Joan Baez on the 2020 Election and Painting Portraits for Social Change

Angie Martoccio
·14 min read

Since retiring from touring last year, Joan Baez has shifted her creative focus to painting portraits. In the years before her farewell trek, she’d sit on her tour bus and paint before shows. “I wasn’t paying any attention to the concerts, really,” the folk icon says over Zoom from her home near Palo Alto, California. “I would paint up until the last second, and then I’d walk out and I’d sing. Then I stopped that and pretty much put my whole effort into the final years of concerts.”

Baez soon noticed that her portraits had a commonality to them. “As I was moving along through this, it turned out that everyone I was painting had to do with nonviolent change and social change,” she says. The portraits — ranging from Bob Dylan to Senator Kamala Harris — will be part of an upcoming exhibit at the Seager/Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, California, on December 30th. Titled “Mischief Makers 2,” it’s a follow-up to her 2017 exhibit.

Baez is also using her portraits to encourage voting in the 2020 election. She kicked off “Vote! The 7 Portrait Series” on October 27th, posting portraits on social media alongside a video with her commentary. “It’ll be one a day with me saying something really brief about it,” she explains. “And then say, ‘You can honor them by voting.’”

Days before the election, Baez tells Rolling Stone about her paintings, life at home, and her hopes for a Joe Biden presidency. “My painting is the best I can do at the moment to try and encourage people towards a possibly better world,” she says. “I’m just really lucky to be able to do that.”

How long have you been painting?
Portraits like this started about nine years ago. I sketched all my life and painted a little bit, but never in a disciplined way, and had no idea it would end up being portraits. I didn’t do them at the beginning. I thought, “Oh God, they’re going to be so hard.” Because I don’t have any training. Two artists friends helped me. A guy showed me how to paint glasses, [and] it took years off of what I would have to do experimenting on my own. How you paint RBG’s necklace — splatter a lot of paint on it. I learned about pearls: You don’t color them all white, you put all these different colors in them. It’s tricks, and they’re enormously helpful. Aside from that, there’s not been formal training. It’s the same as the music.

How does your process differ between writing a song and painting a portrait?
This probably takes less thought. I mean, I just get in front of the canvas and start hurling things and seeing what comes out of the mess. I haven’t written a song in so long. Aside from the silly one about Trump, it’s been 25 or 30 years.

Do you feel like you have to know these subjects before you paint them?
I think it’s a nice little part of it, but for instance, I just painted the Rock, Dwayne Johnson. Clearly our paths have not met. [Laughs.] In fact, the main reason I ended up painting the Rock was that I saw him on that three-way conversation with Biden and Kamala Harris, and he was endorsing them. I know he’s never done that before, and I also know he lost millions of fans, but then he went from 150 million something to 200 million followers. Extraordinary to me.

What’s the actual painting of these portraits like?
First of all, I paint in acrylics, and I don’t paint on canvas anymore. It’s all on wood panel, and I start fast. I mean, if possible, I don’t do any sketching. I just start painting. Like, the outline of your face would be black with your hair. Glasses don’t go on until the last second, because they confuse everything. Fauci’s glasses took a couple of days — figuring out how to make them work — but the whole face has to be there before you put glasses on, at least for me. And at some point when I’m busy working away, I take bright colors and just cover the whole thing. Just splashing around the canvas, so the face is covered. Then I spray it with water and start bringing forward the things that I want to be seen. And the rest of it remains a little bit in the background.

You’ve been living at your home for 50 years. What are your days like there?
It’s mostly painting, because I don’t go anywhere. I’ve been delighted with that, by the way. I feel a little bit guilty about it, because I have this gorgeous place and I have no interest in going anywhere, maybe to dinner down the street. I think I’ve met enough people in my life in the world that I seem to be content to stay here. We’ve got 25 chickens, one guinea pig, one owl, one rabbit, five dogs. So we’re busy. My assistant, who lives here, has worked out how we’ll get everything out of here if there is a fire — all the way up to the chickens in a cage. We are a nature-loving group of people, and we’re just lucky to be on this property.

What’s your studio setup like at home?
My studio is really small and the paintings are too big for it, so I need [a] storage unit or something. It’s just sweet. I live in the country in oak trees, so the studio is all windows. I can see that anytime that I want to look out. So it’s comfortable and a beautiful place to be. I just put in a little refrigerator. I don’t even put food down there, I put something to drink in it. I just love this little refrigerator. It’s pale green, and I put a microwave on top of it, just to heat up the coffee. That’s it.

How many hours a day do you spend doing this?
Probably between three and four. It isn’t like an endless process. I have just a certain amount of energy, and then I usually take a break and come up to the house — the studio’s down the hill. I trudge up to the house and have another coffee or have something to drink or eat. Hang out with my dog a little bit. In the summer I take a swim and then go back to work.

Is this a new creative outlet for you since you’ve stopped touring?
Oh yeah. It allows me to say that I retired from touring, but obviously not from life.

Now that you’re stuck at home, do you miss being out there at all?
No, not at all. I knew when it was time to wind down. It was a three-year process after I made that decision, and I think I did everything I wanted to do. I don’t have regrets. And the painting had already started.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of the first portraits you did for this collection. How did that happen?
I just suddenly realized this amazing guy [was] bucking everything being thrown at him. And so I started to paint him and then I got together with some friends of mine. “How do we do something in this state that we’re in in the world?” So we decided to put the title “Trust” on there and just post it. There’s been a huge response to Fauci.

What about Kamala Harris?
I remember I was out in a desert, Lone Pine, and it was hot. I had this three-way call with my think-tank people for this, and I was prancing around the desert. We were talking about Kamala, to paint Kamala. What are we going to call her? We’re going to call her “Badass.” So then I went home with all this energy to do that.

