When Louisville visual artist Julie Baldyga creates, it’s like she’s adding another element to a world that she’s been building over the last few decades — one with mechanical wires and engine parts, and life-size human figures known as “Heavenly People.”
She’s crafted about 400 “Heavenly People,” a body of work that encapsulates her vision of heaven, the people who will greet her “in heaven someday,” Baldyga said.
Using garden stakes and wire to create the skeletons, and encasing them in batting gauze to give them their fleshy form, she’s created their finger and toenails from plastic bottles, and dressed them finely in button down shirts. Some wear sunglasses, others have ties, jewelry or corsages. She spritzes a bit of perfume on each figure.
Friends, family members and former classmates are her muses, particularly for the “Heavenly People.”
“They’re supposed to stay perfect,” Baldyga said, adding that they don’t age and will forever have a youthfulness to them in heaven.
These “heavenly” hand-crafted beings, as well as Baldyga’s colossal collection of oil pastels, drawings and sculptures, are being celebrated with a new book from Louisville Story Program and an exhibition at KMAC Museum.
A Childhood Filled With Art, Engineering
Born in Louisville in 1957, Baldyga grew up in a household surrounded by books and art supplies, according to Baldyga’s oldest sister, Stephanie Baldyga-Stagg, an artist as well.
Baldyga-Stagg said their mother, Edna Mae Baldyga, was “very creative,” and her creativity was a big influence on Baldyga, who was nonverbal until about the age of 7.
“[She] was always making and doing things in a creative way around the house and was very supportive of all of us in the arts,” Baldyga-Stagg said of their mother. “There were five of us children.”
Their father, Walter Baldyga, a chemical engineer, had a passion for technology and electronics, and enjoyed tinkering with stuff like TV sets or engines.
“He shared that with Julie,” Baldyga-Stagg said.
She recalled coming home from school to find “the living room filled with colored wires,” borrowed from television sets and other household electronics.
“She would twist them together and they were all different colors,” Baldyga-Stagg said. “You couldn’t walk through the room. She was climbing up on furniture and draping them from clocks and paintings.”
“I self taught myself,” Baldyga said of her budding artistic abilities.
Baldyga would collect these wires and cords and still does to this day. In fact images of these electrical components, which Baldyga calls “squishies”, because she enjoys the “way they squish,” show up in her sculptures and oil pastels, tucked in the pockets or wrapped around the hands of her subjects.
Though the wires also possess another appealing characteristic. Similar to veins in the human body, they transfer energy.
“You can use them to transfer energy to other people,” Bob Stagg, Baldyga-Stagg’s husband, said to Baldya, to which she replied, “Yes.”
Her work also often features other mechanical imagery, things like engines and engine parts, trains, airplanes or tools, furthering a parallel between Baldyga’s interest with the human form and with machinery.
Animals have also played a prominent role in her work, blending with her fascination with human anatomy, particularly hands, and machinery.
In a book that Baldyga received as a child, “Wonder Book of Dinosaurs,” she modified some illustrations of the dinosaurs, sketching extensions onto their limbs to give them human hands, Bob Stagg recounted in the Louisville Story Program Book.
“She also altered the accompanying text, writing ‘fingers’ over the now partially erased word ‘claws,'” he wrote.
Recognizing Her Immense Artistic Talent
Baldyga-Stagg said her family and the Binet School saw that her sister had a gift for art.
“She received a lot of attention [at the school} and really took off after that, beginning to speak and doing more work,” she said of her sister.
In 1974, her mother put on a “backyard art show… and pinned up her drawings and oil pastels on a wire fence in the backyard, so that neighbors could drop in during the day and see Julie’s work.”
Bob Stagg met Baldyga and saw her art about five years after that backyard showing. He said he was “so impressed that I decided to find a gallery where they could be exhibited.”
Her work has been exhibited at the Jewish Community Center and at the Huff Gallery at Spalding University.
Julie also has an incredible mind, Bobb Stagg and Stephanie Baldyga-Stagg said. She can look at a mechanical manual or a book about birds or insects and soon after “work from memory.”
“It’s all cataloged in her mind,” Baldyga-Stagg said.
Julie said it feels good to create her art and share it with others. Lately, she’s particularly drawn to sculpture work.
“It keeps me busy,” she said. “It keeps me moving around.”
A ‘Long Overdue’ Museum Exhibition
Now Julie Baldyga is getting her first solo museum exhibition at KMAC Museum.
“Julie Baldyga’s Heavenly People” is on view through Nov. 8, displaying her early drawings, oil pastels, sculptures and some of her “Heavenly People” — though much of her art has a heavenly nature to it.
KMAC curator Joey Yates said something like this was long overdue, and hopes it shows how she’s a prolific artist by trying to show the breadth of this “aesthetic universe” she’s created throughout her life.
“I can’t think of a whole lot of artists whose work is so deep in content,” he said. “It’s just decades long of thinking about what all this means, what it symbolizes, what it represents.”
Artist Carrie Neumayer edited a book about Baldyga called “In Heaven Everyone Will Shake Your Hand,” released recently by Louisville Story Program.
Neumayer said she got to know Baldyga while volunteering at StudioWorks art space. She said Baldyga is one of the most extraordinary artists she’s ever met.
“I’m just really excited and hopeful that more people will be able to appreciate her unique way of seeing the world,” Neumayer said.
She also said she hopes people will “understand what an awesome human being” Baldyga is.
“Everyone she greets, she treats with kindness,” Neumayer said.
In regards to having her own museum show and a book written about her, Baldyga said, “It’s beautiful.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.