by Natasha Lee
If the sculpture weren't so small, viewers could swear they were in a real Japanese tea room.
Instead, viewers are participating in an interactive art piece called "Double Happiness Laboratory for Aromatic Analysis," one of many sculptures created by Richmond District artist Paul Baker.
To participate in the experience, viewers select one of 16 vials filled with essential oils and inhale the scent while looking at a single flower. The flower represents one of four seasons and acts as a visual anchor. The sculpture tapers into a 45-degree angle so the eyes are pulled inward, giving the illusion that the viewer is in an enclosed space.
Also called "Smell Lab," the title refers to Skylab, the United States' first space station. The exhibit is a time-travel artwork in which the mind goes on a memory-evoking journey, recalling experiences from one's childhood.
The complexity of one's memory is mirrored in the "Smell Lab's" intricacy, and includes revolving wooden parts, faux shoji screens, frosted glass and even a vacuum cleaner piece, which when turned over, resembles Asian art.
The piece is so detailed that it took Baker a year and a half to complete. He plans to make four more interconnected pieces that will take another seven-and-a-half years to finish.
Although Baker's previous projects have been less time-consuming, they are all metaphors for journeys of discovery and interpreting signs.
"Enigma Machine" is one of these pieces. It is modeled after a coding device used by Germans during World War II to send messages. Americans could hear sounds, but had no way to interpret them.
These indecipherable messages reminded Baker of the communication between men and women. To demonstrate this, Baker constructed two "opposing" sides of the sculpture. One side represents females and the other side males.
The woman's side is earth-toned, like "Mother Earth," and the male's side is silver and black and resembles the cockpit of a fighter plane. On the woman's side, several planes are scoping out a gold-covered plane, or the "golden boy," while revolving dominoes symbolize codes. On the other side, small pieces of machinery attempt to interpret those codes.
Baker's attention to detail extends to the woodwork required to make his projects. He attributes his carpentry skills and creative inspiration to his father, who made bunk beds, shelves and "whatever else he had to do" for his seven children. As a kid, Baker was amazed and thought his father's work was magical.
He knew from then on that he wanted to pursue a creative career, but never considered himself an artist, since he could not paint or draw.
One day, he made his girlfriend a brooch from clock parts, typewriter keys and other found objects. When her friends saw the brooch, they loved it.
Baker was ecstatic, and from then on, considered himself to be an artist.
However, he felt limited by making broaches because he had only two square inches to work with so he moved into three-dimensional art and "never looked back."
One of his first three-dimensional sculptures was called "Relationship Machine." The primary part was a hamster wheel, which symbolized people making relationship mistakes over and over again. It was built like a toolbox that could be carried in a car.
"The idea was that every relationship was like an ongoing journey or trip, and you definitely need tools to adjust things along the way," he said.
Baker made his own journey to San Francisco in 1996, looking for "opportunity and romance." After showing his work at numerous galleries, he was featured on the CBS' television show "Eye on the Bay" in 2008. Baker recently finished his "Celestial Navigation" exhibit at North Beach's Live Worms Gallery. He is actively seeking gallery representation, but at the same time, seems content just creating art.
"I feel like I almost have a perfect life because the money I make working as a copy writer allows me to make art," he says. "Whatever I want to do, I do. And that's the ideal life as far as I'm concerned."