Rusty Baker’s earnest love for life and his willingness to take chances have led him along a path few others could tread.
“Where my two feet are is the greatest place on earth,” says Baker, a Holmes-Wayne Electric Cooperative member — and it’s easy to believe he means what he says.
Baker is a musician, world traveler, and self-taught artist whose work resides in more than 200 cities around the globe. Perhaps the most iconic and the most personal, however, is his own barn on Holmes County Road 150. Larger-than-life paintings of music legends from Beethoven to the Beatles and Janis Joplin to Minnie Pearl cover the walls.
“Passion is what drives this,” he says, adding that “passion” means not being afraid to take a risk and having confidence in yourself. “Ego’s good. Ego’s your atomic energy.”
The barn’s enclosed entranceway features portraits of Ohio music greats, including Marilyn Manson, John Legend, Tracy Chapman, Rick Derringer, and others. The portraits are done in wood stain, using a technique Baker developed himself. The tricky part, he says, is fixing mistakes, since stain permeates wood immediately and can’t be wiped off. He’s figured out a way to do it, though he’s keeping his secret to himself.
Inside, in the center of a vast open room, is a welcoming cluster of leather couches and chairs. Guitars and other instruments hang on every wall. A grand piano is in one corner, a drum set in another, ready-to-play guitars in a third. The fourth corner is a kitchen, with dozens of wines — some of them, like a complete set of Marilyn Merlot wines, not for everyday sipping.
People often send him things, Baker says, pointing out signed guitars (Gordon Lightfoot, Dave Mason); a Helen Baker banjo by P.W. McKinley (it’s as heavy as a sledgehammer, giving one new respect for Helen, who was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame in 2010); a dulcimer made by C.P. Pritchard, inventor of the mountain dulcimer; and guitars, violins, mandolins, and sitars from all over the world.
“I don’t really go looking for these things; they come looking for me,” Baker says.
He puts on one of his own CDs — he’s recorded dozens of his own songs — and plays a sitar along with the recorded music. He opens a door to a room he calls “the vault,” full of cased guitars, including a Gibson Les Paul Robot, an instrument that tunes itself.
Baker discusses painting and the challenges posed by “porosity and density” with the same enthusiasm he brings to life itself.
“The secret to life is productivity,” he says, and notes that when he talks to young people, he tells them life’s three most important elements are opportunity, productivity, and the chance to enjoy what you’ve done.
He grew up 5 miles from his current home, where he lives with his wife, Claudia Rozuk, a radiologist, and painted his first commissioned mural in McConnellsville in 1984. His current success, he stresses, didn’t come easy after he left the family oil business to pursue his artistic passions. “I did struggle, and I struggled a hell of a lot,” he says.
Even so, he has this saying planned for his gravestone: “Every day is the best day of my life.” The philosophy is manifest as even a day of mundane chores gives him an opportunity for joy. On a drive into town, for example, he pulls over several times to speak to friends and acquaintances: “Roger-Dodger and Scotty!” he hollers to men measuring a utility line in one of Baker’s own fields. Another friend is pushing a lawnmower. “Get a goat!” Baker shouts. At the lumber company, he strides upstairs to chat with people in the main offices, then back to the cafeteria.
Along the way, he readily shares bits of his personal philosophy: “When you’re self-taught, you’re the teacher” and “People who read instructions don’t have a natural intuitive perception.”
Then there’s the word he coined himself: rustacious. He describes it as, “When you wake up in the morning, stand up straight, and admit you’re going to be wrong all day.”
“I’m feeling rustacious!” Baker says, and though he might claim to be doing it all wrong, it seems like he’s got something right.