Mercy Etta Baker: Westport-born painter, poet, and philanthropist
By ROBERT BARBOZA
Editor – Dartmouth/Westport Chronicle
Photos by everythingwestport.com
March 05, 2008
WESTPORT - The latest exhibit at the Westport Historical Society museum on Drift Road tells the intriguing story of Westport's own Renaissance woman, Mercy Etta Baker, a talented amateur artist who was well known during her long lifetime for her poetry.
Opening March 1, the new exhibit, "The Painting and Poetry of Mercy Etta Baker" features an interesting variety of artwork, ranging from simple pen and ink character studies that reveal the young artist's growing drawing skills, to evocative postcard-sized watercolors that delicately illustrate "old" Westport's wind-swept beaches and salt-sprayed wharves and cottages.
While she was known locally as a watercolorist specializing in delicate miniatures of common Westport scenes, said museum Director Jenny O'Neill, Baker was famous internationally for her poetry.
"They're everyday scenes, things she would have encountered going about her daily life" just after the turn of the century, Ms. O'Neill noted of Baker's art. The same can be said about her poetry, usually dramatic rhymed verse, but often reflecting a bit of Yankee humor.
"I don't know of any artist of that era who represented Westport so well," Ms. O'Neill suggested as she gave a brief tour of the new exhibit, enhanced by enlarged reproductions of the many watercolors held in the New Bedford Whaling Museum's art collection.
The current exhibit was prompted by the Westport Historical Society's recent acquisition of four framed watercolors from a private collector, she said. "As an artist, she is fairly obscure; I don't think her work has ever been displayed before," she added, noting Mercy was best known for her poetry.
The Westport Historical Society has almost 20 of her small watercolors in its collection, and the Whaling Museum has another 15 of the exquisite portraits of Westport's past. The scenes include once heavily-wooded beaches, weather-beaten summer cottages, small work skiffs laden with heaps of just-harvested salt marsh hay, and the inevitable sailing ship docked at Westport Point, where Baker spent her childhood.
Baker was born in 1876, the daughter of West Beach cranberry grower Jehiel Baker. His father, John Hopkins Baker, owned a vast tract of waterfront property that now makes up the Horseneck Beach State Reservation, and it is clear from her paintings that the young artist was inspired by the natural beauty and changing seasons that surrounded her.
The family's stately house at 1998 Main Road was sold in 1906, and after that time, she resided primarily on Cottage Street in New Bedford, although research indicates she also stayed in Boston for extended periods of time. Among the family photographs included in the exhibit is a photo of Mercy and her mother in front of their Westport Point home.
Interspersed throughout the paintings and sketchbooks and photographs are enlarged copies of some of Mercy's popular poems, which appeared in a number of periodicals including Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Yankee magazine before being collected into a pair of volumes that sold world-wide.
Not surprisingly, nature themes and Westport scenes appear in many of her poems in those two books— The White Elephant Sale, and Bird Logic and Other Verses, reflecting a love of the outdoors that stayed dear to her heart until her death at age 80 in 1957.
While Baker never married, her love for young people was well documented. She adopted an Italian war orphan through the Foster Parents Plan for War Children, and financed the education of Shakauntala Joshi, who she had supported for years through the Christian Children's Fund.
In her will, she bequeathed substantial sums to several Meetings of Friends, the American Friends Service Committee, New Bedford Child & Family Services, and for an endowment for the Neediest Families Fund and other charities.
You can learn more about the interesting life and times of Westport-born Mercy Etta Baker at the Westport Historical Society Museum in the Bell School, 25 Drift Road, through the end of March.
The museum is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information on Baker, or the society's historical collection, visit their website, www.westporthistory.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (508) 636-6011.
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