Ken Baltes was a familiar face around White Bear Center for the Arts for many years. He began taking art classes with teaching artist Lisa Fertig in 2013, but his interest in art started long before then. Ken Baltes always had a creative streak, which might seem in contrast to his 50-year career in computer technology. He designed, built, and managed computer systems for large companies, which allowed him to use his creativity in different ways, as he used his drawing skills to create artistic flowcharts and work on system design projects. Art in the more traditional sense took a back seat to building his career and raising his family until he finished his formal education in 1977, and even then, he didn’t make his artwork a primary focus until he retired in 2015.
“My journey from artistic mathematician to mathematical artist has been varied and non-linear,” Ken wrote in his book Formulart to Art: My Artistic Journey, which chronicles his evolution as an artist, and which can be checked out from WBCA’s library. “Even though left brain/right brain theories have been discounted by current research, people continue to believe that math and art come from different parts of the brain and if one is ‘good at’ one of these activities, they are unlikely to be ‘good at’ the other. While researchers may believe there is no such distinction, in general, people still believe the walls between math and art are clear and at best are only semi-permeable. I now believe there is no such wall, and in my art I try to show that there is a great deal of math involved in art and that talent in one does not affect one’s talent in the other.”
Combining his mathematical and artistic minds, Ken began thinking about how all drawings are created from straight lines, and that straight lines can be defined by a formula using its starting and ending point. Ken began creating “Formulart” as a way to demonstrate that straight lines could be used to show “artistic beauty through rigorous placement according to ‘formulae’.” He named these formulaic placements of lines ‘Formula Art,” and shortened it to Formulart.
Ken started creating Formulart pieces using pen and paper, following whatever shape the formula created. After experimenting with the formula and line placement, he moved on to more complex shapes. In 2015, he started adding acrylic paint in crossover pieces. “[That same year] I began taking art classes, mostly in acrylics and learning more about landscape painting and use of acrylic paint to accomplish various new outcomes,” Ken wrote in Formulart to Art.
In what he described as a Formulart “derivative,” Ken started making landscape paintings on a grid pattern. “The grid transformations were created by using a grid method of reproducing an existing picture. The new painting is painted on a grid that has been modified by increasing the size of a bulge in the final piece,” Ken wrote.
He worked on Formulart, and Formulart derivatives during his time in SOAR! Mixed Media Mentoring at White Bear Center for the Arts. This is a mentoring class led by Susan Hartzell Vannelli, where students work on their own projects and get feedback from each other and from Sue. Sue knew Ken for eight years during his time in SOAR!. “Ken brought a totally new art experience to our class through his mathematical artwork,” she said. “His artwork looked much like spirograph drawings but he did it freehand.” Ken taught the entire SOAR! class about seeing the world artistically through a mathematical lens. “As he grew as an artist,” Sue said, “I was able to introduce him to acrylics. He learned to add beautiful color combinations to his rhythmic patterns.”
Julie Larson, a student in SOAR!, first met Ken in class in 2018. “His type of art was so different from all I had seen before and anything I was doing,” Julie said. “I was fascinated by how he talked about his techniques and approach to landscapes and buildings. ”Julie’s favorite memory of Ken in class was when he needed a new light source for his artwork. “He came back to the next class with a new contraption which worked wonderfully. He said he had gone to different places to buy one but they did not meet his needs or were too expensive–so he made his own! He explained how he did it and the whole class just stood there with their mouths open in awe.”
Ken was diagnosed with ALS in the Spring of 2020, and continued to create art as the disease progressed. He began by switching to his left hand to create his artwork, and then eventually working digitally. When he was diagnosed with ALS, Julie Larson saw how he came up with new techniques to be able to still create art in SOAR!. “He would come to class and not let it interfere with his craft,” Julie said.
Kip Lilly first met Ken when they were on the board of the Arthritis Foundation, and stayed friends since then. Together, Kip and Ken approached the ALS Association with the idea of introducing more art into the lives of those diagnosed with ALS. “People who are diagnosed with ALS are overwhelmed with information about the pain and suffering,” Kip said. “What they don’t have is stuff that’s uplifting and lets them explore the type of creativity that gives life meaning.”
They pitched this idea to the ALS Association, calling it ‘Creative Pursuits.’ “In some ways, it was Ken’s legacy,” Kip said. “You can learn all your life, even if your life is going to be short. He knew that even if you’re in a hopeless place, you can have joy in your life.”
Ken passed away in 2022, and is deeply missed by everyone in the WBCA community. “I was so blessed and honored that he chose me and trusted me with his artistic process,” Sue said. “I miss his creative heart and joyful sparkle.” WBCA’s Artist-in-Residence Sieng Lee also had the opportunity to work with him in SOAR!, and was inspired by his willingness to try new technologies and techniques, always pushing the boundaries of his artwork. “Ken is the model of what an artist’s life should be like,” Sieng said. “His constant pursuit to make art no matter his challenges was inspiring.”