Renae Baumgart owes her art career in part to a pesky bird: her son’s blue-crowned conure named Bella. This small green parrot with a blue head had a voracious appetite for the wallpaper in Baumgart’s Victorian home and constantly ripped holes in it on every wall.
“Infuriating … ,” says Baumgart, owner of Renae’s Rip Studio in Plainwell, “but it was where I first learned the art of the rip. I found ripping a bit of paper to patch the offending hole looked better and more natural than cutting. Thus began my journey — or madness — to freehand ripping.”
Ripped wallpaper became Baumgart’s medium, and her ripped paper art is sold at Amy Zane Store & Studio in Kalamazoo, Mezzo Coffee House in Otsego, The Little Yellow Frame Shop in Richland, and Design Street and Four Roses Café, both in Plainwell.
And while “naughty” Bella was the catalyst for her ripping creativity, Baumgart’s skill at and passion for art started long before. As a child, Baumgart “saw images” everywhere she looked — in paneling, in tile floors, in tree bark. She loved looking at people’s profiles, and going to church provided a sea of faces.
“I just had to doodle caricatures of what made each person special,” says Baumgart, who grew up in Plainwell. “My mom didn’t care, until she started recognizing the people in my doodles. I always say that’s why she made me join choir.”
Baumgart’s academic life didn’t always accommodate her compulsive drawing either. “I can still remember a few middle school teachers who didn’t seem to appreciate it at all,” she says.
A career in art had always been her plan, Baumgart says, but when she was 16, her oldest brother died, and the tragedy derailed her dreams. She followed another path: obtaining a four-year degree in law enforcement. It was a bad fit, she admits, but one that wasn’t for naught.
“I married a wonderful police officer,” Baumgart says, speaking of her husband of 31 years, Jim Baumgart, a retired Grand Rapids Police Department lieutenant. “It wasn’t all a loss.”
Having three kids brought her full circle: back to art through The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis.
When Baumgart was a child, her parents, Dale and Gail Brock, read their children the series while the family lived in Rwanda, where the Brocks served as missionaries for two years. With no television, Baumgart and her two brothers focused on books. That’s when, at 8 years old, Baumgart became enthralled with the idea of talking animals, she says. The wild animals, colorful flowers and abundant plant life in Rwanda had already sparked her imagination.
“Today I try to make my animals look as if they might have something to say if one cared to listen,” she says.
Reading The Chronicles of Narnia to her own children reignited Baumgart’s imagination, which had fallen dormant for years following her brother’s death.
“I attribute having kids — and now (four) grandkids — to reawakening that urge to create and find joy and whimsy,” Baumgart says.
Joy and whimsy are obvious in Baumgart’s artwork, whether a piece portrays the moon, birds, sugar skulls or “talking” animals, such as giraffes, elephants and cats that truly appear to want to share a secret with observers.
When Baumgart first started ripping wallpaper, she created little animals, with the intention of making a children’s book. That book still exists, she says, as well as an enormous portrait of her imagined storybook cat. Though she never published the book, the idea propelled her into a ripping career.
Baumgart began purposefully ripping wallpaper for portraits 10 years ago and began selling her pieces in stores and online three years ago. Her work has also appeared in art shows at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings, the Kalamazoo Nature Center, the Richland Art Fair, the Waterfront Invitational Fine Arts Fair in Saugatuck and the Mermaid Megafest in South Haven.
One amazing aspect of her art is that Baumgart creates the pieces without sketching. “I’ll rip as fast as my eye is thinking (of) my subject,” she explains. “It’s using the same muscles as drawing — I’m just translating it.”
Baumgart loves her medium so much that she often “gets lost” in a piece.
“I do octopuses a lot,” she explains, then adds, with her fingers imitating tentacles, “and I get lost in those legs — and two times I’ve had a nine-legged octopus! All that work … and I had to take off a leg.”
For anyone interested in learning rip art, Baumgart gives classes twice a year at Design Street. She provides instruction to adults and children, but it’s the children, she says, who catch on more quickly.
“They really (are) free to get into it — a lot more than some of the adults,” Baumgart says. “(Adults) are a little more timid instead of just letting loose and ripping.”
Without Bella the bird’s obsessive wallpaper consumption, Baumgart might never have discovered her favorite medium. But her feathered sidekick also possessed another annoying habit: imitating Baumgart’s laugh and mannerisms “with brutal accuracy.”
“That bird…,” she says, sighing and rolling her eyes.
This article originally appeared in Encore’s January 2019 issue.