She was once an MIT professor’s kid gigging at Club Passim, back when it was called Club 47.
She became one the most vocal protest singers of the 20th century.
And since retiring from touring last year, folk icon Joan Baez, 79, has taken to painting — and to Instagram — to voice her political opinions.
“In these times, there are bastards and there are heroes, and painting the heroes is a no-brainer,” the former Belmont resident said in a phone interview.
Recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer posted a portrait of voting rights activist Stacey Abrams entitled “Georgia on My Mind.” Prints run $200 and proceeds go to Fair Fight, the organization Abrams founded in 2018.
It doesn’t take long to scroll through the entirety of Baez’s feed. She hadn’t posted much since joining Instagram in 2014, other than the occasional photo with famous pals such as Ringo Starr, Sir Elton John, and Snoop Dogg.
Then suddenly, in March, she posted “Viva Italia!” “inspired by the viral videos of locked-down Italians singing from balconies and doorways, united in song and spirit.” Signed and numbered prints raised money for an organization providing pandemic relief to Italians.
In June, she posted her first portrait: a tribute to the late John Prine after the singer-songwriter died from complications due to COVID-19. Prints were sold to benefit the Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative at Columbia University.
Since her Instagram art debut, Baez’s portraits have earned “likes” from David Crosby and Patti Smith among thousands of others. One of her most popular paintings is called “Baby Blue” — a portrait of a young Bob Dylan urging people to #VoteBlue.
Many portraits are part of Baez’s “Mischief Makers 2” series — featuring “people who make positive change in the world through nonviolent means,” according to her website. The series will be featured in an exhibition running Jan. 6 to Feb. 14 at Seager Gray Gallery in California, in celebration of Baez’s 80th birthday on Jan. 9. View the paintings and personal anecdotes about the work at seagergray.com. According to a press release, a reception will be live-streamed Jan. 9 at 8:30 p.m. ET. Tickets are $15 via seated.com.
We caught up with Baez at her California home this week to talk painting.
Q. When did you get into painting, and what made you start posting to Instagram?
A. About 10 years ago, I walked past a frame shop — I’ve always drawn and sketched and messed around with watercolors — but it was just a different feeling, like I should do this. About a year-and-a-half in, I really wanted to do portraits. I thought it would be impossibly difficult, but it just seemed to come very naturally. I’m surprised that it was as easy to start capturing faces. I keep thinking I’m going to move on to something else. And then I get a canvas in front of me and that’s all that comes out: another portrait.
Q. You had your first painting show in 2017, titled “Mischief Makers.” And now you’re working on “Mischief Makers 2.” How do you pick your subjects?
A. It was so second nature to me to paint people who have meaning in my life. I think [Martin Luther King Jr.] was the first one. And I thought, “Ooh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” At the same time, I’ve been doing [IGTV videos], and now we’re doing prints. Stacey [Abrams] just sold 100 out of 250, bang like that, so that’s very exciting for me.
Q. Wow. You just posted that one.
A. There’s some people who just have that [effect]. She’s this lone woman and she’s magnetic, and she’s done so much, and still doing it. And she needs our support now.
Q. I love your Kamala Harris portrait with “badass” down the side.
A. [Laughs] Well, she’s a badass! Clearly. That was one of the highest compliments I ever got in my life — some younger band said I was a badass and I thought, oh that is so cool!
Q. Will there be a “Mischief Makers 3”?
A. I don’t know yet. It may not be as easy to find subjects when Biden is in office.
Q. I saw a photo you posted of yourself as a kid drawing. Is this something you’ve done your whole life?
A. I did likenesses. When I was in second grade, I started sketching pictures of Bambi and selling them for two cents apiece. In junior high, I started drawing James Dean and selling them for five bucks.
Q. You got your start in the Boston area.
A. We moved to Boston [area] when I was 17. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing with an education. The only place that accepted me was Boston [University College of] Fine Arts. So I hung around there for about six weeks, then lied to my parents and started going to coffee shops, and singing, and running around barefoot at Harvard Square and developing my old happy little life there.
Learn more at www.joanbaezart.com
Interview was condensed and edited.