Eugene W. Baer (“Gene”), 92, died peacefully in his home in Vineyard Haven on June 24, 2019.
Gene grew up during the Great Depression in New Castle, Pa., where he drew and published his first cartoons in high school. Drafted into the Army in 1945, he completed basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., where on Sundays he drew comics for the camp newspaper, the McClellan Cycle. Deployed to occupied Germany at the end of World War II in Patton’s Third Army, he was employed as an artist for the Information and Education Department in Amberg, where he was put in charge of an Army art shop. While in Germany, he attended the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals Goering, Hess, and Jodl. He published cartoons, too, for the troop ship’s newspaper while en route back to the U.S. in late 1946.
He attended both Museum School and MassArt in Boston, and during the summers he worked as a camp counselor at the Saint Pierre School in Vineyard Haven (a role he would reprise in the 1970s as the camp’s director). Marrying Islander and fellow artist Jackie Lair in 1954, Gene moved to Martha’s Vineyard year-round in 1959, and taught art full-time for 30 years in the Island’s public school system. He initially divided his time between all four down-Island schools (including the high school) as the Island’s only art teacher, eventually working solely for the Tisbury School. He retired in 1990.
Gene was a masterful entertainer, not only of children, but also as a professional piano player. Known for his boogie-woogie style of playing and singing, he often performed publicly with Seth Thomas, Eddie Larkosh, and many other local musicians, as well as playing as a solo artist at the Ritz, the Boston House, the Dunes, weddings, parties, and many other venues.
He was deeply interested in mushrooms and other wild foods, in snorkeling for lobsters, in spearfishing for tautog and flounder, in boomeranging at Legion Field, and bicycling around town. He was a lifelong magician and sleight-of-hand artist, and a fan of Penn and Teller and other magician skeptics. He was fascinated by mnemonists and hypermnesia, by waking dreams and synesthesia, by paradoxes and logical puzzles, and by “mind blindness.” He loved the video game “Doom” and the old West, and was immersed in studying the role of African Americans in World War II.
Gene published four art instruction books with Parker Publishing and Prentice Hall, beginning with “Paste, Pencils, Scissors, and Crayons” in 1979. He also published the children’s book “Have You Seen My Finger?” for Random House in 1992. But his most successful book was “Thump, Thump, Rat-a-Tat-Tat” (HarperCollins, 1989), which made the Boston Globe’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year” list and remained in print for more than 20 years.
He also wrote and illustrated dozens of other books that were never published, including a Western, a young adult novel, a treatise on perspective, many pop-up and other unique folding books, and lots of childrens’ story books. He wrote, composed, and directed the musical “The Beasts of Jonathan Wilde” (performed by a cast from the Tisbury School and starring a young Seth Gambino), as well as a second children’s musical, never performed, based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
He was fascinated by language and such literary esoterica as the schwa (ə) and the long s (ʃ), and he admired the work of such diverse figures as Martin Gardner, Ambrose Bierce, Richard Feynman, M.C. Escher, “S.” the mnemonist, Susan Sontag, Lewis Carroll, Bertrand Russell, Oliver Sacks, H.P. Lovecraft, R. Crumb, and Al Capp (whom he met in 1945.)
Gene’s early paintings were often compared to the work of Max Beckman. Later, in his role as an art teacher, he became a master paper folder. He loved kites and paper airplanes, Möbius strips and hexahexaflexagons, curvilinear perspective and optical illusions, “scribble drawings,” comics, pop-up books, and Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland.” Among his last works were dozens of faces he sculpted from Meals on Wheels trays, exhibited in a special art show at the Chicken Alley thrift shop in 2017.
Gene is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jacqueline Baer of Vineyard Haven, their four children, Justin (Jean) Baer of Silver Spring, Md., Jon Baer of Vineyard Haven, Gretchen Baer of Bisbee, Ariz., and Chris (Janice) Baer of Oak Bluffs; a brother, John Baer of Annapolis, Md., and a sister, Rosemary Buetens of Orono, Maine; as well as grandchildren Kara, Alyssa, Christian, and Jack, and three great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at a later date.