In the New Station North Arts District, Public Art is Not Meant to Last--or Even to be Pretty
Elsewhere, the art affixed to city-owned vacant houses in the Greenmount West neighborhood ages at different rates. Chris Organ's steel-and-concrete sculpture at 1704 Guilford Ave. remains solid. Jason Hughes and Matthew Paulson's arrangement of trash-filled freezer bags on Barclay Street hasn't returned to being trash. Adam Dougherty's wall-mounted wood steps at 203 E. North Ave. still lead nowhere. But James Hersey's Barbie doll disappeared from her pedestal on Guilford Avenue, and Shaun Flynn's traffic-cone arrangement on Lafayette Avenue has doubtless returned to a city storage locker.
Most of the 40 works installed for the Door and Window Project, the first public-art project in the city's new Station North Arts and Entertainment District, remain. Despite three weeks of snow, vandalism, and theft, the unconventional exhibit of low-budget, disposable art offers plenty of visual puns, sculpture, painting, posters, and photos for anyone on the streets north of Penn Station between the Greenmount Cemetery and Charles Street.
"That was the approach--things would age as quickly as, or as slowly as, each artist chose," says Gary Kachadourian, the project's curator and visual-arts coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "Some are holding up better than others."
The Door and Window Project was conceived by sculptor and neighborhood resident Jim Vose and community organizers as a way to generate interest in the area, while giving artists an unusual venue and a new audience for their work.
The Greenmount West and Charles North neighborhoods, which comprise the new arts district, suffer the same urban ills as many other parts of Baltimore. But last December, the City Council set these areas aside to create an enterprise zone of sorts, offering tax breaks to entrepreneurs who rehab buildings along these streets to house arts and entertainment-related businesses. With its high vacancy rate, the area offered plenty of boarded-up houses to turn into art installations, which could, organizers say, draw attention to the neighborhood and its new arts-district status.
Kachadourian says he was surprised by the number of artists eager to use vacant houses as their canvases since he put out the call for participants in mid-December. Those who could work quickly and cheaply--there was an eight-week deadline and no budget--could claim a spot on one of the neighborhood's abandoned homes. More than 40 artists signed on, and by the second week of February the installation was in high gear.
"We told artists, 'You can do anything you want to do,'" he says. "They can deal with it as a site, using whatever materials at hand."
The artists finished installing their pieces on a sunny Friday, putting the final touches on their works, chatting with neighbors, and catching up on each other's progress. The exhibition was to open the next day, Feb. 15, at Vose's newly renovated Area 405 gallery on East Oliver Street, and artists and appreciative residents were out and about.
Taking a break from his work, William Downs, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate student, explained that his vaguely figurative works are studies that stem from his ongoing fascination with cave art, "with Baltimore as my cave." His whimsical neolithic vision is appropriate for a neighborhood where residents have sharpened their survival skills through years of difficulty yet retain their humor--like the passerby who "borrowed" a Q-Tip from Rashanna Rashied-Walker's installation, which consisted of hundreds of Q-Tips inserted into pegboard.
"Really bad earwax," the man explained. And what about the artwork, which resembles snow accumulating on a windowsill? "The art? I like it," he offered.
Dale Hargrave, a longtime Greenmount West resident and community activist who lives two doors down from the vacant house Downs papered, beamed as he chatted with the artist. Hargrave said he believes the project, along with Station North's intention to get artists and new residents moving in, bodes well for the neighborhood. "We've gone as low as we can go," he said, laughing. "We gotta go back up."
Once a thriving working-class neighborhood, Greenmount West has suffered years of abandoned properties, drugs, and poverty, Hargrave said. Young people could benefit from the presence of more art, he said: "If it touches one child, it's worked."
One 15-year-old girl down the street, who had noticed the art appearing in doors and windows, feigned indifference, in the way teenagers are expert. "It's cool," she said.
Across the alley from Hargrave's house, Carl and Linda Day Clark attached photographs to plywood-covered doors and windows. Linda Day Clark used photos of children she took along North Avenue, while Carl Clark focused on portraits of African-American men. Some neighbors recognized his image of artist, educator, and Morgan State University benefactor James E. Lewis.
On the corner of Lanvale and Barclay streets, Lyle Kissack carefully installed paintings on the boarded-up windows of another rowhouse; he was alerted by neighborhood teenagers not to cover the r.i.p. tags spray-painted there. His monochromatic paintings of hands making the signs for "word" and "go" blend subtly into the wall's tableau of graffiti, a low-key effect he was happy with.
Kissack also took pains to be considerate of the neighbors, opting for a more formal than conceptual, or even political, approach. "It's hard to have your own personal politics and come in and posit it in someone else's neighborhood," he said.
Two blocks up on Barclay, Jason Hughes and Matthew Paulson's colorful quilt of freezer bags filled with trash he found on nearby streets drew compliments. The bags were filled with everything from Utz bags to cookie boxes and candy wrappers and attached to every window and door of a three-story rowhouse. "It's really creative," said one woman, walking home with arms full of groceries. "I like what they did with that."
As spring rains loom and vandalism and theft go hardly checked, no one is sure how long these pieces will last. What will remain, Station North organizers agree, is an effort to bring art to new places, with a view toward helping turn the neighborhood around.
"I think that it's a wonderful project," says Eric Goods, executive director of the Greenmout West Community Development Association. "The community has certainly embraced it. . . . The good part about this [project] is not only the aesthetics but the sense of camaraderie it creates."
Addresses and more photos of pieces in the Door and Window Project can be viewed at the Station North Arts and Entertainment District Web site, www.stationnorth.org.
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