it was finished, everyone stood back and said, 'Wow. That is so incredible. The kids had such a great experience with that project.'"
To me, as a friend of Baker's for 20 years, it's nice to know that he finally found a home where he could teach effectively before he died. In many aspects of Baker's life, he was hitting his stride in the peak of his life, as a 54-year-old father of two, a great husband, and a guy who engaged in many outdoor sports.
"I knew Rick while he was struggling at some of the other schools, and it seemed like he went through a transformation at North," DeJong said. "He was really happy, and it seemed like he morphed back into the artist he used to be. It was like he had found a good home."
His students will miss him, and we can only hope that Mr. Kobe can find a suitable replacement at North Junior High School. But of course, there will never be anyone quite like Rick Baker. He was truly one of a kind.
Steve Stuebner, a friend of Rick Baker, is the author of 10 outdoor books and lives in Boise and McCall.
For First Thursday, Lisk Gallery will feature a tribute to Rick Baker and his work with North Junior High students on a large collaborative canvas.