You also painted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Can you tell me about the time you met him?
That’s a great story. I was with [civil rights activist] Andy Young and Jesse Jackson. We’re going to go pick King up at the airport, and there’s supposed to be a big march the next day. I thought, “Oh great. I’m going to get the skinny on how they organize these things,” because their marches were huge. We picked King up the airport, and they started horsing around and telling jokes. We stopped and had dinner at his favorite little place, he had chicken and okra and all the traditional stuff you would have. They were laughing till they were teary, and nobody said anything about a march. So I was with Andrew Young later and I said, “Andy, I thought I was gonna hear how you guys plan and organize a march?” And he said, “You did.” That was how’d they do it, by horsing around.

When did you paint Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
That was painted a few months ago, before she died. That painting was really popular. I’m very proud of that. I wanted her to have one of the prints. Apparently, she liked it, but they’re not allowed to accept gifts from normal folks. She was so powerful. And a Dylan line: She had outlived her life by far [from “Mother of Muses,” off 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways].

View this post on Instagram

💔

A post shared by Joan Baez (@joancbaezofficial) on Sep 18, 2020 at 4:56pm PDT

Your painting of Lana Del Rey is great. What was it like to sing with her last year?
She’s a lovely lady. She appreciates what I’ve done, what I sing. She said, “Will you sing at my concert?” And I said, “Yeah, but your average age at the concert is about 14.” And she said, “Oh, it’s okay. Some of them bring their parents.” [Laughs.] And she wanted to sing on “Diamonds and Rust.” So we did.

My granddaughter sings and writes songs. Lana was so sweet. We introduced them at dinner, and she said, “Jasmine, maybe after the show, you can play something for me.” I don’t know how she did it. I would have been so nervous, but she did. She sang one of her songs and Lana cried. It’s become a family affair.

Have you voted yet?
I have. We took the “I voted” sticker and stuck it on my dog’s forehead.

You supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. How are you feeling this time around?
It’s all so terrifying that it’s hard to get excited about anything. I’m happy with where it’s ended up, because it’s a known person. [Joe Biden] seems to be steady on, and that’s pretty much what we need. I think Kamala is a firecracker, it’s wonderful. She really adds a lot of badassness.

What exactly about Biden’s campaign has impressed you?
I think that he’s managed to stay on his feet through this whole thing, and he’s remained as unrattled as anybody could be, and I think his values are good. There’s so much talk and then you have to put the talk aside and see what you think this person is like. I think he’s a good person. I think he has the ability to implement things. I don’t know how much he can undo that’s already been done, that’s been detrimental to everybody. But I think he has as good a shot at it as anybody.

Do you think Trump’s damage is permanent?
Yeah, some of it is. I don’t know if it’s permanent, but certainly the Supreme Court — that’s a long, long time. It’s all trickery and lies. I was telling my friend, I saw a letter yesterday from a Trump supporter, who’s a brother to my friend. And she had asked him, “Can you tell me what it is that you’re drawn to? What am I missing?” And he wrote this vitriolic, hateful [letter], basically saying, “Trump may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole, and there’s nothing as dangerous as all you liberals who are ruining the country and spitting on the flag and dissing our veterans.” It’s an important letter. I might even post it, because I learned a lot from it. I see what we’re up against.

What would you say to progressive voters who feel like Biden is too centrist?
First of all, I don’t think we even know what left is in this country. So when you’re saying, “Oh, he’s moving it too far to the left,” it’s so remote. The word “socialism” terrifies people. Not a bad idea! We just have these pockets in this country of things we think are bad. Left is bad, right is bad. You have to redefine what it is. You define what it is you want. You don’t have to call it socialism. The main thing that needs to come back in the vocabulary is empathy. Empathy and compassion have just been clobbered. It’s [what] we the people have to bring back, because if this government continues, it’s obliterated. Any idea of kindness or compassion is really not on the agenda. We’re living in times that are really hard to navigate.

If Biden does win, what do you want to see him prioritize in his first year?
Oh, God. I suppose healthcare. It’s probably number one. And then start undoing whatever has been done. I don’t know if you close up the pipelines through the Indian country. I mean, what’s going to be even faintly possible? How do you move ahead anyway, with something good and helpful and appropriate? We’ll need to help him find direction.

Looking back, do you think Trump has been more destructive in office than Richard Nixon?
Oh yeah. I don’t think that was an officially white supremacist administration the way this is. It’s all about racism and being white.

What do you think it says about our country that we elected Trump in the first place?
I was listening to someone the other day — I can’t remember who it was. They said, “We say, ‘This is not us.’ Guess what? This is us.” This is what we’ve put in here. It’s our responsibility to get them out. But it’s the mystery of why it all happened. It’s still a mystery to me.

Looking towards the future, do you think somebody like AOC could be president one day?
No. But nobody thought that Obama could be president. And I think that one of the problems we’re having is that tea party people became so enraged. In my opinion, a lot of what happened with those people is, when we were all celebrating integration and civil rights, there were hundreds of thousands of people who were pissed off and didn’t get recognized. All the recognition for once in our lives was going to the things we were supporting — we being radicals, liberals, progressives. We had the day, and in a way, paid for it, because the rage of the people who lost that day came back in force. So we’re still fighting that.

After this election, how can people make a difference?
When people say, “What would you advise a young person?” I really wouldn’t try and tell them what to do, but I can tell them that what made my life rich was my involvement with other people, with people who couldn’t speak for themselves. Sometimes people looked at it as sacrifice, but [it] didn’t feel like sacrificing to me. It felt like your brother’s keeper and your sister’s keeper, and that can be a wholly fulfilling and wonderful way to live. I would always suggest that you be willing to take whatever the risk is to better the world for people who have less than you and who suffer and have no voice.

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