Don’t quit your day job. Build your skill toolbox. Start from the bottom and work your way up. Don’t be afraid to fail. Apply to everything you can afford. Become your own salesman. Network, network, network.
These directives are clichés for a reason: because they work—as proven by LSU alumnus Kyle J. Bauer. Kyle lives by these tenets and has created a complementary dual career path as a conservation technician and practicing studio artist.
Kyle grew up in southern Illinois in a family of self-starters and entrepreneurs. His mother owned a custom framing shop and was a local politician. His father worked 26 years in banking—starting out as a bank teller and working his way up to regional president. Kyle’s parents introduced him to the value of learning a skilled craft, and they taught him the importance of hard work and attention to detail.
As a teenager trying to figure out what to do with his life—“At 5’8” and 110 pounds, I knew I wasn’t going pro,” laughed Kyle—his father encouraged him to pick up his old 35mm film camera. “I fell in love with photography, which led me to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; I came out a sculpture/ceramics grad in 2007.” He spent his summers between school and the year following graduation working on a lake in Wisconsin before deciding to apply to graduate school.
His mentor Ron Kovatch (who, coincidentally, taught Michaelene Walsh, associate professor of ceramics at the LSU School of Art), advised Kyle not to go to a school that he could easily drive home from. Kyle was accepted to LSU, which was far enough away to follow his mentor’s advice.
“Hurricane Gustav hit a month after I arrived in Baton Rouge,” said Kyle. “It was forever life-altering. I started grad school at 23, and I had to grow up; I admit it. I wasn’t always the best student and had a lot of failures, but failing is a healthy part of the artistic process; it forces you to leave your comfort zone.”
In fact, Kyle went way out of his comfort zone when his first thesis was rejected right as he was awarded an artist’s residency at Baltimore Clayworks. “I had 65 days to completely rework my thesis exhibition and paper so I could graduate in time for the residency, and I did it.”
Kyle received his MFA in Studio Arts in the summer of 2011. He and Erin Horton, his girlfriend at the time, moved to Baltimore, a city they have both grown to love. (Erin received her MA in Art History from LSU and is now Erin Horton Bauer. Kyle and Erin met on an LSU study abroad trip to Italy.)
Kyle’s residency at Baltimore Clayworks came with access to studio space, ceramic kilns and facilities. He taught community classes as part of his residency while working full-time as a security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art, located right across the street from where he lived. Kyle said he decided to do everything in his power to “get his name out there.” He started applying to every group exhibition he could afford.
“And for some unknown reason, it worked!” laughed Kyle. “I became my own salesman, exhibiting my work in group and solo shows, and lecturing at MAP Gallery’s Thirty Under Thirty speakers’ series, which was a great honor.”
But the real tangible result of the previous three years of nonstop work was Kyle’s selection as a finalist for the 2014 Sondheim Prize. As a finalist, he was vying for a $25,000 grand prize and was awarded his first museum exhibition—and all before the age of 30.
“I didn’t sleep much, pretty much lived in my studio, but I still somehow have my relationship,” quipped Kyle. “2014 was my coming-out party. I set up a list of goals, decided to forgo the remaining two years of my residency, and rented a studio space of my own in a warehouse on the east side of Baltimore.”
Kyle’s studio includes woodworking tools, a ceramic casting station, a portable spray booth, and a finished, gallery-style wall that he uses to document his work on a consistent background, mimicking the symmetry of how works are presented in some of his favorite monographs, such as Martin Puryear’s. Kyle’s wife, Erin, who majored in photography before pursuing her master’s in art history, photographs his work. “Team work!”
In 2015, Kyle received an individual artist grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and was a finalist for the Miami University Young Sculptors Competition for the William and Dorothy Yeck Award. He was awarded third place by juror Ann Barlow, an experienced contemporary art curator and arts administrator, former director of Art in General in New York City, and current artistic director of Tate St Ives. Kyle has exhibited his mixed-media sculptures in over 40 group and solo exhibitions since 2011, most notably at the Hamiltonian Gallery, Walters Art Museum, Loyola University Maryland, Vox Populi, Flashpoint Gallery, McDaniel College, Arlington Art Center, School 33 Art Center, and Maryland Art Place.
He was able to make all of this happen because of what may appear to others as a stroke of good fortune. (As Kyle said, it all looks easy from the outside.) While working as a security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Kyle purposely set out to meet as many people as he could, particularly in installation, registration, and conservation, applying for positions whenever available.
“The first couple didn’t land, but I eventually built up trust and was hired as a conservation technician of prints, drawings, and photographs at the museum,” shared Kyle. “I give credit to my background in physical skills and my mom’s custom framing shop, but the work at the museum is much more technical. I was lucky to have a patient boss who was willing to bench-train me.”
In his role as conservation technician, Kyle helps frame and prepare the museum’s collection of more than 65,000 works on paper. The Baltimore Museum of Art has one of the world’s most robust collections of Matisse’s works on paper, which Kyle helps preserve and prepare for exhibition, study, and loans to other museums.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I’m lucky to have access to these master works,” shared Kyle. “Handling a Matisse is just another day on the job.”
It’s been five years since Kyle began working as a full-time conservation technician—what he considers his day job. “It’s great to make art, great to talk art, but having the skills to market your ability and to keep money in your pocket to stave off debt—those experiences further inform my practice and are so vital. So many artists leave school and don’t have a facility where they can work. I’m surrounded by art, and it influences my work in so many ways.”
Kyle currently has a solo exhibition, chatter, on display at Loyola University Maryland, September 21–October 22, in the Julio Fine Arts Gallery. A group exhibition associated with his fellowship, Fellows Converge, curated by Eve Biddle and Will Hutnick of Wassaic Project, opens November 18 at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, D.C. Kyle is also participating in School 33 Art Center’s 29th Annual Open Studio Tour this year, which runs October 7–8 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Kyle said he feels confident about where he is as an artist and conservation technician, and he is most grateful for having such a great “partner in crime.” Kyle and Erin were wed in Southwest France last year, and they live in their recently purchased rowhome that is, again, right across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art. They live with their two charismatic 10-year-old Dachshunds, who, Kyle swears, wear LSU Tiger collars.