US artist's ode to Beethoven is a symphony in grass

The complexion on Mr Baker's Beethoven is blemished by woodchuck holes. The right shoulder is cut off by a creek. And that prominent forehead? "A great place to land a helicopter," Mr Baker said.
The complexion on Mr Baker's Beethoven is blemished by woodchuck holes. The right shoulder is cut off by a creek. And that prominent forehead? "A great place to land a helicopter," Mr Baker said.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

ELLENVILLE (NEW YORK) • There is no question that Ludwig van Beethoven was a larger-than-life figure, one of the greatest composers of all time. And here, at the edge of the Catskills, Beethoven is very big indeed.

The canvas is a huge field where cows once grazed. The artist is a man who was inspired while listening to Beethoven's piano sonatas on records that he found at a yard sale. His tools include four tractors.

"Beethoven's got great hair - what can I tell you?" said Mr Roger Baker, who is a commercial artist and sculptor. "His hair is timeless. It was good back then, and it would go good today. Great image. When you see a picture of Beethoven, you just know who it is. You look at that scowling face, you think, dun-dun-dun-DUH."

He was referring to the famous four-note opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (Op. 67).

The likeness in the grass is familiar, based on a painting of Beethoven in his late 40s - middle aged, according to the calendar.

But Mr Baker's Beethoven differs from the painting. The complexion is blemished by woodchuck holes. His right shoulder is cut off by a creek. And that prominent forehead? "A great place to land a helicopter," Mr Baker said, after explaining that the height of the portrait is more than 300m and includes only the head and shoulders.

Mr Baker sees Beethoven's lapel as a great place for a grand piano. A Yamaha was set to be trucked in yesterday. A harp arrived over the weekend for a moonlit performance of the Moonlight Sonata. A 40-voice choir from the Ellenville Middle School was set to sing an arrangement of the Ode To Joy from Symphony No. 9 (Op. 125) yesterday.

Mr Baker has been called a da Vinci of the lawn mower, an El Greco of the grass. He has done large-form cuttings of the Statue of Liberty, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, among others. He also snipped and trimmed an 850,000 sq ft Purple Heart medal.

Beethoven, a high-culture idol, was a departure for Mr Baker, who said he had never attended a classical music concert. Painting beckoned after high school.

Now 62, he is a happy straggler when it comes to technology. He still has a flip phone, and he has never used Google. His main research tool is a 19-volume World Book Encyclopedia set from 1956. That was where he found the image of Beethoven that he adapted. He sketched the composer's family name below the image. Deciding that ordinary letters were not enough, he copied Beethoven's signature.

And he got permission to use the field rent-free - it is owned by friends, he said. Beethoven covers about one million sq ft. That works out to 9.3ha, given the field's shape.

Figuring out a grid system, he planted orange flags, some to mark off squares, some to warn of woodchuck holes. He also used five grass-cutting machines to make his masterpiece - "my array of brushes", he called them. "We're not getting rid of the grass," he said, "we're just making it lower."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'US artist's ode to Beethoven is a symphony in grass'. Print Edition | Subscribe